Upstream & Blueprint Connections

“Systems Thinkers shape a worldview based on the realization of interconnectedness.” 

~ Pearl Zhu

Dan Heath uses Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) improved graduation rates as an example in his book.  CPS’ graduation rate was 52% in 1997.  By shifting to upstream thinking, eliminating problem blindness, taking ownership for the problem, and putting systems in place, by 2018, their graduation rate increased to 78%. 

Let’s unpack what CPS did to improve their graduation rate.  They used a systems approach that focused on the interconnectedness of systems, processes, and people.  When thinking about systems and using a problem-solving approach, CPS determined that their system did not adequately prepare students for transitioning from a K-8 environment to the demands of high school, in other words, they identified that it was not just a high school problem.  The district used two metrics which, when successful, predicted with 80% accuracy, students would graduate vs. dropping out.  These two metrics are:  1) a student’s completion of five full-year course credits, and 2) that a student is not failing more than one semester of a core course, such as math or English.  These combined metrics became known as Freshman On-Track.  In other words, freshmen who were on-track by these metrics were 3.5 times more likely to graduate than students who were off track.

Watch a short video about CPS’ shift to upstream thinking. 

How might the Blueprint, a systems-based framework, support your upstream efforts?  Collaborative Routines, Improvement Cycles, Talent Management, Student Support, and Collective Responsibility are some of the systems and routines that CPS leveraged to ensure that students are on-track to graduate. 

CPS moved their best teachers to 9th grade (talent management). They reviewed their policies and procedures as it relates to student support and revised their suspension policy to a focus on restorative practices and social-emotional needs of students (student support).  CPS also leveraged Collective Responsibility with the mantra and belief that, “It is my job to make sure all students succeed in my class” as well as created Freshman Success Teams (Collaborative Routines).  They tracked the Freshmen On-Track data to monitor progress and modify their processes (Improvement Cycles).

In other words, Chicago Public Schools developed a series of interdependent and aligned processes and people that worked together to improve the graduation rate. CPS addressed their systems and focused on continuous improvement.  They set their course, measured progress, gathered feedback, and adjusted course as necessary.  In the end, CPS moved upstream to significantly reduce the dropout problem by focusing on the Freshmen On-Track metrics.  They focused on the interconnectedness of systems.  As you begin to shift to Upstream thinking, what systems and routines might you leverage to support you?

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