Carnegie Foundation Summit on Improvement in Education 2017
I spent last week in sunny and majestic San Francisco, attending the fourth annual Summit on Improvement in Education, hosted by the Carnegie Foundation at the Marriott Marquis Hotel. This was my first time both attending this conference and being part of a program that was primarily focused on the US education system. As a result, I spent a lot of the first couple of sessions googling how K-12 (Kindergarten-Grade 12) and school districts worked, and about the epidemic of illiteracy and innumeracy rates.
The conference opened on Monday afternoon with a keynote from Anthony Bryk, President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The theme of his talk was “the growing chasm”, that is, the gap between the current performance of our schools and society’s aspirations for what we want these schools to achieve. Bryk also outlined the mission and principles of the Foundation, and highlighted the need and importance of execution; ideas are powerful, but we must find a way to implement them and learn from the success or failure of them. After the keynote there was a poster session, where we had the opportunity to see the great work that the Foundation and other attendees have been up to in the past few years. I was particularly impressed and intrigued by the work carried out by MGH Institute of Health Professions, who had conducted a process improvement project for student on-boarding, and by all of the work of the Rennie Centre.
On Tuesday morning the sessions began in earnest, but only after the communal continental breakfast. The breakout sessions were broken into sets: Methods of Improvement Science and Networks, Applications of Improvement Science in Education, Networks in Practice, and Improvement Leadership and Culture. The first I attended was a methods session, which posed the question “how do we improve?”, and answered it in a panel-style comparison between Networked Improvement Science, Design-Based Implementation Research and Lean/Six Sigma. In order to better facilitate a comparison, each presentation was centred on a Problem of Practice (PoP), which in this session took the form of early-grade literacy. The first and second of these approaches were new to me but I found the basics easy to grasp as they, and Lean, are rooted in the concept of Plan, Do, Study (or Check), Act. The Lean/Six Sigma approach referenced ASQ’s Koalaty Kid program and made it clear to the audience that this particular PoP would not be solved by process mapping as it was a curriculum/teaching issue. DBIR takes a similarly customer-focused stance to Lean, with the take-away point of this presentation being “have we asked high school graduates what they would have found helpful / liked to have done more of?” The premise of Networked Improvement Science is equally as simple; it involves working with other educators, some of whom may have faced and solved this PoP before, to create a plan for improvement and then implement it. Unfortunately, the session did not really deliver on its proposed audience discussion and interaction element as we ran out of time, however, with a coffee break just after, there was an opportunity for further discussion with your table-mates.
Following the break there was a session on “Achieving Cultures of Improvement and Performance Excellence” hosted by two superintendents of schools from Wisconsin. This was probably my favourite session of the entire conference as the speakers, Pat Greco and JoAnn Sternke, spoke with such honesty and enthusiasm about their improvement journey. JoAnn’s district, Pewaukee, implemented the Baldridge Excellence Framework because, as she admitted, ‘I needed a framework because we were flailing at getting better; we didn’t know what we were doing, just that we wanted to get better’. She said that success came when they stopped blaming people and started blaming the processes, which partly came from her belief as a leader that 100% of people come to work to do a good job. Pat’s story, of Menomonee Falls District’s improvement journey, was similarly positive. Her aim was to become an improvement organisation (improvement mindset and improving the whole education experience) rather than just an organisation that ran a series of improvement projects (which just improve processes). She adopted the PDSA process because they were ‘so focused on improving learning that [they] lost the context of the system’. Pat also introduced us to Monday Morning Check-Ins; quick conversations with staff and students (both groups asked the exact same questions) that asked “what’s working well?”, “what barriers are you facing?”, and “is there anyone in particular in your team I need to thank especially?”. You can read more about Pat and JoAnn’s journey and successes here.
