The need for reform in education has endured through generations as educators across systems continuously strive to better serve learners. At times, reform can appear too prolonged, arduous, or overdue; yet, at other times, it may feel inappropriate or untimely. In the context of how reading is taught, widespread reform is both timely and beyond overdue. The calls for change have echoed across public discourse, driven by decades of evidence that continues to demonstrate the ways in which reading pathways develop in the brain and supporting effective instructional practices. At the same time, the NAEP (2022) illustrates the decades of stagnant rates of reading proficiency, with only about one-third of the nation’s fourth-graders demonstrating proficiency and wide disparities that exist across race, socioeconomic status, and disability status. Refusing to accept this status quo, calls for reform reverberate with this truth: Certain current methods of reading instruction are not serving most students across the educational system.
What does change in education actually mean, and how is it effectively facilitated? Calls for reform in reading instruction have forced stakeholders across the system to examine the process of effective change in education. Just as science has informed our understanding of the reading brain and instruction, researchers are also providing expertise into this process through a lens of implementation science. In fact, reform in education mirrors a research process that is iterative, complex, and multifaceted.
Reform in education mirrors a research process that is iterative, complex, and multifaceted.
This article examines how implementation science can inform how we navigate change in education with a specific focus on de-implementation. De-implementation, a dynamic process that has been utilized across disciplines, involves stopping or reducing certain practices that are deemed no longer effective or low value (Dewitt, 2020). While de-implementation may seem intuitive and ubiquitous in many areas of life, it can be misunderstood or misapplied in education. Without intentionality, educators may move through de-implementation haphazardly, ultimately harming the stakeholders they seek to protect and serve. This article
■ outlines a foundational synthesis of current research on implementation science and de-implementation;
■ translates de-implementation into practical educational practice;
■ offers insights and implications to leverage de-implementation as a valuable tool for program reform, scalability, and sustainability.
Implementation science has gained increasing attention across educational research in the last decade. Originally designed to address initiatives in healthcare, implementation science provides a framework for researchers to understand and facilitate “program adoption, implementation, and sustainability” (Nordstrum, et al., 2017). Its goal is to understand the contextual and social mechanisms that lead to increased dissemination and adoption of evidence in practice and, ultimately, inform future programmatic and policy decisions (Bauer & Kirschner, 2020). A key benefit to implementation science is that it maintains a clear focus on program effectiveness and sustainability (Moir, 2018).
Moir (2018) explains that “implementation is not a straightforward process.” Instead, it requires rigorous enactment, analysis, and reflection through iterative stages across time, which include pre-implementation, implementation, and continuous progress monitoring (Dewitt, 2022). Moir (2018) asserts that the entire implementation process could take years. Successful pre-implementation requires a robust and comprehensive analysis of factors that promote (facilitators) or inhibit (barriers) the implementation process and its outcomes (Bauer & Kirschner, 2020). Similarly, pre-implementation work involves understanding what programs already exist and need to be replaced through the process of de-implementation (Dewitt, 2022). It has become increasingly clear in education, and especially in reading education, that de-implementation is perhaps one of the most important phases of implementation. While the value of de-implementation extends across education, it is particularly timely for leaders to leverage in reading education.
The role of de-implementation in educational practice
De-implementation is the process of “reducing or stopping the use or delivery of services or practices that are ineffective, unproven, harmful, overused, or inappropriate” (Prusaczyk et al., 2020). In the context of reading education, advocates for the Science of Reading would concur with and even applaud this definition as they call into question existing methodologies that have long been deemed as “ineffective, unproven…or inappropriate.” In fact, methods that are touted in popular curriculum resources, like three-cueing, have long been overused and are harmful to countless generations of children being taught to read (Hanford, 2018, 2019, 2022). Reading Recovery, another example that has been originally touted as effective and informed by research, has long been criticized by researchers who have found this program to be ineffective, unproven, and harmful to various student populations they studied (See Jay Russell’s article, “Requiem for Reading Recovery.”). With these practices on top of mind, there are certainly other instructional practices in reading that may require further examination. Furthermore, existing reading initiatives may also appear promising but are not applicable, feasible, or scalable to sustain effectiveness in practice.
In addressing ineffective programs, de-implementation should be viewed as both a process and a driven outcome-based practice that requires rigor and intentionality in its steps and methods (Prusaczyk et al., 2020). Dewitt (2022) identifies two specific types of de-implementation: formal and informal. Informal processes may relate to certain routines such as those related to efficiency, whereas formal processes require more considerable care and deliberation. Further, de-implementation practices may involve reducing (partially or fully), replacing, or substituting existing programs (Dewitt, 2022; Wang et al., 2018). Using these practices as a framework, leaders in reading education can guide their decisions to qualify decisions for de-implementation in three R’s: What can be reconsidered, reshaped, and removed for the goals of program reform, scalability, and sustainability?
