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

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Note: Here’s part seven 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.

Why the Gates Foundation Shifted Its Education Funding Strategy

The marrying of on-track indicator systems with improvement science has caught the attention of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  

Over the next five years, Gates plans to direct 60 percent of its $1.7 billion in education funding towards networks of schools working together to identify solutions to local problems and using data to drive improvement. This shift at Gates was largely driven by work in Chicago among a network of high schools. These schools used the combination of an on-track indicator system and improvement science to increase the percentage of students on-track to graduate from 61 to 85 percent between 2007 and 2015. Four-year college enrollment rose from 36 to 44 percent during that same time period.¹ All things remaining equal, organizational improvement to this extent is seldom seen in education.

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We Have a Problem

Columbus Collegiate Academy (CCA) is a highly disadvantaged middle school in the Near East Side neighborhood with a history of high 8th grade state test scores. However, by utilizing emerging on-track indicator research from Chicago and California, we discovered that more of our 8th graders were off-track for high school readiness than we previously knew. Off-track 8th graders become off-track 9th graders, and this is especially problematic because researchers have shown that freshman year is the make-or-break year for high school graduation. Because of the negative outcomes associated with dropping out, it isn’t an exaggeration to say that 9th grade has life-altering implications.   

Here in Ohio, public high schools have a multi-year positive trend in both four-year and five-year graduation rates, but those positive trends do not carry over to Ohio’s Urban 8 school districts.² For example, Columbus City Schools’ four-year graduation rate has declined in three of four previous years with an average rate of 75% since 2013. The aforementioned Chicago research posits that students do not drop out because of background characteristics or economic disadvantage as suggested by conventional thinking. Rather, students drop out because, for a number of reasons, they struggle at age fourteen and don’t receive the support they need to get back on-track. Schools, especially those in high-poverty neighborhoods, must be deliberately organized to support students during the tenuous transition from 8th to 9th grade.

Building a Network for School Improvement

Like Gates, we see the power of doing improvement work within a structured network. We’re in the beginning stages of assembling a network for school improvement with School Performance Institute (SPI) as the support hub. This year, by building on the on-track indicator research at the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research and the CORE Districts (California), we are working on an internal project to validate an on-track framework predictive of high school readiness within Ohio's school improvement context. We are also building capacity to use improvement science through our internal project and through an intensive study of the work being done at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The on-track indicator system serves as the common goal that the network coalesces around and improvement science is the methodology through which we work to increase the rates of on-track students.

The internal project with CCA is the first step in the process to building a network working on this shared problem. In the next phase of our work, we are going to expand the network to include schools external to United Schools Network. Our plan is to recruit and work with a few high-poverty, Central Ohio-based middle schools to both increase the rates of on-track 8th graders as well as to build the capacity of the member schools to do continuous improvement work using improvement science methodology. The goal of the network in this phase will be to increase high school readiness rates and to build capacity to improve complex problems using improvement science.  

A natural extension of this improvement work will be to follow the 8th graders into 9th grade and work to keep students on-track during this critical next step on the high school graduation pipeline. If successful, this new type of improvement model—focused on working in a structured network to identify solutions to local problems and using data to drive continuous improvement—has the potential to significantly improve problems that have largely proved intractable in the past.

More on How We’re Learning to Improve

With funding support from the Martha Holden Jennings Foundation, School Performance Institute is partnering with Columbus Collegiate Academy to improve its high school readiness rates using improvement science methodology.  SPI serves as both the improvement advisor and project manager of this work. If you are interested in learning more about the network for school improvement we are building, please email us at

We’re also opening our doors to share our improvement practices at our two upcoming Study the Network workshops on March 28th (middle school) and April 12th (elementary school).

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

¹ Phillips, Emily Krone. The Make or Break Year: Solving the Dropout Crisis One Ninth Grader at a Time. The New Press.  New York and London, 2019.

² The Urban 8 include Ohio’s eight large urban school districts: Akron, Canton, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Toledo and Youngstown.

John A. Dues