How We're Learning to Improve This School Year (Part VI)

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Note: Here’s part six in our Learning to Improve series which is the primary focus of the School Performance Institute (SPI) 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.

Don’t Use Accountability Goals in School Improvement Work

Goals for accountability and goals for improvement are two very different things.

I’m not sure if I should be embarrassed or if most of the folks reading this are right there with me. Either way, this was an important revelation as I’ve worked to bring improvement science methodology to my work as a school leader at United Schools Network. Far too often, these two types of goals get conflated during school improvement projects and this can have unintended consequences.

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We Have a Problem

Last spring, we discovered that more of our 8th graders were off-track for success in high school than we previously realized. In response, we’ve assembled a team working to study and improve this problem. One key indicator of high school readiness is having  strong attendance, which we define as 97-98%, in 8th grade. Of course, as educators we already knew the importance of coming to school every day. Yet, this learning caused us to pause and consider what messages we were sending to staff, students, and families through the various attendance related artifacts posted in our schools. During one meeting early on in the project, we literally walked the halls of our schools. Here’s an example of what we found during one of these walks (the attendance scale from the board is blown up next to the picture).

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Can you spot the issue with the scale?

Because the scale was derived from our network accountability plan, and that plan in turn was derived from a past version of the Ohio School Report Card system, the attendance expectations are set far too low. If you’ve been an educator in Ohio for awhile, you’ll remember that schools used to need an attendance rate of at least 94% to meet state expectations. The scale above clearly is centered on this accountability goal.    

We know a significant number of our students don’t have attendance rates predictive of high school readiness. Now we also know that the attendance artifacts posted throughout our four schools reflect goals that come from accountability tools that miss the mark on defining attendance rates that are aligned to high school and college readiness. Accountability goals are often set at minimum competency levels and not at levels predictive of success. In fact, if you look at the old 94% goal and Ohio’s new truancy legislation, students are defined as being excessively absent as they near that same 94% mark.

See the System

There’s an important improvement saying that goes, “Every system is perfectly designed to get exactly the results that it gets.” That means if you are getting unfavorable results, it’s because your system is set up to produce exactly those same unfavorable results. This is an important idea, because it implies that systems are what produce the variations we see in important outcomes. This is different from other ways of viewing the causes of problematic outcomes and may cause some discomfort as you realize that many school improvement issues are the product of your own creation.  

In our improvement project on high school readiness, we realized that we were sending the wrong message about the definition of strong attendance. In fact, when we surveyed our staff the most typical answer to the question - what is strong attendance? - was 95%. Clearly, staff got the message we were sending on this front, but it turned out to be the wrong message altogether. If a student has a 95% attendance rate, that means they have missed roughly nine days of school. This is far from an exemplary attendance rate, and yet, the 95% rate was right there on our data wall being defined as exceeding expectations.

Now that we know about the issue, we are working to improve it. We’ve developed a USN Attendance Framework that better aligns attendance expectations with rates predictive of success. From there, we’ll work to ensure that everyone in our network is getting the right message about attendance rates including replacing artifacts with accountability goals with artifacts with improvement goals.

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More on How We’re Learning to Improve

With funding support from the Martha Holden Jennings Foundation, School Performance Institute is partnering with USN to improve its high school readiness rates using improvement science methodology. SPI serves as both the improvement advisor and project manager of this work. Follow our progress this year as we share what we learn during our improvement journey.

We’re also opening our doors to share our improvement practices at our fifth Study the Network workshop of the year at United Preparatory Academy-State St. on February 21st.

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

John A. Dues