Susan Fairchild

Applied Systems Thinker

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We Are Serious About Systems

At New Visions, we are serious about systems. Mark Dunetz explains why they are non-negotiable in his blog post here.

Effective systems (e.g. attendance, scheduling programming, academic interventions) reinforce the vulnerabilities that are inherent to the design of schools. For example, a potent attendance system counteracts the porousness of a typical school day. Within a single day, a student moves throughout the school going from one class to another. That’s potentially eight opportunities to slip out of school unnoticed. An attendance system tracks a student between classes and it tracks a student from one day to the next.

This is what we mean by not letting kids fall through the cracks – even the hairline cracks. But you can’t do much about that crack if you don’t see it or if you think it’s too insignificant to matter.

The only way an attendance system is going to...

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Systems Thinking Informs Data Visualizations

Helping schools identify at-risk students and designing interventions is one of the most critical supports New Visions provides schools. The greater availability of real-time student data such as attendance rates, transit times, credit accumulation, marking period data, exit exam passage rates and other key indicators help make constant awareness systems possible.

Our stock and flow tools are grounded within a systems thinking framework and emphasize the interdependencies within our schools. The video below developed in collaboration with Andrew Garcia Phillips highlights these important linkages.

Our new website ( aggregates the two+ years of work we’ve been doing with LegibleData to marry applied systems thinking with powerful D3 visualizations.


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Making The Most Of Twenty Percent

“Schools account for an average of less than 20 percent of a child’s waking hours … .”

This quote from Paul Reville, former chair of the Massachusetts State Board of Education and the current Director of the Redesign Lab at Harvard Graduate School of Education, represents an important moment of reckoning – there is no margin of error in our educational system.

Reville’s presentation was a highlight of the College Readiness Indicator Systems (CRIS) convening sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and hosted by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, which was held in Boston on December 2nd and 3rd. The meeting provided opportunities to reflect on Phase I and to think forward to the work that lies ahead.

With only 20 percent of a student’s school-age years allocated to educators, a school’s response to student need the moment it presents must be rapid, high quality and...

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The System Dynamics of Scandal: Allegations of Academic Misconduct at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

By Susan Fairchild and Chris Soderquist

On October 16, 2014, Kenneth Wainstein, Joseph Jay and Colleen Kukowski released their report documenting findings of the investigation into academic misconduct in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  For almost 18 years, 188 different lecture classes as well as hundreds of independent studies were offered that had no coursework expectations, no attendance requirements, and no assigned faculty member resulting in approximately 3100 students receiving “one or more semesters of deficient instruction.” The sole requirement of these “paper classes” was a single paper that was graded by the Student Services Manager (whose “responsibilities were limited to serving as the office secretary and administrator for the curriculum”).

What is troubling about this practice is not just the...

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lowercase design and UPPERCASE DESIGN

Design-driven decision making that happens within the data-driven process is lowercase design. These types of design-driven decisions represent tinkering with and iterating upon the current system. Little design is about working within the existing structures and making them better. This is evolutionary change.

UPPERCASE DESIGN operates outside of the current system and what Donella Meadows refers to as “madly letting go” of and being free of our paradigms. DESIGN is an unconventional-thinking-outside-of-the-box approach. This is revolutionary change. Would you like to see an example of DESIGN in education? Check out Andrew Stillman’s doctopus.

DESIGN and design are both necessary and important. But they are two, entirely different states of mind (and personalities).

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Design-Driven Decision Making Starts With Mental Models

In our recently released Design and Data In Balance report we highlight the complementary, but distinct B-side to data-driven decision making - what we call design-driven decision making. Our report argues that data-driven decision making in and of itself is not sufficient to raise student achievement and that efforts to increase the design-driven decision making skills of those working in schools are necessary if we hope to improve them. This is not a debate about the importance of data-driven decision making. Rather, our attention to design-driven decision making reflects the belief that we are dealing with a different animal and we need to better understand it.

In a compelling article, John Shibley suggests that the reason why organizations often do not improve is because the people within them tend to “leap to action” - going from the observation of events to the implementation...

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Quick Fixes and Hospital Learning

In 2003, Anita Tucker and Amy Edmonson published an important article on organizational learning: Why Hospitals Don’t Learn from Failures. Their study examines the way nurses on the frontlines respond to the daily problems they encounter in trying to care for patients. Tucker and Edmonson studied nurses in nine nursing units within nine different hospital settings. They define problems “as a disruption in a worker’s ability to execute a prescribed task because: either something the worker needs is unavailable in the time, location, condition, or quantity desired and, hence, the task cannot be executed as planned; or something is present that should not be, interfering with the designated task” (p. 57). Missing medications, missing information, missing supplies are examples of problems.

Problems tend to be visible. Nurses are aware of a problem when they encounter one; and, the...

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Kicking The Can Down The Road: A Systems Thinking Archetype

When problems are not addressed when they present, they often worsen. The Kicking The Can Down the Road archetype examines the impact of delayed decision making and ownership of that decision at the moment a problem presents. Failure to adequately respond to problems when they occur transfers ownership of the problem to the next in line. This archetype highlights the problem associated with the lack of accountability

For instance, when high schools graduate students who are ill-prepared for college we “kick the can” to the post-secondary institutions that receive them. One outcome is that the college remediation rates skyrocket.

The ACT recently published a report looking at the kicking-the-can pattern from a different angle: how ill-prepared 8th graders are shifted to high schools. The report discusses the difficulty of moving "Far Off Track” high school students to “On Track”...

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Examining Inequity at the Extremes: Success to the Successful

Toi Sin Arvidsson, Norm Fruchter, and Christina Mokhtar recently authored a provocative and important report: Over the Counter, Under the Radar: Inequitably Distributing New York City’s Late-Enrolling High School Students. They examine the high school assignment patterns of the approximately thirty-six thousand students in New York City who are either late enrolling or miss the high school choice process each year (you can read more about NYC’s high school selection process here). These kids are labeled “Over The Counter” (OTC) and they represent high need student populations in the city’s school system.

Arvidsson et al’s report (2013) is the first to confirm what many educators have suspected for years - that OTC students are disproportionately placed in: 1) schools with higher percentages of lower performing students, 2) struggling high schools with much higher percentages of OTC...

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Generating Regents Diplomas in New York City: A Lesson in the “Fixes That Fail” Archetype

Beginning in 2009, New York State’s Board of Regents began phasing out the less rigorous Local Diploma. As of 2012 all general education NYC students must meet the requirements for the Regent’s Diploma to graduate from high school. Even though increasing numbers of students in NYC are now graduating with a Regents Diploma thanks in large part to this NYC Department of Education policy, not all Regents Diplomas are created equal.

Here we see two students enter their freshman year of high school with different academic proficiency levels.

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One student is on track to graduate from high school, the other student is almost on track. The student who starts out on track has two major transitions, one between the second and third semester to a higher performance category, the other between the 5th and 6th semester to a lower performance category. The other student has five different...

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