Data Opinion

Want Improvement? Get Serious About Systems

By Contributing Blogger — April 08, 2015 4 min read
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This post is by Susan Fairchild, chief knowledge officer for New Visions for Public Schools.


“Schools account for an average of less than 20 percent of a child’s waking hours.”

This quote from Paul Reville in a recent Education Week Commentary represents an important moment of reckoning--there is no margin of error in our current educational system.

With only 20 percent of a student’s school-age years allocated to educators, a school’s response to student need the moment it presents must be rapid, high-quality, and consistent--the characteristics that distinguish a high-performing school from a school on fire. Making the most of 20 percent starts by knowing each student. Hundreds of times every day, educators make decisions where the right action could make a critical difference for students. These decisions accumulate over time and, for better or for worse, these decisions ultimately shape a student’s academic trajectory (see Brad Gunton’s excellent blog post on moving from early warning to constant awareness).

Schools that intervene immediately and consistently (School A in Figure 1) at the very hint of a problem such as attendance address those problems and do not allow them to worsen. By effectively addressing problems when they occur, these schools are creating future opportunities for each student. High performing schools have systems in place to flag when a student passes the Regents exam but not with a score that would enable him to bypass remediation courses in college. When a student is within striking distance of achieving a college-ready benchmark, a protocol is triggered and the educators reexamine their programming and scheduling options and enrolled this student in a prep course that may results in a higher, college ready score that allows him to bypass remediation courses. This school creates and seizes opportunities that push this student to reach her maximum potential.

Schools that respond slowly and inconsistently (School B) miss these opportunities; missed opportunities potentially lead to a different and new set of problems. When attendance protocols aren’t triggered and attendance issues are allowed to worsen, this school is only focused on simply getting the student to show up to have a shot at passing the Regents exam. The school is no longer positioned to help the student attain a college-ready score. Every delay and every slow response represents an accumulation of error and limits student trajectories.

In our recent School Grit blog post on Education Week, we argue that the schools that are best for kids are the ones that know how to learn, adapt, and improve. This type of school builds structures and systems (data and instructional) that allows it to capture learnings from year-to-year so that changes in staffing do not derail progress. Garvin defines a learning organization as “an organization that is skilled at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge, and at modifying its behavior to reflect new knowledge and insights.” He identifies five core attributes of learning organizations. They: 1) engage in systematic problem solving, 2) experiment with new approaches, 3) learn from individual staff experiences/past history, 4) learn from best practices/experiences of others, and 5) transfer knowledge quickly and efficiently throughout the entire organization.

The ability to adapt quickly is especially crucial for schools because of the ever-shifting policy ecosystem, the high rate of teacher turnover in the profession, and the constant flow of new cohorts of students entering into the school. Schools that are able to effectively adapt are schools where the adults know how to learn and where they recognize the interdependencies of the work.

But how does this happen? One way is through effective school systems. At New Visions, we are serious about systems. Mark Dunetz explains why they are non-negotiable in his blog post here.

Effective systems (e.g. attendance, scheduling programming, academic interventions) reinforce the vulnerabilities that are inherent to the design of schools. For example, a potent attendance system counteracts the porousness of a typical school day. Within a single day, a student moves throughout the school going from one class to another. That’s potentially eight opportunities to slip out of school unnoticed. An attendance system tracks a student between classes and it tracks a student from one day to the next.

This is what we mean by not letting kids fall through the cracks--even the hairline cracks. But you can’t do much about that crack if you don’t see it or if you think it’s too insignificant to matter.

The only way an attendance system is going to reinforce student behaviors is if it guides the adult behaviors. Effective school systems must have three components: data, design, and feedback. Tools that get granular about student behaviors (data) must be coupled with specific protocols that direct educator actions (design) and then those actions have to be documented and evaluated against future student performance (feedback).

And, if you need another reason to get passionate about systems, consider this: they never operate independent of one another. A comprehensive attendance system will always reinforce instructional and academic intervention systems just as a weak attendance system will undermine them. Our systems thinking video, created in collaboration with Chris Soderquist and Andrew Garcia Phillips, highlights this interdependence. [UPDATE: Video link added]

For educators who are interested in learning more about systems--we’ve got you covered. To learn how to build core systems, visit New Visions’CloudLab. For educators who are interested in learning more about the conceptual dimensions of systems thinking, visit The Applied Systems Thinker.

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.