Sustaining Changes Prevents "Passing Fad"

by Chriss Walther-Thomas

It's hard not to become a bit of an innovation cynic when you work in public schools. If you've taught for any length of time, you've been exposed to a number of new programs that have been touted as "cutting edge," "effective," " innovative," and/or "research-based." Despite initial fanfare, a flurry of staff development experiences, and appropriate administrative words of encouragement, most new programs never get off the ground.

Change is hard; new ideas are difficult to implement and sustain over time. Some new programs may look good for four or five months but are clearly doomed before the school year ends. Others may linger on for several years because of the efforts of a few dedicated supporters, but never really do become part of the school's master plan. Unfortunately, most new programs quickly slide into the murky mist of "Things-We-Tried-Here-That Didn't-Work."

Experience has led many educators to conclude that it's hard, if not completely impossible, to change schools. Research on school change also supports these personal experiences (see Fullan, 1993.) It takes a tremendous amount of time, hard work, resources, and broad-based support to take an idea from the point where it is viewed as an innovative concept to where it becomes a lasting part of the schoo1's underlying framework. Fullan (1993) reports worthwhile innovations may require a minimum of five to ten years of nurturing and support to become truly "institutionalized" in schools.

Innovation advocates often have difficulty acknowledging how difficult the process of change is likely to be. Sometimes they lack previous innovation implementation experience. They just don't know how hard the process is. Other times, advocates may downplay their own concerns about the challenges of lasting implementation for fear that others, perhaps less committed, will lose faith if the process looks too difficult. The reality, however, is that advocates must thoroughly consider what it will take to achieve lasting change and acknowledge these needs openly with other key players, or their implementation efforts are almost guaranteed to fail.

Today as many schools are working to become more, inclusive, it is important for administrators, program planners, implementers, evaluators, and other advocates to clearly understand how complex and difficult the development of new support services is likely to be (Snell & Janney, 1994; Thousand, Villa, & Nevin, 1994; Walther-Thomas, 1994, 1995). Teams must work together to ensure that all of the essential elements are in place to provide implementers with the skills, resources, and lasting support needed to do their jobs effectively.

The presence of these essential elements will enable program implementers to nurture and sustain the development of meaningful and effective programs for students with disabilities and their peers over time, and will reduce the likelihood that inclusive education will be remembered as merely another "passing fad" in the annals of public education.


Fullan, M. (I 993). Change forces: Probing the depths of educational reform. New York: Falmer Press.

Snell, M.E. & Janney, R. (1994). Including and supporting students with disabilities within general education. In B.S. Billingsley (Ed.), Program leadership for serving students with disabilities (pp. 219-262). Richmond, VA: Virginia Department of Education.

Thousand, J. S., Villa, R., & Nevin, A. (Eds.) (1994). Creativity and collaborative learning: A practical guide to empowering, students and teachers. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

Walther-Thomas, C. S. (1995). Inclusion and teaming: Including all students in the mainstream. In T. Dickinson & T. Erb (Eds.), Teaming in Middle Schools. Columbus, OH: National & Middle Schools Association.

Walther-Thomas, C. S. (1994). Co-Teaching: Lasting benefits and persistent problems teams report. Manuscript submitted for publication.


Reprinted with permission, The Collaborator, a publication of the Resource/Collaborative Teaching Masters in Education Program at The College of William and Mary, Vol.5 (1), Fall 1995.