School House Wonk

"Genius without education is like silver in the mine." Benjamin Franklin

Archive for the month “March, 2012”

Disrupting the Dropout Habit Loop

In The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and In Business, New York Times staff writer Charles Duhigg examines how the science of building and maintaining good habits can translate into wide-scale success. According to Duhigg, “habit loops” emerge in our brains as a convenient way of saving effort. These loops, consisting of a cue/routine/reward, develop over time and with practically no conscience effort.

When repeated often enough, the cue/routine/reward loop becomes a habit. But the problem with habit loops is that it’s just as easy to develop bad ones as good ones, because our brains don’t distinguish between the two (e.g., eating donuts for breakfast each morning versus exercising).

According to Duhigg’s survey of the science, adjusting the components of this loop can result in powerful changes. Thus, instead of focusing on the end result (e.g., losing 20 pounds, making more money, etc.) we should instead look to what parts of our habit loop(s) can be tweaked so that the “bad” habit can be replaced with a more productive one.

Duhigg showcases the promise of habit power to transform large organizations through case studies. Of particular interest is Alcoa, the highly successful aluminum manufacturer. In 1987 Alcoa’s new CEO Paul O’Neill stepped onto the scene of a company reeling from a series of setbacks. But instead of focusing on the typical end-game of conventional corporate leaders, such as profits, taxes and regulation, O’Neill promised only one thing – to improve employee safety. Said O’Neill at the time: “I intend to make Alcoa the safest company in America. I intend to go for zero injuries.” In O’Neill’s view, injuries impacted not just workers, but the entire culture of the company. And it was something all the stakeholders in the company could agree on (labor and management, shareholders and board members). But investors scratched their heads – they wondered aloud how focusing primarily on employee safety would turn the company around.

O’Neill’s aim was to disrupt Alcoa’s habit loop for injury reporting and replace it with a new one. Now anytime an employee was injured, within 24 hours the unit president for that employee had to report the injury directly to CEO O’Neill. The reward? Only those employees who embraced the new system would have a chance at promotion.

Duhigg describes this type of disruption as a “keystone habit” because it can transform an organization by changing its entire structure.

Keystone habits move through an organization like a chain reaction, and can influence “how people work, eat play, live, spend and communicate.”

This new habit loop required substantial changes throughout Alcoa’s system. Because the timeframe was short (24 hours), but the length of the communication chain up to O’Neill was significant, it forced everyone to streamline their reporting habits. The result was not just new habits replacing old ones; it meant that former work “rivals” now joined together working towards a common cause (labor and management all working towards reducing injuries).

Ultimately by introducing this one keystone habit, Alcoa’s costs came down, productivity increased and quality improved. In fact, Duhigg reports that Alcoa employees and managers became work safety gurus – pointing out safety issues anywhere and everywhere – because the work-safety mindset became a permanently fixed framework. Success. All from good habits.

Keystone Habits and High School Dropout/Graduation Rates 

High school graduation rates recently have dominated education news headlines because of a new report “Building a Grad Nation” released by Colin Powell’s America’s Promise Alliance and other education groups. While graduation rates improved to 75.5 percent in 2009, up from 72 percent in 2001, only one state – Wisconsin – achieved a 90% graduation rate. Graduation rates for certain minority groups remain too low. The U.S. Department of Education recently launched a “26 seconds” campaign to draw national attention to the problem of high dropout rates in the U.S. (on average, a student drops out of high school every 26 seconds).

Reading Duhigg’s case study of Alcoa made me think about whether we could develop keystone habits in our education system. Specifically, what if we developed a keystone habit in our public school structure that disrupted the high school dropout habit loop? What if we treated high school dropouts the same way Alcoa treated its injured employees? So, every time a student drops out (or comes close), something new, bold but relatively straightforward happens.
Here are some ideas – what are yours?

  • Every September, high school principals must report to their school district, which then reports to the school board, the number of dropouts, and whether that number is an increase or decrease since the previous September. The school board must report the information out at a public board meeting, with student dropouts presented and broken down by school with comparisons to previous years to provide context. The meeting is solely designated for this purpose, and is widely publicized.
  • At each high school, a running counter displayed in a highly visible place gives the number of students currently on track for graduation compared to the total number of students in the school.
  • At each high school, a bulletin board announces the number of consecutive months the school has gone without a dropout: “At this school, zero/five/twenty student dropouts in the past month.”
  • Each high school publishes on its website and in local newspapers online every other month its dropout totals (number of dropouts and number of students on track for graduation), with data comparisons for previous reporting periods to show trends up or down.
  • Or perhaps the focus shouldn’t be on dropouts, but on absences. Each school or grade level in high school could set a target for days missed/days not missed, and make that target a highly publicized goal for the class. “The class of 2016 will have no more than XX unexcused absences this school year.”

Most of these new habits would require a change in how districts and schools typically calculate dropout rates. They would have to take dropout data more frequently, or measure unexcused absences in a different way entirely. But, these additional data points could provide useful information about when, where and even why certain student populations are either missing more school or dropping out (e.g., time of year, before or after certain difficult exam periods, etc.). Thus one habit change could create a chain reaction that disrupts how we think about dropouts, and what we’re willing to do about it.

