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Problems of Practice

“Fast and Furious” vs. “Slow and Steady”: How fast should we be moving from pilot to scale? What will help us best achieve sustainability?

Key Takeaways

  • Go slow to go fast. Don’t let a sense of urgency cause you to jump into rolling out an implementation process without careful planning and thoughtful communication. One system leader offered the following example, “We had a high school that was adopting the a new learning platform. But they didn’t fully map out how they were going to scaffold students to get on the platform. A lot of teachers shut it down because they didn’t know how to do it and it led to a lot of difficult conversations.”
  • Everything is relative. How you define speed or deliberateness depends on your context, your community, and what you are ultimately trying to achieve.
  • There is a difference between piloting and system implementation. Learning about a tool or a model is different than full-scale adoption. These stages can be thought of differently when considering pace. Districts/CMOs should be seeing data that pilots are successful and getting input from students, teachers, and community members that things are working before launching into system-wide implementation. The Trailblazer short-cycle innovation plan is one way to think about moving from pilot to scale.
Child runs forward, carrying football


No system’s context is exactly the same as another’s, and therefore pathways to system change cannot completely replicate each other. While case studies on system-wide implementation offer inspiration and ideas, they can be difficult to apply in new contexts.

Regardless of context, however, all leaders interested in scaling new approaches face choices about how to lead system change in a way that maximizes benefits to students. In interviews across the country, we found that certain decisions kept surfacing as critical to success, many of which contained competing priorities - forces pulling in different directions. Rather than choose one priority and ignore the other, leaders explain, the key is to figure out how to manage both in a way that best fits your context.

Overview of the Challenge

Districts/CMOs are under intense pressure to show positive results for students quickly and consistently for their boards, their state regulators and, most importantly, their communities. Yet leaders know that meaningful change often takes time and deliberate efforts, especially when collectively building new instructional approaches within a system. Move too fast and the system may sacrifice both rigor and teacher ownership. Move too slowly and the initiative may lose momentum and the authorization to continue.

Why Accelerate?

While perhaps counterintuitive for some, moving fast can produce its own kind of rigor. Moving quickly can produce a sense of urgency throughout a system, and even sometimes a sense of inevitability (“we are all moving in this direction”) that may also lead to an accelerated pace of adoption, even by teachers who would normally wait it out. Implementing fast can signal to parents and other community members that the system is mobilized to make important changes and to fulfill its moral obligation to do everything it can, especially for its most underserved learners. Finally, as with any reform effort, there is often only a short period of time during which people will tolerate uncertainty. The faster the implementation efforts can show real results, the more authorization the district/CMO will have to continue.

While accelerating and moving slowly are relative depending on context, here are some examples that illustrate the benefits of acceleration:

Why Go Slow and Steady?

By engaging in a slow but steady implementation process, districts/CMOs have time to both correct wrong assumptions as they go and learn what works from teachers and other practitioners in the field. Piloting sequentially, rather than simultaneously, means each pilot has the potential to learn from previous iterations. Slow implementation also gives teachers time to find their own voice, take ownership of their implementation process, and personalize instruction for their students in their specific context. Moving slowly gives schools time to test out different ideas before locking in on what to scale more widely and it also offers time to test different technology platforms to see what best serves the needs of their students.

While accelerating and moving slowly are relative depending on context, here are some examples that illustrate the benefits of moving “slow and steady:

The following strategies provide a good example of blending both approaches:

What the Data Say

In a survey of 89 leaders from 60 systems across the country:

  • In general, systems say they prioritize “deliberateness” over “speed,” with 58% leaning towards a slow and steady approach and only 15% leaning towards an accelerated approach.
  • 88% of respondents reported that they had dedicated time and resources to managing this tension. Systems early in their implementation process are more likely to dedicate time and resources to this challenge than those in later stages
  • 45% of respondents rated this as a “high priority” challenge

Want a deeper dive into the data? Explore our white paper, entitled Look Both Ways for more information.

Take It Further

To jump start your own discussions, consider these questions:

  • How does your system define “speed?” What amount of time would constitute an aggressive scale strategy? A deliberate one? According to whom?
  • Where might speed be genuinely useful in your system? Why? Are there places where moving faster leads to more rigor when it comes to implementing blended learning?
  • Who or what is determining the pace of roll-out? Why?