Upstream Thinking . . . How to get early warning of the problem?

“When we can foresee a problem, we have more maneuvering room to fix it.  That’s why a key question bearing on upstream efforts is:  How can you get early warning of the problem you’re trying to solve?”

~Dan Heath

This year’s Blueprint Bulletin theme is around Upstream Thinking for Systems Improvement. The first Blueprint Bulletin began our series where the primary focus was around the three forces that push us downstream:  1) problem blindness, 2) lack of ownership, and 3) tunneling. The second Blueprint Bulletin focused on the first of Dan Heath’s seven questions for Upstream leaders, How to unite the right people?  The third Blueprint Bulletin supported our thinking and understanding around How to change the system?  The last Blueprint Bulletin continued with Heath’s third question, Where to find a point of leverage?  This edition focuses on Heath’s fourth question, How to get early warning of the problem?

Have you ever been in a situation when you muttered to yourself, “If only I could’ve seen this coming.”  Perhaps it was around a family member’s health decline or a traumatic event happening in the community or a student dropping out of school.  Wouldn’t it be nice to have a crystal ball reveal these events ahead of time so we could prevent them?  Dan Heath, in his book Upstream, supports thinking on How to get early warning of the problem? by deploying sensors, looking for predictors, and being wary of false positives.  When we can predict a problem ahead of time, we have a lot more room to maneuver and prevent and/or fix it.  A critical task is to get early warning signs of the problem we are trying to solve.  Heath shares various stories of businesses, communities, and yes, even school districts, who have early warning systems in place. 

The Blueprint Connections, Leader’s Corner, and Teacher’s Corner sections will be utilized to confirm your thinking and give you some additional food-for-thought and potential actions.

Blueprint Connections

“To anticipate problems, we need eyes and ears in the environment.  But we need to be cautious about what we learn:  Sometimes we may detect things that are not as they seem.”

~ Dan Heath

The above quote makes connections to the last two Blueprint Bulletin editions where uniting the right people and being “proximate” is critical to finding points of leverage.  What connections might we make between this quote and getting an early warning of the problem?  To have eyes and ears in the environment, or deploy sensors, means we need to have a strong leadership team.   By uniting the right people, this team is the eyes and ears . . . this team remains proximate.  By this team representing the students served, this team will ensure that tunneling, problem blindness, and a lack of ownership will not be barriers as we move upstream.  

In order to have early warning of the problem, we use data. MICIP’s focus on mindset will support our thinking as it relates to having an early warning of the problem.  “The Mindset refers to four elements:

  • a district-driven process with ongoing small improvement cycles in the context of the larger cycle.
  • the needs of the Whole Child addressed and supported by the Whole School and the Whole Community.
  • systems to support the implementation of the entire plan.
  • equity in opportunities, environments, and supports (MICIP Process Guide, p. 5).

Taking this mindset concept one step further, we might possibly need to reframe how we look at the problem. How might we reframe how we look at the problem (behaviorally, socially, through the equity lens) where opportunities, supports, and environments are for every student?  Let’s take equity for example.  How might we look through an early-warning lens when looking at an equity problem?  How are we ensuring that every child gets what s/he needs?  How do we look beyond academics?  As a Blueprint district, what systems and supports might be leveraged to have these impactful conversations?  How does the District and Building Networks utilize the Problem-Solving and Performance Management Systems to assess needs and create ongoing small improvement cycles?  What historical trend data might you have access to that can be an early warning of a problem?  How might your eyes and ears focus through an equitable lens for children?

The Leader’s and Teacher’s Corner sections will support you with deeper thinking around how to get an early warning of the problem, deploy sensors, and look for predictors. 

Leader’s Corner

“A technician checks into a building at the front desk before fixing the elevator, but the clerk tells him there’s nothing wrong with it. Confused by who sent him, the technician clarifies that it was the new guy, IBM Watson, who sensed that the third elevator would malfunction in two days and alerted an engineer of the problem.”

(IBM Watson TV Commercial, 2017)

The above quote is referencing a 2017 commercial for IBM, Watson at Work: Engineering.  This commercial is a perfect example of how technology can support having early warnings of the problem. After you watch the 30-second commercial, think about the following prompts:  

  • Do you use data and technology to hunt for early-warning signs of problems? 
  • What might that look and sound like for you, your building, your district? 
  • Have you been able to use those early-warning signals to successfully avoid problems? Why or why not?
  • How might the problem-solving, performance management, and communications systems be leveraged to successfully avoid problems?

