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” performance levels within four years and emphasizes how interventions earlier in the elementary grades can make a positive and substantial difference. Moreover, the report reminds us that an educational system is just that – an interconnected system; and that kicking-the-can patterns present well before the high school years.

Kicking the Can illustrates the tensions between short-term and long-term solutions to problems and is a common reason that systems fail to improve. Long term solutions demand deeper understanding of the structures that produce the problem. This often runs counter to the immediate and often urgent need to fix the problem fast. In a systems thinking framework, there are at least two ways to treat a problem: the more proximal “problem solution” treats the symptoms, whereas the more distal “fundamental solution” treats its root causes. Complicating matters, the closer you are to the problem, the more urgent that problem is felt. For example, teachers working with high school seniors feel the effects of under-developed career and college readiness skill sets of their students in a more immediate way than do educators working with kindergartners.

Kicking the Can is particularly insidious in educational systems. First, the natural direction of kicking the can is always forward: that is, problems that occur in elementary school (and left untreated) will follow students forward into high school (but not vice versa).

Second, the nature of learning is cumulative. Learning in later years builds upon the fundamentals acquired in earlier years. A student who does not master addition and subtraction will not master division and multiplication.

Third, the alignment of the teacher workforce further compounds this problem. A first grade teacher has a different skill set than an eighth grade teacher or a high school teacher. When a student moves forward in the system without achieving mastery in the previous grades, the teachers are less well equipped to treat the root cause of a learning gap. When a student arrives in 9th grade English class with only a fifth-grade reading level, it is a big problem that his teacher is a content expert and not a reading specialist the way an elementary teacher is.

Taken together, the unidirectional nature of the system plus the cumulative nature of learning plus the chronological alignment of the teacher skill sets and expertise makes the educational system particularly susceptible to kicking the can. The ACT’s report highlights just how vulnerable our educational system is to this phenomenon.

The ACT Report on College Readiness

Looking at data from the ACT’s EXPLORE test for 800,000 eighth grade students (SY 2009-10), the ACT found that more than a quarter of all students were off-track in reading and math and more than half were off-track in science. The gaps were even wider for African-American and Hispanic students.

How well do our high schools do at closing these gaps? The findings should raise alarms. Of all the “Far Off Track” eighth grade students in the sample, only ten percent reached college and career readiness benchmarks in reading four years later. (And only three and six percent hit these targets in math and science, respectively).

Interestingly, ACT also ran these analyses by high performing schools serving both low and high poverty student populations. As one might expect, these schools moved more Far Off Track students into the On Track category by end of high school. The authors note: “The more successful schools were able to get 28, 14, and 19 percent of their Far Off Track eighth-graders to College Readiness Benchmarks by twelfth grade in reading, mathematics, and science, respectively.”

The implications of these findings are sobering. High schools must be high performing schools to make modest inroads with Far Off Track students. High schools are one of the last lines of defense for many of these kids because they are so proximal to the ultimate outcome - graduating college and career ready. Findings suggest that average or poor performing high schools will make little difference in helping Far Off Track students career and college ready. These findings underscore the importance of taking the long view. Early interventions are critical.

How These Findings are Emblematic of Kicking the Can

By failing to sufficiently address learning and performance gaps when they occur, the structure of the educational system exacerbates them. An Almost On Track Kindergartner may well become a severely Far Off Track student by high school if early interventions aren’t implemented when the need presents. Over this period three critical things have happened. First, the problem has grown in size (magnitude), with schools producing more Far Off Track students each year due to the issues mentioned above (the cumulative and nature of learning and misalignment of teacher skill sets). Second, the severity of the problem has grown as Far Off Track students demand deep and multiple interventions. Indeed, each student presents with a different set of needs that schools must match to an appropriate intervention. Third, as students progress towards high school graduation, the window of opportunity has narrowed, turning an inherently chronic problem into an acute one. This accounts for what we see at many high schools that go into “fire fighting” mode, pushing kids to achieve the bare minimum required for graduation rather than addressing the root cause of the problem (poor skill attainment in the early years resulting in big learning deficits).

Final Thoughts

Far Off Track students are a product of an entire system. All educators from preK to high school need to see themselves as part of a larger educational system. And, no doubt, many already do. The larger educational system needs to find ways of supporting this perspective. Having data and informational structures that minimize the fragmented nature of the system will help with this. Rethinking traditional school structures and the alignment of teacher skill sets to student need is another important approach. Asynchronous learning and different ways of approaching seat time are happening in some New Visions schools. And ALL high schools, the last line of defense, must become high performing organizations.


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