How can the collaborative improvement approach change the way communities work together to get to better results for every child? Heidi Black, StriveTogether’s senior director of innovation, collaborative improvement, shares what it means to change systems, how to get started in this work and her hopes for the future, including insights she presented at the Carnegie Summit on Improvement in Education.
We often hear the saying that “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.” How does this perspective play into your work?
We see communities using programmatic approaches to try to address deep systemic issues. A program solution doesn’t fix system problems. That’s why it’s important to surface what’s happening in the system. How was it designed? How is it structured that creates the outcomes we see today? That’s how you identify what policies need to be shifted, what practices need to be changed, what resources need to be moved or increased, and what power structures need to be addressed. Systems need to be changed and transformed if we want to get to more equitable opportunities for children and families.
What is collaborative improvement?
Collaborative improvement is a method for using data to understand what’s working and what’s not and to make changes to improve equity. What separates collaborative improvement from other traditional continuous improvement methods is that it’s aimed at changing outcomes across an entire community, as opposed to working within a particular population or organization. Collaborative improvement helps to create communitywide change that comes from working cross-organizationally and across systems.
What does it mean to change systems?
Systems can be tiny — a family is a system. Systems can be organizations, like StriveTogether or a school district. StriveTogether partnerships are focused on the biggest, most complex systems — communities.
Systems change is identifying bright spots and barriers in a system and then working to scale the bright spots and eliminate the barriers so that more children, families and individuals can thrive. Over time, this creates shifts to practices, policies, resources and power structures, which ultimately changes the system.
What does it mean to center racial and ethnic equity in this work?
Centering racial equity means not only being explicit that this work is being done to improve and ensure greater racial and ethnic equity but working alongside folks who are experiencing the challenges and burdens of the system and addressing those barriers and challenges together. To me, it also means focusing on changing how the system is operating and impacting people of color, because the system is the problem, not the people.
At the recent Carnegie Summit on Improvement in Education, you shared strategies for systems-focused factor analysis. Where does factor analysis fit in the overall collaborative improvement process?
Factor analysis fits into the middle of the StriveTogether collaborative improvement process. Before you get to factor analysis, people have identified an outcome that they want to improve, like third-grade reading. They’ve identified their result for the work — for example, all children in a community are reading proficiently by the end of third grade.
They’ve examined the current conditions to understand what’s happening. That means they’re looking at data, including disaggregated quantitative data and qualitative data. They’re talking to people; they’re engaging children and families in the work and really understanding what’s happening in the community and within the outcome they are working to improve. By the end of this step, they know what’s working well, and where the challenges and gaps are.
That helps them understand the problem at a large scale, and it also helps them start to understand particular populations that might need support because the system is not designed to support them. From here, they identify a focus population of students or individuals who are experiencing a racial disparity gap and set a SMARTIE target.
Once they’ve done that, they can dive into their factor analysis. Factor analysis, sometimes called root cause analysis, focuses uncovering the root causes within the system that are creating inequities. So, if we’re focused on Hispanic and Latino boys in third grade, you use factor analysis to uncover what is causing the disparity gaps between them and their peers when it comes to reading. You can also use factor analysis to identify the bright spots — things that are helping them to read proficiently.
After factor analysis is complete, you can start to identify the strategies that are connected to or address these root causes and then begin to test them to see if those changes make an impact.
What does it mean to be focused on systems?
Taking time to really understand the systems you are trying to impact and uncovering what is and isn’t working and, most importantly, why. Systems have three key dimensions that need to be uncovered for systems and improvement work: the patterns of behavior that are being created by the system, the system’s structures or how it’s built, and the mental models that created the system. All three of those are relatively invisible, so to change the system you have to uncover those dimensions first and then point your strategies at those dimensions.
We often see an event within a system, like certain children reading proficiently and certain children not. It’s the very visible pieces of our world that people want to react to. But getting underneath that and uncovering that is causing that event is how you start to diagnose what’s wrong with the system and the barriers that it’s putting up. By uncovering that, you can then point your strategies at those invisible causes to change events and the effect.
“I’ve been able to support communities to make the biggest impact because they’re able to change outcomes — not just one child, not 10 children, not 100 children, but across an entire school district or an entire community. … Being able to know that I played a little role in changing an outcome for an entire population of kids and an entire community is what drives me to do the work.”
What success have you seen that convinces you that this is the right approach?
Systems work is where time and time again I’ve been able to support communities to make the biggest impact because they’re able to change outcomes — not just one child, not 10 children, not 100 children, but across an entire school district or an entire community. This work takes time, so you have to be patient. But being able to know that I played a little role in changing an outcome for an entire population of kids and an entire community is what drives me to do the work.
What really sold me on this approach was some early work we did on FAFSA completion. It was amazing to see the small practice shifts in communities that created dramatic increases in FAFSA completion rates. Some of it was really simple stuff. For example, to sign up for FAFSA you have to create an FSA (Federal Student Aid) ID. At the time of this work, if your last name was two letters or less, you couldn’t get a log in. The communities I worked with identified this as a significant barrier. StriveTogether was able to connect them with the White House, where they met with President Obama’s staff who were focused on education. They shared this issue and were able to get the problem fixed. This one little change created a significant impact for people applying for federal aid across the entire country. The work that I get to do with communities and the things we uncover aren’t expensive changes. It’s the little things that make a really big difference.
Where can other organizations start if they want to take up this work?
Start by building a group of folks who are ready, willing and able to do this work. That can be just a group of three or four people — you don’t have to pull in a whole community at the beginning. After that, start to explore your data and have conversations. Ask, why is the data the way it is? Ask, what is it about the system that is creating these results? Then you can start to understand why systems are getting the results they’re getting.
What can get in the way of this work, and what should teams keep in mind to keep moving forward?
What can get in the way is being scared and not being willing to realize that the system has unintended consequence that are creating harm for populations. We know that it’s creating harm for Black and brown populations more than it is for white populations. We also know that it’s creating harm for populations experiencing poverty. Sometimes talking about these things is hard, especially if we come from privilege. It’s important to get comfortable being uncomfortable and not let the discomfort stop you in the work.
What’s your hope for what this approach will make possible for children, communities and organizations?
I hope that people are open to the work and they’re willing to dive in and see what it produces in their communities. In my experience, once people try it, there’s a lot of quick, small wins that can create really big changes. My hope and dream for the future is that with StriveTogether’s help, we’re able to build people’s knowledge and skills to truly lead to changing outcomes for every child across the country.