What happens when you build the superhighway, but forget the off ramps?

Dennis Sparks

Imagine that a vast interstate system of highways has been built with no off ramps into the communities they pass. Congress legislated, billions of dollar were allocated, contracts let, and hundreds of thousands of work days spend by tens of thousands of workers. But there are no off ramps, so the benefits of all this effort bypass local communities.

That’s what school improvement process too often looks like to me. Committees meet, goals are set, plans made, approvals sought. Sometimes new positions are created and job descriptions written. Plans are “rolled out” and training is “scaled up.” A few carrots and sticks are added to ensure compliance.

At this point state education agencies and district offices typically feel like the vast majority of the work has been done.

But because planners almost always significantly underestimate what is required to affect habits of mind and practice and to create school cultures of continuous improvement, this is where things predictably begin to fall apart.

The real work of improvement—building the off ramps from policymakers plans into schools and classrooms—can only be accomplished by principals, teacher leaders, and school leadership teams. It cannot be done by anyone else.

These off ramps are built day-by-day, meeting-by-meeting, conversation-by-conversation. In theses schools leaders promote professional learning that is deeply embedded in teachers’ work and create school cultures of continuous improvement built on high levels of trust, openness to the views of others, experimentation, and risk-taking.

The construction of such off ramps requires that school leaders understand:

1. That the most important work of change occurs in schools and classrooms. State and district meetings and learning events may be necessary, but they are not sufficient to change hearts and minds.

2. The power of a school’s culture to determine whether new ideas and practices flourish or are extinguished.

3. That changing habits of mind and practice requires untold hours of team building, dialogue, data analysis, and focused and sustained professional learning.

If the off ramps are not painstakingly constructed, all the best intentions and plans in the world are for nothing.

Please comment: In your experience, what are the most significant challenges principals and teacher leaders face in building the “off ramp?” How have those challenges been successfully addressed?

8 Responses to “What happens when you build the superhighway, but forget the off ramps?”


  1. 1 Jose Martinez January 22, 2013 at 8:48 am

    I was having a conversation about this with a coworker recently. We were discussing how great ideas supported by solid theoretical foundations can be aborted if teachers are not persuaded. To me, the constant, day-by-day team building has been the key. Consequently, the most difficult part has been being patient, tolerant and open-minded at all times. Acting that way seems like an easy thing to do but when you are overworked and underpressure, it proves to be a rewarding but challenging endeavor.

    • 2 Dennis Sparks January 22, 2013 at 8:49 am

      Thanks for sharing your experience, José. Building and maintaining strong teams is an essential but challenging leadership responsibility.

  2. 3 Mary Valentine January 22, 2013 at 8:52 am

    The most important educational issue Michigan is facing is educating our students who live in poverty. Thus far, we have only pursued simplistic and ineffective solutions, based on the model that somehow if we spend less money hiring teachers we will get better teachers. We need to face the fact that educating students from poverty is expensive. They need lower class sizes, social workers, nurses and librarians in every school, good, strong summer and after school programs.

  3. 5 franmcveigh January 22, 2013 at 9:56 am

    As the school community implements the “initiative/school improvement,” a combination of pressure/support is needed. That is difficult because it is not black and white and precisely measured as 2 doses of this and a pinch of that. Sometimes those (admin/teachers) who talk the talk forget to roll up their sleeves, get messy and DO IT!

    • 6 Dennis Sparks January 22, 2013 at 10:04 am

      Thanks for that reminder (and the Twitter retweet), Fran. It definitely is a messy process for which there are no prescriptions. While it is important that the work be guided by the research and literature of our profession, a good share of it requires learning by doing with lots of reflection and mid-course alterations.

  4. 7 Michael Cohan January 22, 2013 at 11:07 am

    As an essential part of the new Priority Schools Intervention and Support program launched by NJEA this year, we tried to build in “off-ramp” protocols by asking all stakeholders to make firm commitments to the work required. Central to our plan and goals, we expected each stakeholder – the community (board of education), the central office administration, the principal, the union, and the staff – to commit to very specific behaviors and resources to ensure success. We began the work in each of the twelve schools by working to build structures that would promote teams and a culture focused on the goals set by the teams. In accordance with our expectations, we’ve sadly exited two schools from the program because one or more stakeholders did not maintain their commitment. While this feels more like a carrot & stick approach and not consistent with the collaborative culture that would promote success, we hope that by maintaining specific and high standards that we’ll build exemplars of success to which others can strive.

    • 8 Dennis Sparks January 22, 2013 at 11:21 am

      Thanks, Michael, for sharing your important work in New Jersey. And thanks also for sharing so honestly what you are struggling with along the way.


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