Beth T. Sigall

March 27, 2012


What If We Told Students the Truth?

In a previous post we kicked off a conversation about entrepreneur and best-selling author Seth Godin’s new education manifesto Stop Stealing Dreams (What Is School For?). Since that time, Stop Stealing Dreams has been shared, re-shared, spread and “sneezed” across the digital universe, with tens of thousands of viewings each day.

In Manifesto 25 Godin asks yet another uncomfortable question: ‘What if We Told Students the Truth?” Although Godin never quite defines what that “truth” is, he does explain the motivation for hiding it. That explanation mostly relies on Godin’s recurrent theme of public education remaining stuck in an Industrial Age framework, unable to serve the needs of today’s students, and (mostly) unwilling to do much about it. Godin argues that the system’s lack of transparency helps preserve the status quo (to the extent it can be preserved) because if students and parents really knew what was going on, they’d walk away from it, or worse. From Godin (emphasis is mine):

Transparency in the traditional school might destroy it. If we told the truth about the irrelevance of various courses, about the relative quality of some teachers, about the power of choice and free speech—could the school as we know it survive?

What happens when the connection revolution collides with the school?

Unlike just about every other institution and product line in our economy, transparency is missing from education. Students are lied to and so are parents. At some point, teenagers realize that most of school is a game, but the system never acknowledges it. In search of power, control and independence, administrators hide information from teachers, and vice versa.

Because school was invented to control students and give power to the state, it’s not surprising that the relationships are fraught with mistrust.

The very texture of the traditional school matches the organization and culture of the industrial economy. The bottom of the pyramid stores the students, with teachers (middle managers) following instructions from their bosses.

As in the traditional industrial organization, the folks at the bottom of the school are ignored, mistreated, and lied to. They are kept in the dark about anything outside of what they need to know to do their job (being a student), and put to work to satisfy the needs of the people in charge. Us and them.

But according to Godin, the Connection Economy is leading an education revolution, giving students the tools they need to find the answers relevant to their world. With or without the traditional public school system, students will make their mark and schools will be forced to adapt. Godin continues in Manifesto 25:

“The connection economy destroys the illusion of control. Students have the ability to find out which colleges are a good value, which courses make no sense, and how people in the real world are actually making a living. They have the ability to easily do outside research, even in fifth grade, and to discover that the teacher (or her textbook) is just plain wrong.

When students can take entire courses outside of the traditional school, how does the school prevent that? When passionate students can start their own political movements, profitable companies, or worthwhile community projects without the aegis of a school, how are obedience and fealty enforced?

It’s impossible to lie and manipulate when you have no power.”

My take: In my nearly ten years of writing, talking, advocating and thinking about what works in education, I’ve stressed time and again that the change we are all talking about in education will happen. It is inevitable. Why? Because with education reform there is a convergence of three major, disruptive influences: 1. Parents and students demanding excellence (without exception); 2. Parents and students seeking out any possible means to achieve this excellence and 3. An interconnected world that has exponentially enhanced both the number and quality of alternatives to the traditional K-12 education system. The result is a system where parents and students design their own plans based on their student’s unique needs. What Godin describes is an education universe (slowly) turning upside down. Instead of adjusting their world to the K-12 system, parents and students are crafting their own destinies from an entirely new menu of choices. The K-12 system must either adjust to the new paradigm of parents and students as co-equal partners or risk becoming irrelevant.

Common Core Standards Revisited

The Washington Post’s  Jay Mathews is taking a second look at Common Core standards in his must-read Class Struggle column Why Common Core Standards Will Fail.

Although previously intrigued by the idea of Common Core standards, Mathews now stands firmly in the skeptic camp. Here’s why.

The rationale for Common Core standards goes like this – if the federal government establishes rigorous common academic standards that every state and school district must follow, student performance will rise accordingly. So if students in Massachusetts and Mississippi are all expected to meet the same high standards, and both sets of students are taught using the same agreed-to curriculum, student performance will improve regardless of geographic location. Like Ray Kinsella in Field of Dreams, if you build it, they will come.

But according to Mathews, the problem is that researchers have yet to find strong correlation between high standards and academic performance in states that currently use them. Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institute is a national expert on Common Core. He reviewed the data and determined that states with weak content standards had “about the same average scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests as states with strong standards.” Rigorous standards were also not a good predictor of future academic achievement gains either. Loveless concluded that the weak to non-existent links between high standards and academic achievement do not warrant the substantial investment they will require.

So if Common Core standards aren’t the answer, what is? For the answer Mathews went straight to the source – he asked teachers.

“I have interviewed hundreds of teachers who significantly raised student achievement. Not one has ever said it was because of great state learning standards. Good curriculums help, but high-minded, numbingly detailed standards don’t produce them. How teachers are trained and supported in the classroom is what matters.”

My take: I too initially was drawn to the idea of Common Core standards, particularly given their worthy goal of setting the same high standards for every student in every state. But as I read and learn more about them, I’m troubled by the lack of flexibility and top-down control they could impose on states and school districts. Moreover, if there is little-to-no correlation between Common Core standards and high academic performance, perhaps we need to look elsewhere to determine what the real driving force is behind states and countries that achieve consistently high academic standards.

Beth T. Sigall

March 4, 2012

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