Avoiding Risky Improvement Pathways

Confronting the brutal facts is often cited as one precondition to improvement. Educators are inundated with data and the pressure to improve can become debilitating. Under those conditions it can be tempting to pursue a risky pathway toward improvement that seeks to control outcomes despite the demonstration of efficacy. These strategies often meet our unspoken beliefs about high expectations and are designed with good intentions for students. This is often the case regardless of the specific improvement target (attendance, achievement, behavior, college readiness, etc.). But what if our intuition leads us astray, or has us chasing a mirage?

Miscalculation is a very real possibility when faced with seemingly insurmountable odds or a series of setbacks. Decision-making under those circumstances can lead one to adopt action steps that ultimately prove counterproductive to an organization’s mission. Some researchers suggest that failure begins with good, but misguided intentions. According to Knoster (2015), “The notion of control is such a grand illusion and it sets us up for failure and sends us down some dead-end streets.” So how do we avoid chasing”silver bullets” or “fools gold” when seeking a solution? How can we protect ourselves from cognitive biases throughout the problem-solving process? Below are a few suggestions to consider.

Consult Your PLN. This can take many forms and multiple pathways are advisable. In a connected world of education there is a vast network of educators to learn from and gain understanding. More than ever it is possible to confer virtually with experts in the field or others who have tackled a problem before your team. A team of educational leaders from my district modeled that practice last month. As we worked to refine attendance improvement policies we reached out to the experts at Attendance Works. A conference call is not a new practice to anyone, but very often a knowing-doing gap exists and such a simple task is easily overlooked. I am thankful for the commitment of our leadership team to participate and the generosity of Sue Fothergill from Attendance Works for her expertise and time. Connecting with a professional learning network is a critical step that can help focus your strategic planning on promising practices.

Consult Research. This is not always an enjoyable part of the improvement process, but it is essential to avoid unnecessary setbacks or false starts with new policy or initiatives. Over the past few months a group of teacher leaders have conducted a review of literature about student retention. Over several weeks they compiled a helpful literature review about the efficacy of student retention. While consulting current research is not new practice, it takes time and a serious commitment to the critical analysis of findings. This is time well spent and can safeguard an organization from missteps or regrettable commitments. Yes, there will always be a risk of failure, even with a robust review of professional literature. However, committing to seek out evidence-based practice will always improve the odds of success.

Conclusion. So what does research suggest regarding attendance improvement and the efficacy of student retention?

According to Attendance Works, there is no research supporting the efficacy of punitive approaches to improve attendance. Any proposal that is considered must work to address barriers to regular attendance. Attendance Works recommends that schools focus on positive school climate as a foundation for attendance improvement. They cite PBIS or restorative justice as two approaches that have proven track records. Attendance Works recommends five core strategies to improve attendance: (1) Recognize good and improved attendance, (2) Engage students and parents, (3) Monitor attendance data and practice, (4) Provide personalized early outreach, and (5) Develop programmatic response to barriers.

The internal literature review about student retention covered a lot of ground related to retention. Tolen and Quinlin (2017) found little support for grade retention as a practice. They concluded that “Rather than relying on the retention of students to address academic deficits, research offers many research-based alternative methods supporting remediation” (p. 17). Their findings were consistent with previous research and recommendations about retention (Barshay, 2014David, 2008; Marsico Institute, 2012NAESP, 2011NASP, 2011NEA, 2008; West, 2012; Xia & Kirby, 2009)