It became clear early in the RSR study that we needed to ask ourselves, What exactly do we mean by sustainability? When a community has a program in place for 20–plus years, it isn’t the same program that started some 20 years ago, nor would we expect or want it to be the same program. How and why has it changed?
“Our study was designed to challenge the idea that reforms come in for a few years and then disappear. That perception is, in part, a reflection of taking a short–term time horizon. If you look over a longer term—as we have—you see the phases and the evolution of a program. We’ve identified three phases—the establishment phase, the maturation phase, and the evolution phase. People tend to expect sustainability to take root during the initiation phase—that program will become embedded as it is implemented. We didn’t find that at all. Sustainability comes in the evolution of the program, as the program changes and adapts. If the program doesn’t evolve, it will not be sustained.
“If I were advising schools on sustaining programs, I would think in terms of a matrix. On one side, I would list the phases of reform (establishment, maturation, and evolution), and across the top, I would list the levels at which change takes place—classroom, school, and district. Then I’d ask people to find their location on the matrix. If, for example, they are working at the district level on the establishment of a program, that may not be the right time to focus on teacher learning. It may be better to focus first on leadership and accountability issues. The point is that program leaders need to give greater attention to different factors at different times.”
Originally published on June 1, 2002