Lunch at the Summit was a different experience to normal, with a number of roundtable discussions facilitated by Carnegie staff or subject matter experts. I sat on one, entitled “Biggest Mistakes and Struggles in Applying Improvement Science in Practice”, where I was able to share some stories and tips from the University and our Lean in HE colleagues around the world. Another session and coffee break followed lunch, before it was time for the highlight of the day, and perhaps the conference: A keynote from Becky Margiotta and Joe McCannon of the Billions Institute. The theme of their presentation, as with all of their work, is unleashing large-scale social change. Before founding BI, Becky was the head of the 100,000 homes campaign, which aimed to (and achieved) house 100,000 homeless persons across the US, and Joe lead the 100,000 lives campaign, an Institute for Healthcare Improvement initiate that sought to (and again achieved) reduce morbidity and mortality in the US healthcare system. Aside from the inspiration and feel-good factor, the presentation offered an analysis of how to get from here to there; essentially, how to achieve your aim. It was a stimulating hour and provided lots to talk about during the evening’s networking function.
Wednesday morning opened again with a communal breakfast but also a keynote, this time presented by Peter Senge, Senior Lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management (the same place from where John Krafcik wrote his seminal article “Triumph of the Lean Production System”). Peter spoke about change, the spirit of continuous improvement, and the role and importance of leadership. On the first he was most adamant: ‘Tools do not produce change. Period. People produce change.’ This statement, whilst not revolutionary, was a reflection of the attitude and underlying premise of the Summit, first introduced during Tony Bryk’s keynote when he said ‘Institutions do not continually improve unless those who do the work are actively involved in that improvement’. Senge also took time to define the spirit of continuous improvement, asserting that the point of CI was ‘not about getting the right answer but about being engaged’. This resonated very strongly with the audience, which is no surprise given that education is, on some fundamental level, all about engagement too. On leadership, Senge talked first about the etymology of the word and then about its place in the world. The root of the word leader is Indo-European – leith – meaning “to cross a threshold”. In its original form, the word had nothing to do with hierarchy or management, it was a reference to those who were the first to set about in a new direction or place. The conclusion of Senge’s keynote, and the thread that tied it all together, was an acknowledgement, and in some sense an inspiration, that ‘the mark of every golden age is that the children are the most important people in society, and teaching the most revered profession’. I think we all left the talk feeling enthused and a little bit more ready to tackle the day and the problems that lay ahead.
My final two breakout sessions took place either side of lunch, the first on “Using Coaching for Instructional Improvement” and the second looking at “Improvement Reviews: Consolidating Learning and Energizing Improvement Efforts”. The former focused on the use of coaching techniques, and external coaches, to develop and improve teacher professional development. Whilst I might have misinterpreted the session title (thinking it was about coaching of process improvement more generally), it was great to hear from both coaches and their coachees about the techniques they had employed and the progress they had made. The latter session was a simulated improvement review, in which two development officers from Tulare County Office of Education delivered an update of their improvement project. They were then subsequently coached and questioned about the project so far and the next steps. There was, again, meant to be some scheduled audience discussion time, however, this was extremely limited.
To close this year’s Summit, Carnegie invited Jeff Duncan-Andrade, a school-founder in Oakland, CA and professor at San Francisco State University, to give the final keynote. Duncan-Andrade started talking about what he calls the equity paradigm: People getting what they need when they need it. This caused my ears to prick up, as it rang bells of the Principle of Pull: Right thing, right quality, right place, right time. Rather than being a session on process or teaching improvement per se, Duncan-Andrade used his hour to push the social policy elements and implications of education improvement. For example, he talked about the work he conducted in New Zealand, showing that when a school made its students’ Maori identity relevant and salient their educational attainment increased. As a psychologist, this really made me sit up straight and listen; to what extent might have schools impeded their students’ abilities by denying or ignoring their heritage and history? He ended the keynote, which had run over without anyone noticing (or caring), with this poignant statement: ‘There is no social justice without academic rigour, and there is no academic rigour without social justice.’ It is safe to say that everyone was fired up (the long standing ovation and queue to shake his hand proves it), and I think we departed with a more defined purpose and goal in mind.
Overall, I’d say that the Summit on Improvement on Education was one of the finest conferences I’ve been to, but that it was let down a little by its breakout sessions. I spoke to a number of people who felt that they were too basic or repetitive. It is a good thing, then, that Carnegie managed to attract such fantastic keynote speakers. I look forward to next year’s conference… perhaps we’ll even have a speaking slot!