Leveraging the process of de-implementation for program reform, scalability, and sustainability
The three R’s of de-implementation—reconsidering, reshaping, and removing—pertain to an analysis and ultimately a qualification of an educational program or practice’s value (i.e., determining whether a program qualifies as low value). What determines a decision whether to reconsider and reshape a practice or to entirely remove it? At the simplest level, judgment of instructional practice would be based on research to support whether it is proven and effective for children. However, evaluating the merit in de-implementation requires more intentionality and rigor, which Prusaczyk and colleagues (2020) address in their guiding framework on de-implementation. These factors can guide leaders as they engage with de-implementation in the context of reading education (Proctor et al., 2011; Prusaczyk et al., 2020):
The first three steps of this framework pertain to acceptability, adoption, and appropriateness. Acceptability refers to the way the current program is perceived by the community stakeholders. In reading, for example, acceptability may relate to attitudes toward reading instruction or how children learn. According to Prusaczyk and colleagues (2020), adoption (de-adoption) offers an explanation about why a practice or program is no longer used. This step is critical because it requires a comprehensive examination of data within the system in which the program is serving. For instance, data may not support the current practices, therefore validating de-adoption. Data also informs appropriateness or identifying programs that are no longer relevant to the community (Prusaczyk et al., 2020). Leaders should approach data collection and analysis through an ecological, systems lens.
While acceptability, adoption, and appropriateness address factors related to mindsets toward de-implementation, Prusaczyk and colleagues (2020) explain factors that relate to systems, including feasibility, fidelity, cost, penetration, and sustainability. Understanding how these factors influence de-implementation requires an intentional examination of resources available, similar to research that informs issues of scalability. For example, Levin (2013) outlines factors that impact scaling educational innovations that can also apply to how de-implementation is enacted, which include cost, human capacity, tools, infrastructure (i.e. resources), political support, and the factors related to community stakeholders external to the school. Penetration, feasibility, and sustainability specifically pertain to the ways in which the school organization maintains consistency, coherence, and commitment to the de-implementation process (Prusaczyk et al., 2020). Penetration and fidelity refer to the extent to which the program has changed or is no longer used with a specific focus on the community stakeholders and processes.
Sustainability indicates the duration of time in which the de-implementation process is maintained. Understanding and examining these factors requires follow-through in data collection and analysis and continuous communication and buy-in from the stakeholders impacted by the de-implementation process.
De-implementation: What Happens Next?
In education, reform exists in a paradox: While reform is necessary and fundamental for progress and equity, it is also extremely challenging. This paradox has been evident over the last several years as cities and states have committed to reforming reading education practices to better serve their students. In these instances, they have recognized that the existing reading curriculums and instructional methodologies were not aligned with evidence, were ineffective, and were ultimately harming many of the students being taught to read. Mississippi, for example, modeled a process of implementation and de-implementation as they cultivated community buy-in, maintained commitment to the Science of Reading and developing their teachers, and navigated challenges and barriers (Listen to Episode 40 of LEAD on READ with Mississippi State Literacy Director Kristen Wynn.). Other city and state governments are engaging in similar processes, such as New York City, as it has engaged with a literacy advisory board and examined how best to train its teachers.
In education, reform exists in a paradox: While reform is necessary and fundamental for progress and equity, it is also extremely challenging.
With change in reading education moving across the nation, it’s important to recognize why reprioritization is key in the process of implementation and de-implementation. Reeves (2022) asserts that proposing too many initiatives would set up organizations for failure. It is impossible to add new initiatives without discontinuing others, and in failing to do so, leaders risk subjecting their communities to lack of clarity, reduced agency and collective responsibility, and burn out (Reeves, 2022). As leaders engage in the processes of implementation and de-implementation, they must consider the following:
■ Build a strategy for consistent communication that is transparent in clarity of goals and organizational ideology. In this step, leaders would be able to clearly communicate why and how methods supported by the Science of Reading support their students’ reading goals.
■ Adopt consistent and coherent language. This step is key for leaders to establish coherence, a fundamental part of professional development and curriculum implementation, as Jamie Williamson explores in his article “Building a Structure for Literacy Part III: Crafting Coherency in Professional Development."
■ Invest in sustained training during the pre-implementation and de-implementation stages to cultivate clarity and build collective buy-in, responsibility, and efficacy toward better outcomes for students. Training should be maintained throughout the implementation process.
■ Approach data collection and analysis through a comprehensive and equitable approach and by asking the right questions. This means inviting more stakeholders into the process to capture the story of experiences, outcomes, and processes. Data should explain whom programs are serving and whom they are not serving. Keeping a narrow lens on data may also result in unintended consequences that ultimately don’t serve the community the school is serving and could risk harming students in vulnerable populations. Terry and colleagues (2022) establish a comprehensive ecological framework for understanding reading difficulties, where they examine community factors that influence a child’s social and academic development (For an in-depth analysis, see Annie Stutzman’s article, “Symbiotic Schooling.").
■ Maintain a commitment to actively consume research. This would include identifying evidence that serves large populations, examining the conditions in which interventions benefit study participants (i.e., contextual and social factors), and understanding barriers and facilitators that inhibit or facilitate programs and interventions from being effective and sustainable.
These practices and behaviors can be integrated with certain mindsets geared toward the de-implementation and implementation processes. Leaders should first engage in a mindset of learning and curiosity. Dewitt (2022) explains that de-implementation involves significant unlearning and relearning. A mindset of growth will also support leaders and community members in balancing commitment and tenacity with flexibility and humility. Finally, a mindset of collaboration and community cultivates a sense of collective efficacy and responsibility with the understanding that no one can do this work alone.
Implementation and de-implementation hold promise for both research and education when understood and enacted within an intentional and comprehensive approach. In engaging with this work, it’s fundamental to recognize that implementation and de-implementation are not polarities and do not exist on a metaphorical balancing scale. These processes are not linear but are rather iterative. For those of us who choose to engage in this work, it is both challenging and essential to support the academic gains of the students and livelihoods of the communities we serve.