We began this Blueprint Bulletin using “only if” thinking.  Only if I could’ve seen “x”, then I might’ve been able to prevent “y”.  As district and building instructional leaders, you might think in terms of if/then statements. For example, if your school-level historical trend data shows that prior to a holiday break, your office discipline referrals (ODRs) drastically increase, then you and your building network could use your problem-solving system to determine causation, leverage the systems and routines you have, and action plan around preventing those ODR increases around holidays from happening in the future.  You already have early-warning signs with each dataset.  What might your next if/then statement be?  How might you leverage the systems and routines you have intentionally built to think upstream and prevent problems from occurring?

In Upstream, Heath reminds the reader of the devastating Sandy Hook story.  As you reflect on that day, there are so many “if only” statements that could be made.  Because of Sandy Hook and other tragedies, school districts across our nation have protocols in place to react to such massacres.  The cofounder of the Sandy Hook Promise, Nicole Hockley, felt that the focus needed to shift from “we have an active shooter — what are you going to do?” to “how can we help this person before it ever gets to that point?”  Based on early-warning signs that were missed, the Sandy Hook Promise launched a training program to educate students on the warning signs, which include 1) a strong fascination with firearms, 2) acting aggressively for seemingly minor reasons, 3) extreme feelings of social isolation, 4) bragging about access to guns, and 5) explicit threats of violence. “The students were taught that, if they observed other students acting in these ways, they should share their concerns with a trusted adult” (p. 147).  By training students of these early warnings, schools are deploying human sensors (eyes and ears).  Two additional programs were created stemming from the Sandy Hook Promise, the Say Something Anonymous Reporting System, and the Safe2Say Something program.  These are additional examples where it is necessary to have eyes and ears close to the problem so to have early warnings.

A brief released by the U.S. Department of Education in September 2016, defines an early-warning system as a system based on student data to identify students who exhibit behavior or academic performance that puts them at risk of dropping out of school. Michigan has an early warning system in place.  The Early Warning Intervention and Monitoring System (EWIMS) is an evidence-based process for identifying and monitoring students who are at risk of dropping out of school.  If you can identify student issues early on, you can strategically address student needs before students fail.  Continue reading in the Teacher’s Corner section to make connections to upstream thinking and the EWIMS process.

Teacher’s Corner

“Much of the discussion in education reform centers on implementing new technology, curricula, and school models, and on attracting more investment and talent.  Meetings where educators gather to talk about students? Systems and structures to ensure that students reliably receive the support they need?  That’s not on anyone’s short list of cutting-edge, high-impact reform.” 

 ~ Emily Krone Phillips

The above quote comes from the 2019 book, The Make-or-Break Year: Solving the Dropout Crisis One Ninth Grader at a Time. Emily Krone Phillips relays the story of how the systems and structures that Chicago Public Schools put in place ultimately served as an early-warning system to provide the support that students needed.  It was in the late 1990s that researchers at the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research identified an interesting statistical relationship.  “Students who passed their courses in ninth grade almost always went on to graduate.  Those who failed more than one semester of a course almost always dropped out, even if they had excelled in elementary school” (p. 4).  What the researchers had uncovered was that freshman year academic performance was the best predictor of whether or not a student would graduate from high school.  This finding prompted the University of Chicago Consortium to develop the structure, the Freshman OnTrack indicator which was widely used not only in Chicago schools but beyond.  This early-warning system encouraged teachers, administrators, policymakers, researchers, and nonprofit organizations across the city to create new strategies for supporting freshmen.  Freshman OnTrack became a movement.  Schools figured out what worked best for their students.  Teachers talked together on what worked and what didn’t.  Ideas were modified to fit the context of the schools. It was this team approach that figured most prominently across the district.  Relationships among teachers and between teachers and students were transformed.  The Freshman OnTrack movement was so successful that the district moved to apply the basic tenets of the program across K-12.  written

As mentioned in the Leader’s corner, a brief released by the U.S. Department of Education in September 2016, defines an early-warning system as a system based on student data to identify students who exhibit behavior or academic performance that puts them at risk of dropping out of school. Michigan has an early-warning system in place.  The Early Warning Intervention and Monitoring System (EWIMS) is an evidence-based process for identifying and monitoring students who are at risk of dropping out of school.  If you can identify student issues early on, you can strategically address student needs before students fail.  

Let’s now think about the early-warning systems that districts using the Blueprint have in place.

