Systems Thinking Archetypes: Kicking The Can Down The Road
A core tenet of systems thinking is that: “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets” (Dr. Paul Batalden). This is a pretty bold statement. For instance, if a high school graduates only 50 percent of its seniors, this suggests that the design of the entire system (of which the school is only one small part) is engineered to produce these results.
So how do we make big changes? Fortunately, systems are rather predictable. When we map out a system’s elements and the way those elements are interconnected, we know something about the behavior (i.e., the outcomes) of that system.
In fact, system structures that produce common, predictable patterns of behavior can be classified into something Peter Senge called archetypes: storylines with common, universal themes resulting in negative consequences that present over and over again. The value of these archetypes is in their diagnostic potential. They shed light on the often invisible structures that are responsible for the system behavior.
What Are The Attributes Of The Kicking The Can archetype?
One archetype that Chris Soderquist and I have mapped out is “kicking the can down the road.” 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. The model 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 passed on 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 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’s a big problem that his that 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 even modest inroads with Far Off Track students. High schools are the absolute last line 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 Kindergartener 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).
Next, 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.
Finally, 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).
Far Off Track students are a product of an entire system. All educators from pre K to high school need to see themselves as part of a larger educational system. Having data and informational structures that minimize the fragmented nature of the system will help with this. For instance, the Montgomery County Public Schools via their “Seven Keys to College Readiness” program is one district that supports this perspective. And this year, Denver is rolling out a new data system that tracks student college readiness against key benchmarks (or “gateways”) at certain grade levels from kindergarten to high school. Rethinking traditional school structures and the alignment of teacher skill sets to student need is another important approach. For instance, asynchronous learning and different ways of approaching seat time are happening in some New Visions schools.
Susan Fairchild is the Director of Research at New Visions for Public Schools.
Chris Soderquist is the founder of Pontifex Consulting, helping clients apply systems thinking to their adaptive challenges. Follow Pontifex Consulting on Facebook at www.facebook.com/pontifexconsulting.