Upstream Thinking . . . How to know you’re succeeding?

“What counts as success?  With downstream work, success can be wonderfully tangible, and that’s partly because it involves restoration.  Downstream efforts restore the previous state. . . . But with upstream efforts, success is not always self-evident.”

~ Dan Heath

Instructional Leadership Routines are specific to leading instructional improvement at the building level. In a district using the Blueprint framework, building leaders are able to reorganize their time and rely on established systems so that their focus can be on teaching and learning as opposed to focusing on putting out fires and managerial tasks.  Two of the many practices include 1) routinely observing instruction and providing teachers with feedback, support, and coaching as well as 2) monitoring teaching and learning.  As you reflect on, “how do you know you’re succeeding”, you will want to consider “pre-game” measures, “paired” measures, and avoid the three types of “ghost victories”.  What might that look and sound like for you?  Let’s start with examples of ghost victories . . . 

  1. As mentioned above, the first kind of ghost victory measure shows that you’re succeeding, but you’ve mistakenly attributed that success to your own work.  Suppose staff received and began to apply professional learning on student engagement strategies in a virtual learning environment.  Teachers (and leaders) began to see changes in climate and culture as well as student engagement.  This overall positive change really had little to do with your interaction with teachers through observations, support, and coaching.  
  2. The second kind of ghost victory is that you’ve succeeded on your short-term measures, but they didn’t align with your long-term mission. The short-term measure was to complete “X” number of observations each week and to provide actionable feedback to teachers.  You may have completed twice the expected observations, yet there is no change in instructional practice.  
  3. How might “gaming the system”, the last kind of ghost victory, come into play?  This is when your short-term measures became the mission in a way that really undermined the work.  Perhaps you’re hitting the weekly short-term measure of observing instruction and providing teachers with feedback, however, time is spent in teachers’ classrooms who are already “hitting it out of the park”.  On paper, you’re meeting your short-term measure, however the long-term mission is far out of reach.

Those examples are not a very glamorous glimpse of the possible outcomes of an instructional leader.  Yet, each of us may have experienced such ghost victories in our profession.  How do you avoid these ghost victories?  You are absolutely right . . . by being upstream leaders and thinking through pre-gaming and paired measures, we can be proactive in avoiding ghost victories.  

Using paired measures means that there’s a balance between quality and quantity.  For example, CPS paired a quantity metric (number of students graduating) with a quality metric (ACT scores and AP class enrollments).  The district was assured that their data represented the “truth” and ghost victories were not an issue.  By pre-gaming, upstream leaders carefully consider and anticipate how short-term measures might be misused.  According to Heath, upstream leaders ask questions such as, “what else might explain success other than our own efforts?”, “if someone wanted to succeed on these measures with the least effort possible, what would they do?”, and/or “imagine that years from now, we have succeeded brilliantly according to our short-term measures, yet we have actually undermined our long-term mission . . . what happened?” As it relates to the example above, how might reflecting on these questions as well as using paired measures affect the overall outcome of our long-term goal?  What might you need/want to be intentional about as you and your building and district networks think through short- and long-term measures/targets as it relates to your overall goals?