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Note: Here’s part three in our Learning to Improve series which is the primary focus of the School Performance Institute blog this year. In it, we spotlight issues related to building the capacity to do improvement science in schools while working on an important problem of practice.

The good news is this may very well be the much sought after silver bullet we’ve long searched for in educational improvement circles. The bad news is that this elusive magic elixir is very hard to come by. Simply put, know-how is the detailed practical knowledge necessary to get good ideas to actually work in classrooms, schools, and districts.


Non-Education Know-How

A few weeks ago at our weekly USN huddle, we kicked off the meeting with an icebreaker question. It happened to be National Homemade Cookie Day (who knew), so the question was appropriately- what's your favorite homemade cookie and who's the best at baking it? My colleague Kathryn Anstaett shared that she had fond memories of her grandma’s chocolate chip cookies, and her grandma had even shared the recipe with her. However, try as she might, Kathryn can never quite get the recipe to taste like grandma’s. Many of us have probably had a similar experience. Even with the recipe to follow there were many unwritten variables that likely had a hand in making grandma’s cookies tough to replicate. In Kathryn’s case, she speculated that one of those unknown keys was the temperature of the butter used in the cookie mix. However, the butter temperature and any number of other pieces of important know-how were not listed in the recipe.

Something very similar happens regularly in education when we jump quickly to solutions without a full understanding of the problem we’re facing or the know-how to implement some reform idea. Everyone has a recipe, but many fewer know the temperature the butter needs to be to get the cookies just right.

Education Know-How

Recently, much has been made of rising chronic absenteeism rates in the United States. States like Ohio have made a measure of these rates a part of the school report card system for good reason because attendance and achievement are so closely correlated. Less clear is how to improve poor attendance. We are studying attendance rates in our own improvement project at Columbus Collegiate Academy because those rates are an important determinant in our aim to improve the percent of our 8th graders who leave us prepared for high school.  

As such, we’ve been researching best practices to combat poor attendance. Over and over again, we’ve read research suggesting assigning mentors to students with attendance concerns. The problem, at least as far as our research scan has gone, is that the mentoring intervention is vastly underspecified. We do not have the know-how to use mentoring as an attendance intervention, at least not in the immediate future. A litany of questions come to my mind as an educational practitioner. Here’s a sample:

  • Who are the mentors?

  • Where do we find them?  

  • Who screens them?   

  • How do we train them once hired?  

  • Are mentors paid or volunteers?  

  • How often should they meet with students?  

  • What do mentors actually do when they are meeting with students?  

  • To whom are they accountable?  

  • How will we know if they are effective?

  • How will we fill the roles as the mentors turnover?

So, does mentoring work?

Most education leaders would probably say yes. I would agree if you mean to say that there are likely schools or even districts that have found success in using mentors to combat attendance issues. But, like most ideas in education, it’s a social and human resource intensive activity. The critical question is not “What works?” but instead “What works, for whom, and under what set of conditions?”

When we only answer the first question, we end up with the chronic failure of promising reform ideas.  If we had charged ahead with the mentoring idea in our own schools, we would be doing so without the requisite know-how to make it work. When we answer the second question we must undertake a focused learning journey with the goal of developing the know-how necessary to produce and spread improvement ideas.

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Our Improvement Project

As I highlighted in my last post, we are using improvement science methodology to increase the percentage of our 8th graders that are on-track for high school success. Part of the power of the methodology is that previously invisible problems often emerge and inform us that improvement activities need to take a new direction.  

Because attendance plays an important role in determining each student’s on-track status, we started with asking our staff a simple question - what is good attendance?  

There was far more variation in staff answers than I would have predicted. This means before we ever consider something like a complex mentoring program, we need to ensure that our staff are on the same page when it comes to much simpler things such as defining strong attendance. Currently, too many of our staff don’t have a clear picture of strong attendance for which I take full responsibility as a network leader. And, if our staff are unclear, it is very likely that students and families are unclear as well.

As a result, one of our first steps as an improvement team is working to create a shared attendance framework and related awareness campaign. We have the know-how to create both, and we feel good about the likelihood that they will have a significant impact on our improvement efforts.  

A core tenet of improvement science is to deeply study the problem at hand before jumping to solutions. Adhering to this principle allowed us to side-step a potentially common pitfall in education. That is, we could have charged ahead with a mentoring program without the know-how to make it work. Like so many change ideas in our sector, we would have been frustrated when a seemingly research-supported idea didn’t produce improved outcomes.

Instead of jumping to solutions, we are focused on creating the know-how within our context that will close the gap between our aspirations for our students and our current performance. The gap in between those two things will be filled with the know-how we gain through our improvement project.

We’ll continue to share this know-how in the hopes that it can help make your own improvement journey more effective.

More on How We’re Learning to Improve

At the School Performance Institute, we are studying what works in schools both within the United Schools Network as well as at high-performing, high-poverty schools across the country. We’re opening our doors to learn from others and share what we’ve learned at our third Study the Network workshop of the year at United Preparatory Academy on November 29th.  And, be sure to follow our progress this year as we share what we learn during our improvement journey.

John A. Dues is the Director of the School Performance Institute and Chief Learning Officer for the United Schools Network in Columbus, Ohio. The School Performance Institute is the learning and improvement arm of the United Schools Network. Send feedback to