Educators feel ‘initiative fatigue’

On Board Online • February 25, 2013

By Eric Randall

The flu isn’t the only thing going around schools these days. There’s another malady: initiative fatigue.

Okay, it isn’t a real disease. It’s a business term that may capture the zeitgeist in schools today as they strive, with resources at hand, to implement various kinds of reform.

Changes include the Common Core curriculum, student learning objective assessments, data-driven instruction and a new approach to teacher and principal evaluations.

“So much has been thrown in our lap in such a short time,” said Dana Besch, an elementary math teacher in Depew. “Teachers are just trying to keep up. All the initiatives, paperwork, mandates, and testing take time away from planning quality lessons and collaboration outside of instruction time, as well as class time to spend on teaching and learning. Stress levels are high. I have seen so many highly qualified teachers second-guessing their career choices.”

The term “initiative fatigue” to describe such sentiments has popped up in educational literature under the byline of Douglas Reeves, a Boston-based author and consultant. Reeves said he found the term in an old issue of Harvard Business Review. In a book published by ASCD called The Learning Leader: How to Focus School Improvement for Better Results, Reeves described what he calls the “Law of Initiative Fatigue”:

When the number of initiatives increases while time, resources, and emotional energy are constant, then each new initiative – no matter how well-conceived or well-intentioned – will receive fewer minutes, dollars, and ounces of emotional energy than its predecessors.

School officials told On Board that Reeves is definitely onto something.

“I think the term ‘initiative fatigue’ is very apt,” said Marie Wiles, superintendent of the Guilderland Central School District in Albany County. “I’m doing a listening tour of our school buildings along with our union president, and we’ve heard weariness, frustration and some sadness. I think people are overwhelmed by the number of new things they need to understand, implement and be held accountable for.”

School board members say they feel stuck in the middle as they ensure their districts are complying with state requirements. “The term ‘school reform’ itself almost makes me groan,” said B.A. Schoen, a member of the Nassau BOCES board.

Blame RTTT

How did it come to this? The short answer is Race to the Top (RTTT), which has inspired New York and 45 other states to voluntarily adopt a federal reform agenda. Elements include expanded testing as well as more uniform and results-based methods of teacher evaluation and adoption of Common Core curricular standards. Alaska, North Dakota, Texas, and Vermont are the only states sitting out.

Due in part to its participation in RTTT, New York State has become much more prescriptive in education, said Stephen Uebbing, a former state superintendent of the year who now teaches educational leadership at the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education.

For instance, annual state aid increases for school districts used to be purely formula-driven but are now tied to participation in school reform. The law has been challenged by parents represented by attorney Michael Rebell, though.

Like a proctor yelling “pencils down,” Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. has taken on a prominent – and unpopular – role of enforcing deadlines for districts. As On Board went to press, four districts still had not submitted Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) plans for the current school year: Hamburg, Fallsburg, New York City and Pine Plains.

All forfeited scheduled aid increases when they missed a Jan. 17 deadline for state approval. New York City’s loss was a whopping $250 million.

Should money be withheld?

“John King is on the wrong side of history,” author and blogger Diane Ravitch told On Board. “He is acting like a petty dictator, threatening to hurt the children to retaliate against the adults who did not do his bidding.”

On the other hand, “If you don’t put teeth into the system, no change is going to happen,” said Allison Armour-Garb, who served as chief of staff to former Education Commissioner David Steiner and is one of the architects of New York’s accountability system.

Although the Obama administration’s approach is research-based, the RTTT states are the first to take it to scale, Armour-Garb noted. “I’m confident that the Common Core, data-driven instruction, and teacher and principal evaluation are going to lead to improvement in student outcomes – over time.”

Armour-Garb has a personal interest in school accountability because she is the mother of two children, 10 and 12, who attend public schools.

In her school community, Armour-Garb tends not to bring up her professional background, which includes working on New York’s RTTT application and being a point person in developing regulations that defined New York’s APPR system. “Change is hard,” she said. “And testing and accountability are provocative topics that don’t lend themselves to a quick conversation.”

Or a pleasant one. There is a sizeable grassroots revolt against assessments, which teachers often view as unfair gauges of their value. Also, many students and parents resent state tests as intrusive and anxiety-provoking.

Protests abound

New York State United Teachers, a 600,000-member union, recently launched a “Tell it like it is” letter writing campaign targeted at King and the Board of Regents. Suggested topics are “How current teaching and learning conditions and obsession with testing impacts your students’ success” and “What needs to be done to get student assessment and teacher evaluation right.”

More than 1,535 principals have signed an anti-APPR position paper on Other grassroots protests include,, and

The Bedford school board in Westchester County joined the fray Feb. 6 by passing a resolution calling on state officials to reexamine APPR, saying the emphasis on testing compromises work on critical thinking and problem-solving.

‘Time is never right’

Meanwhile, only four in 10 high school graduates in New York meet the state’s definition of “college and career-ready.” So the imperative of school improvement remains.

“Our system wasn’t designed to embrace change,” said Michael Petrilli, executive editor of the pro-charter school journal Education Next. “If you don’t like the carrot-and-stick approach, you need to be willing to accept other strategies – like the just-go-around-districts-by-creating-competition-via-charter-schools approach.”

Superintendents say they are trying to make school reform happen despite dissent and, sometimes, misgivings (see "How 19 minutes cost one district $46,000").

“The time is never right for change,” said Clark Godshall, district superintendent of Orleans/Niagara BOCES. “The resources are never enough, the mandates are too many, and nothing is ever taken off your plate.”

Despite “the continual accumulation of additional needs and requirements,” Godshall said he sees progress.

 “School leaders and school boards do their best with the resources at hand and advocate for relief while understanding that some of the new initiatives are long overdue,” he said. “Hurray for public education … displaying tenacity, fortitude and determination despite ‘initiative fatigue’!”

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