Do You Win with People - or with Organizations?


One of the enduring questions in school improvement work is why some schools fail regardless of the resources and attention directed toward them. Blame is often placed on the individuals that work in those schools. But is that fair?

People Matter

People are important to organizational success. At United Schools Network, we spend a tremendous amount of time and energy recruiting, selecting, training, and retaining talent. Research suggests that there is good reason for making this investment. Teachers and principals account for nearly 60 percent of a school’s impact on student achievement.[1]

And, to be sure, there are educators that do not belong in front of a classroom or leading a school. However, if we only look at individual talent – the teacher leading a classroom or the principal leading a school – we risk missing the bigger picture as we work to improve schools. 

Consider the focus that states have spent working on school rating and teacher evaluation systems. The problem here is that all the energy has been spent on accountability tools, but many conflate these tools with those that are designed to improve school and educator performance. While these tools do provide necessary and useful information on performance, neither the school rating systems nor the teacher evaluation systems in most states provide sufficient information by which to chart an improvement course. 

A Six-Percent Problem

In considering the people question, it’s taken me half a career, a lot of reading, and some serious soul-searching to come to this conclusion. While people do matter, where we really need to focus our improvement effort is at the organizational level. Things really clicked when I read Learning to Improve: How America’s Schools Can Get Better at Getting Better. A few key excerpts from the book:

Individual personnel issues, as Tom Nolan, a world-renowned organizational improvement specialist, has noted, are a “six percent problem.” Nolan’s point is that problematic personnel typically account for only a small percentage of an organization's overall performance problems. The predominant cause of failure lie elsewhere- in how we organize the work that we ask people to carry out.

The evidence from over a half century of effort across numerous sectors and industries is clear: improving productivity in complex systems is not principally about incentivizing more individual effort, preaching about better intentions, or even enhancing individual competence. Rather, it is about designing better processes for carrying out common work problems and creating more agile mechanisms for sensing and reacting to novel situations (p. 61).”[2]

Improvement in High-Poverty Schools

And, what does this finding mean for high-poverty schools that often face significantly more obstacles to organizing the work needed for improvement? More on this from Learning to Improve:

These schools are doubly challenged in confronting the vast human needs of their student and family populations while at the same time having to manage a huge array of specialists, programs, and external connections targeting these students. These schools are chronically stressed work environments. Even when successful for a period of time, they remain ever vulnerable to future failure (p. 63).

The essential supports (see below) necessary for improvement are no different in high-poverty schools than in more affluent schools. However, getting high-poverty schools to become highly functioning organizations requires significantly more work and coordination.

Focusing Improvement Efforts

So, if improvement is more about carefully organizing the work processes in schools as opposed to focusing solely on individual performance, where should we focus our efforts? 

At the School Performance Institute (SPI), we’ve chosen to focus on the Essential Supportsframework developed by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research. This team of researchers identified five organizational features of schools that interact with life inside of classrooms and are essential to advancing student achievement. They include:

  1. Ambitious Instruction
  2. Collaborative Teachers
  3. Effective Leaders
  4. Involved Families
  5. Supportive Environment

The Chicago researchers noted that schools that are strong on at least three out of five of these essential supports are ten times more likely to improve student learning outcomes, attendance, graduation rates, college matriculation, and teacher retention when compared to schools that are weak in three or more essential supports.

SPI’s organizational performance work has been developed both through alignment with the Chicago study as well as through the careful study of high impact best practices at a number of high-performing, high-poverty schools across the country.

Those that choose to do school improvement work, especially in high-poverty schools, have a long and tough road ahead. At the School Performance Institute, we are excited to share what we’ve learned over the last decade in the hopes we can make that road a bit smoother for others.

[1] Marzano, R.J., Waters, T., & McNulty, B. (2005). School leadership that works: From research to results. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

[2] Bryk, A., Gomez, L., Grunow, A., & LeMahieu, P. (2015). Learning to Improve: How America’s Schools Can Get Better at Getting Better. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.