As you read in both the Chicago Public Schools example and the Michigan EWIMS process, data drives decision making.  When districts use their Problem-Solving System to examine data they are looking for early-warning signs of which students need more support.  The Communications System allows the district to gather and disseminate the information to all relevant parties.  Teachers are examining data during their collaborative routines so that they can respond accordingly through their instruction.  Data may often lead teachers and leaders to utilize the Student Support Network to address the non-academic needs of students.  Instructional Leadership Routines enable leaders to respond to the early-warning signs by providing guidance for teachers and other support staff.  The Building Network and District Network examine school-level data to decide what supports are needed.  Collecting and analyzing relevant data [both academic and non-academic] in order to identify student outcome issues, understanding the root causes of the issues, selecting, implementing, and evaluating the impact of intervention supports are critical in an early-warning system.  The Performance Management System allows the district to establish a shared understanding about what is to be achieved and to what degree the district is achieving its goals. Blueprint systems and routines help a district use data-based decision making as part of an early-warning system to meet the needs of the students.

As you can see, the Blueprint does indeed provide the systems and structures to ensure that students reliably receive the support they need.  In your role as a teacher, how are you going to make sure that you operate with an early-warning system mentality as you seek to meet the needs of your students?

Timely Topics

We are looking forward to virtually meeting with Superintendents at the next Superintendent Network on March 3, from 9 – 10 a.m.  The session will explore strategic budgeting using upstream thinking to influence the use of Round 2 of Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief (ESSER) Formula Funds which will be coming soon. The intent is to provide Superintendents time to talk about data-based decisions that have been made and how current decisions are informed by the lessons learned.

The next Central Office and Building Principals Leadership Network is March 18, from 9 – 11 a.m. Learning will continue from February’s Leadership Network around goal setting, connecting upstream thinking to improvement cycles, as well as networking with like-role colleagues from across the state in the Solution Room.

New to – ON-DEMAND LEARNING!! In our on demand world you want on-demand learning. Access quality content, on your schedule, anytime of the day or night. On-Demand Learning offers flexibility, convenience and courses that are easily accessible. No login required. Create your own learning community to enhance your experience and process what you are learning along the way. There is no need to wait for a new term to start. *No SCECHs are available for On-Demand Learning Courses. Additional courses and mini-modules to fit your learning needs are coming soon. Check out our current offerings now!

Our next round of online learning begins March 17 and runs through May 12.  Please browse the professional learning calendar for courses that may interest you and/or address your district’s goals. To register, click Events Registration.

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In Closing

“True prevention is not waiting for bad things to happen, it’s preventing things from happening in the first place.”

~ Don McPherson

Nicole Hockley, cofounder of the Sandy Hook Promise, speaks in a 2016 TedX Talk titled, All Gun Violence is Preventable If You Know the SignsNicole tells the story of Sandy Hook Elementary and then shifts her story to thinking about, “How do we stop the violence from ever starting?  How do we recognize people who are at risk?”  She lifts from research that violence emerges from one or more of the four areas:

  1. Expression – people who use violence to express their feelings of anger or frustration; they believe there is no solution to their problems so they turn to violence in order to express their out-of-control emotions.
  2. Manipulation – people who use violence to coerce, control, or intimidate others to get what they want.
  3. Retaliation – people who use violence as revenge against someone who they believe has harmed them or those that they care about.
  4. Hopelessness – those feelings of despair that the current situation will never improve and that their future is empty.  When combined with a mental illness or depression, this is a red flag for potential self harm and violence.

Adults can learn to recognize the signs of violence and self harm and get students the critical intervention that they need.  Unfortunately, adults miss signs and signals ahead of time.  How might we be more intentional about having our eyes and ears in the environment?  How can we be the human sensors that are needed to detect the early-warning signs for high-risk behaviors that occur before violence happens?  What can we prevent?  What choices can be made to think upstream and to notice early-warning signs?  What might be your if/then?

All Gun Violence is Preventable If You Know the Signs | Nicole Hockley | TEDxWakeForestU:

Faria, A.-M., Sorensen, N., Heppen, J., Bowdon, J., Taylor, S., Eisner, R., & Foster, S. (2017). Getting students on track for graduation: Impacts of the Early Warning Intervention and Monitoring System after one year (REL 2017–272). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Midwest. Retrieved from

Heath, D. Upstream – How to Solve Problems Before They Happen. London, Transworld Publishers, 2020.

IBM. (2017). Watson at Work: Engineering [Advertisement]. Retrieved from

Michigan Department of Education. (2017). Early Warning Intervention and Monitoring System Implementation Guide. Retrieved from  

Phillips, E. K. (2019). The make-or-break year: Solving the dropout crisis one ninth grader at a time: The New Press.

Policy and Program Studies Service. (2016). Early warning systems. US Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development.

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