School House Wonk

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

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

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One thought on “Disrupting the Dropout Habit Loop

  1. Alcoa employee on said:


    My opionion from a person that works at Alcoa. Let’s just say that a 100 injuries are reported and followed up on and the safety issue is addressed and taken care of by filling out one simple document and of these 100 injuries reported 75 of them are minor cuts and bruises that require little first aid maybe a bandaid or an ice pack. Then your great safety super star company decides we need to get a handle on the number of injuries reported so they make it a 3 page investigation form an require drug testing and corrective actions on every incident down to a misquito bite. What then happens is people stop reporting these injuries and your number of injuries drops like a rock making the great Alcoa look like they made great strides when to me it looks like what really happened is they just made it harder to report the injury. In my eyes I see they have the Managers of the safety department and manufacturing so scared about having an injury turn into a recordable it’s a joke. Don’t get me wrong they have done a lot to make things safer but they have also in my opinion made the work enviroment from a heath stand point worse in other ways that are hard to pin down. They push their engineers and others for cost and energy savings so hard that they have shut down equipment that I thought we needed to clean the air, I heard they were saying it’s was not needed but when you see dust and when I say dust I don’t mean dirt I’m talking about the residues from the processes that settle on anything stationary, this makes me think they care more about the money they just saved than the people. I don’t think higher ups like Klause don’t breathe it on a daily basis when their traveling around the world and it would be hard to prove what health issues it’s causing and harder yet when your dead.

    If there were other jobs right now people would be leaving Alcoa. Right now the choices are so few that people will work even if they know it’s bad because they want to support their families not because they like it.

    It’s all about the numbers.

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