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Never Give Up on Students: Schools Need 'Grit,' Too

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This post is by Susan Fairchild, chief knowledge officer for New Visions for Public Schools, Beverly Donohue, vice president for policy and talent development for New Visions, and Anne Mackinnon, a consultant to New Visions.


How does a school become an organization that pushes itself to the outer limits of its potential? How do you explain a school that never gives up on its students and never misses an opportunity to help them succeed? What accounts for a school that learns from its mistakes and strives to do better every day and every year?

Just as "student grit" is an intangible that is recognized by educators, and just as educators have found it useful to translate those intangible, gritty qualities into more easily observable and actionable student behaviors and habits of mind, we are attempting to translate that special aura of "school grit" into organizational behaviors and qualities that can be observed, measured, and improved upon.

From 2011 to 2014, New Visions for Public Schools participated in the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation-funded College Readiness Indicator System network (CRIS), spearheaded by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, the John W. Gardner Center at Stanford University, and the Consortium on Chicago School Research. Through this initiative, we've had the opportunity to work alongside colleagues from the Dallas, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and San Jose school districts to develop indicators and tools that make transparent high school students' college readiness. Part of our charge has been to prototype, test, and disseminate tools and resources that provide early diagnostic indicators of college readiness.

An important focus of the CRIS initiative centered on student academic tenacity or grit. The inclusion of student grit was an important focal point because of the multifaceted nature of college readiness. The CRIS initiative recognized that preparing students for college is just as much about the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviors necessary to access college and overcome obstacles en route to postsecondary success as a student's academic preparation.

New Visions' contribution to the CRIS conversation was in thinking about the role school plays in shaping the college readiness trajectories of students (what the Gardner Center calls setting-level indicators). We developed the stock and flow tool as a way of visualizing how student performance ebbs and flows within a high school over eight semesters, and that, when aggregated, produces a unique pattern of school performance. While many of our CRIS colleagues were grappling with student grit, we were examining these unique, new school-level stock and flow patterns which prompted us to think about grit from a different vantage point - that of the school. To date, we have documented key structures that define high performing schools (for example, see our Design and Data In Balance report and see Mark Dunetz's blog on systems that are key to school success), but we have never actually defined what we mean by school grit. In this post, we attempt to do so.

Gritty schools share three attributes: 1) they are learning organizations that produce reliable results; 2) they strive for authentic accountability; and 3) they engage in meaningful social learning experiences. In other words, school grit can be explained by three powerful theories:  David Garvin's work on learning organizations, Cynthia Coburn's work on authentic scale, and Amy Edmondson's work on teaming. All three matter.  

A gritty school knows how to learn, adapt, and improve and it does so in ways that create reliability and efficiencies. 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.

Those of us in education know "systematic problem solving" by another name--data-driven decision making--and we now work in an environment where we are, as Garvin says, "insisting on data, rather than assumptions as the background for decision making." What Garvin refers to as "experimentation" we refer to as design-driven decision making. These are our interventions where we are continually working to generate gains in knowledge that shape student outcomes. Moreover, the speed with which information is transferred throughout the school, coupled with best practices and learning from past experiences, reinforces not just learning but also reliability. In fact, Gavin's building blocks are similar to another continuous improvement process that many know well--educator-led "inquiry."

Take, for example, systematic problem solving. Educators who sit within different places in a school look at student data from different vantage points. Some educators, such as those in leadership positions, are often looking at aggregate indicators of student performance (e.g., semester-to-semester progress to graduation or year-to-date attendance or passage of state exit exams) and how these data reflect some measure of school performance. Grade teams often consider how students within the same grade perform on similar standards but within different subject areas. Teachers in the classroom, on the other hand, are untangling the data points that reflect a different grain size and a different time scale--the student's day-to-day. They are constantly considering period attendance, classroom behavior, homework quality and consistency, and item-level analysis on assessments. The data the educators must take into account when making decisions span from the general to the specific. Using these different types of data, educator-led inquiry teams consider student interventions, share what has been learned, and modify the intervention based on that learning.

Research, however, suggests that the promise of data-driven decision making has yet to deliver (an excellent discussion of data-driven decision making can be found here). One reason for this may be that inquiry cycles spin at different levels within the school and fail to interlock. (See below).

Disconnected Inquiry Cycles.jpg

School grit, then, is the effort it takes to interlock the learning/inquiry loops that connect 1) the adults to the students and 2) the adults to the adults.

We borrow this idea of "interlocking loops" from Ron Chaluisan, the vice president of New Visions' Charter Schools, because it plays a central role in defining school grit. Inquiry cycles that do not interlock fall short of a key building block Garvin identifies if a school is to become a learning organization--transference of knowledge. While inquiry cycles deliver information to some groups within a school, unless these inquiry loops are interconnected, the information flow is fragmented. Fragmented information flow means that a school's learning is delayed which then means adaptation is also delayed.   

