Stock-and-Flow: A School-Level Vital Sign

Traditionally, high schools have been the last line of defense readying students for careers and college. Because this unique positioning carries high-stake consequences, it necessitates that all high schools be high-performing organizations.

In her recent blog post, Julia Ritchie suggests that high-performing organizations are effective because they are able to cope with and exploit constantly changing circumstances inside and outside of the institution. They do so by executing what Julia calls the Three A’s.

  • They can align -- with the changes occurring outside of their organization, between their own strengths and the areas where their impacts can be felt most, and between their core strategies and internal structures and practices.
  • They can adapt -- to changes outside the organization and to the need to modify their own strategies. They foster innovation and encourage alternative approaches. They base their decisions on evidence.
  • They are agile -- they can change swiftly, effectively and in real time. The changes are handled with aplomb by the organization and its employees.

Perhaps there is a simpler way of thinking about it: high-performing organizations know how to create and sustain balance.  They can move quickly to extinguish a fire without sacrificing long-term vision. They can absorb shocks to the system without losing their center of gravity.  In other words, high performing organizations are healthy systems.

But how do we detect when a school becomes unbalanced or unhealthy?  What are the signs?

In healthcare, even as sophisticated lab tests and scans proliferate, the practice of taking a patient's vital signs continues to be the standard of care.  Vital signs are the first and early indication that something is wrong.

Four indicators constitute vital signs: heart rate, blood pressure, temperature and respiratory rate. And, of the 10 major systems in the human body, vital signs represent two: the circulatory and pulmonary.

There is a good reason why vitals signs are simple and only capture data on two major systems: "If you can't breath or your heart doesn't pump, you're dead," says Karen Carlson, MD, Ph.D.of the Medical College of Wisconsin's Department of Internal Medicine. "You have to have your other systems, but you have a little more time.  No matter how acute your situation might be, airway, breathing, circulation are always the primary systems to stabilize.  But if you can't manage those, you can't manage anything for a person."

Dr. Carlson goes on to note that vital signs, while highly sensitive, fall short when it comes to specificity. "By looking at vital signs you know that something in one of those ten systems in the human body went wrong, but it is always with the understanding that there is some underlying reason why those systems are out of whack. The information from vital signs is enough to keep someone alive, but not enough to fix the situation."

Vital signs are cheap, require almost no equipment and anyone can be trained to take them; and, for something so rudimentary, they translate into the potential prevention of a catastrophic event.

Like the human body, schools also have major systems, such as performance management systems (hiring, onboarding and observations), attendance, safety, discipline systems, curriculum, instruction and assessment.  What we're calling a "Stock-and-Flow Map" is a school-level vital sign (student data aggregated to the school level) that captures data on two major school systems through New Visions College Readiness Metric: curriculum (measured by credit accumulation) and assessment (measured by Regents exam passage rates).

What the cardiac and pulmonary systems are to keeping people alive, the curriculum and assessment systems are to graduating students on time.  If a school doesn't manage these two systems well, a student will not graduate. Like vital signs, the school level stock-and-flow maps are rudimentary, but by paying attention to them, practitioners get an overall visual of the health of a school.  If credit accumulation looks "out of whack" an educator can look more deeply into the underlying systems (attendance, teacher performance, and such) that may be causing the problem. Our interactive stock-flow tool walks through different ways of using the tool that signal problems within the school.

The stock-and-flow maps below reveal dramatically different "vital signs" for two schools: an alive, high-performing school and a low-performing school that has since been closed.  These maps represent extremes in school performance.

School A: High-Performing High School

The data captured within the circles show significant movement of students flowing into different performance categories (green flowing into blue, yellow flowing into green) at different moments in time. (Recall that blue represents college-ready students; green, on-track to graduate; yellow, almost on-track; and red, off-track.)  

The movement of large numbers of students flowing into higher performance categories suggests that the school likely has a school-wide policy or intervention (a transformational system like strong school leadership) that directs the flow of freshman and seniors in impressive ways.  The “tangles” captured within the rectangles may reflect transactional activity – more micro activity happening within student (a student effect) or between teachers and students.  What is notable about this school is the constant movement of students in both big (circles) and small (rectangles) ways.  This stock-and-flow map conveys a vibrant, healthy school.

School B. Low-Performing High School

In contrast, School B’s stock flow map reveals an unhealthy stock-flow pattern. The data captured in the circles (large numbers of students falling into lower performance categories) reveals the absence of transformational school policies and structures designed to lift students up.  The data within the rectangles reveals the absence of “tangles” or what we think might suggest important activity between teachers and students.  Instead, we see flat lines (no movement) until the end of 6th semester.

The movement of students as late as 6th semester suggests that this school is working primarily to meet the accountability requirements of graduating seniors on time.  Simply looking at this map, we learn something about the health of this school.  The lifelessness between semesters 2 and 5 is troubling and suggests that other, critical systems within the school (such as instructional systems) have broken down. These data suggest that School B is not paying sufficient attention to students until they are moving into senior year.

There is no question that School A and School B are different to begin with.  If we look at the “before” column of the two stock-flow maps, we clearly see that these schools are serving different student populations.  School A has more high-performing 8th graders entering the school as freshmen than School B. This, however, is not the point.  The question of interest is how does a school amplify the performance of its incoming students over time.  School A takes high performing students in 8th grade (green) and moves them into a higher performance category (blue).  School B does the opposite; it increases the number of off-track students. 

While stock-and-flow maps cannot diagnose the root cause, they do capture the health of a school over time and pinpoint when a problem is occuring and for which students. In an upcoming post, I'd like to introduce another way of looking at school performance that helps us to see how a school amplifies (or erodes) student performance over time. Stay tuned.

Susan Fairchild is director of program analysis and applied research at New Visions. Follow her on Twitter at @SKFchild.

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