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 just how deep does adult learning have to go before we see a change in student performance? Cynthia Coburn provides some parameters.

Coburn's seminal article "Rethinking Scale" highlights the importance of authenticity in the context of reform. She articulates a continuum that helps us to distinguish between superficial changes and authentic learning. Getting to authentic requires that we consider depth, sustainability, and ownership of reforms designed to improve student outcomes. Depth refers to the "deep and consequential" change within the classroom. Changes on the surface are nothing more than modifications to structures and procedures, while deep changes reflect alterations in educators' beliefs, teacher-student interactions, and pedagogical principles. To achieve depth, teachers must move from a cognitive understanding of any sort of reform to actual change in practice. Authentic change often represents some sort of paradigm shift.

But deep changes have to be sustained over long periods. Coburn notes how changing priorities and the "dissipation of resources" often undermine sustainability. Thus, long-term sustainability is inherently rooted in "ownership." Ownership is achieved when the reform is no longer seen as external to the school or the educator, but is "internally understood." 

Coburn's theory forces us to acknowledge the depths educators must travel if they are to create and sustain the authentic changes necessary for organizations to continuously learn and support students. By combining Garvin's building blocks of a learning organization with Cynthia Coburn's work on authentic reform, we're attempting to highlight just how deep the adult learning has to go. In other words, school grit represents the amount of energy educators must exert to interlock the inquiry loops plus the energy required to keep them connected if a school is to move toward a more authentic state.

Interlocking Inquiry Cycles.jpg


But how do we do this?

Moving from a superficial to an authentic state is ultimately about mindset. To understand the sort of mindset it takes to move a school toward authenticity, we turn to Amy Edmondson and her work on teaming.  

In her book Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy, Edmondson identifies "teaming" as the necessary new way of working. She suggests that complex organizations (e.g., schools) that exist within an increasingly unpredictable and unstable environment (the knowledge economy) adapt (or not) based on how well the small groups within that organization function. While teams are useful structures in environments where the work is known, teaming emerges when the work is complex and uncertain.

According to Edmondson, teaming is a dynamic, fluid activity, as opposed to a team, which is an organizational structure. Teaming is a mindset and "involves coordinating and collaborating without the benefit of stable team structures, because ... the constantly shifting nature of work means that many teams disband almost as soon as they've formed. You could be working on one team right now, but in a few days, or even a few minutes, you may be on another team." 

To be good at teaming, educators will have to 1) integrate multiple perspectives from different vantage points from within the school, 2) overcome different assumptions and mental models that accompany different areas of expertise to support thoughtful communication, and 3) navigate the conflict that inevitably arises when people work together. Edmondson writes, "Teaming is a mindset that accepts working together actively and a set of behaviors tailored to sharing and synthesizing knowledge."

In making the case for teaming, Edmondson distinguishes between two types of work: 1) organizing to execute and 2) organizing to learn. According to Edmondson, "organizing to execute emphasizes plans, details, roles, budgets and schedules--tools of certainty and predictability. When we know a lot about what it will take to achieve the results we seek, these traditional models are superbly useful." For instance, in New York State, we know high school students need forty-four credits and must pass Regents exams to graduate. We can look at their current schedules to identify credit gaps and systematically reschedule students to meet course requirements. We know that, if students are scheduled to take a Regents exam in June, they should be in some course that supports preparation for that exam in the spring. We know if students are absent, schools need a systematic procedure with specific adult behaviors that supports getting kids to school. At New Visions, we have invested considerable resources into making the "organizing to execute" types of work more transparent and manageable. Mark Dunetz, vice president of school support, has written an important blog post on the core systems necessary for schools if they are to successfully execute the work of managing schools.

Organizing to learn, on the other hand, is necessary when the work is unknown and unpredictable, and necessitates a different mental model for an organization to quickly adapt. Organizing to learn is ultimately about rapidly understanding what works and what doesn't. Edmondson notes that organizing to execute and organizing to learn share similarities: "There's the same discipline, respect for systems, and attention to detail." Yet they are fundamentally different: "[Organizing to learn is] a radically different organizational mindset that focuses less on ensuring a process is followed than on helping it evolve."

Educators in schools have to be able to distinguish between these two different forms of organizing and they have to be able to do both well. What is interesting about the data and systems strategy at New Visions is that our new tools are lightweight and flexible enough that they not only support organizing to execute, but by virtue of being so malleable they also support organizing to learn.

At New Visions, we have a robust network of schools with whom we work. For those of us interested in understanding how schools become high performing organizations, this presents a unique opportunity for us to observe school grit as it unfolds and figure out how we can measure it, support it, and improve it.




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