Upstream Thinking . . . Who will pay for what does not happen?

This year’s Blueprint Bulletin theme is around Upstream Thinking for Systems Improvement.  Dan Heath helps us think about downstream and upstream actions.  Throughout this series, we have made connections to systems improvement in the following Blueprint Bulletin editions:

This edition focuses on Heath’s final question, Who will pay for what does not happen?  He suggests that we align incentives, stitch together pockets of value, and be wary of the wrong pocket problem.  Pockets?  What’s that all about?

“. . . reactive efforts succeed when problems happen and they’re fixed.  Preventive efforts succeed when nothing happens.  Who will pay for what does not happen?” ~ Dan Heath

Have you ever spent money today to prevent or delay a more expensive problem down the road? If so, you have made an upstream investment!  We can pay to fix problems once they happen, or we can pay in advance to prevent them. To prevent problems, upstream leaders must 1) unite the right people, 2) hunt for leverage points and push for systems change, 3) try to spot problems early, 4) agonize about how to measure success — avoiding both ghost victories and unintended consequences, and 5) think about the funding stream:  How to find someone who’ll pay for prevention.

When might you have allocated resources in the name of prevention?  Perhaps you have routine maintenance scheduled for your vehicle, furnace, and pest control?  Are preventative resources being allocated at the school or district level to ensure that each child and staff is a part of a safe and nurturing environment?  It’s difficult, at times, to justify allocating resources for the unknown . . . again, if we only had our crystal ball to see into the future.   

What might be meant by who will pay for what does not happen? Heath shares a concept around pockets and suggests that we stitch pockets together to add value.  A “one-pocket” scenario insinuates that the person/organization making the preventative investment around an intervention (oil change, furnace maintenance, safe environment for each child), reaps the benefits.  A “wrong-pocket” problem is where resources are delved out and the primary investor of that intervention does not receive the primary benefit . . . in other words, “the returns are scattered across many pockets”  (Heath, 2020, p. 197).

In his April 26 memo and video message, State Superintendent, Dr. Michael Rice, shares seven areas for possible investment of federal ESSER funds. He lifts that these funds are non-recurring and that “we must spend wisely to serve children”, in other words, these are “research-based gifts that keep on giving.” (Rice, 2021)  As you listen to his 9-minute message, reflect on how investing federal funds in these seven areas support upstream thinking where “the returns are scattered across many pockets”  (Heath, 2020, p. 197).

Dr. Rice (2021) emphasizes that, “non-recurring dollars need to be spent on non-recurring expenditures . . . There’s a great opportunity for all of us to help shape a generation of students for a lifetime and, by extension, other generations of students thereafter.” 

So . . . How might you help your district understand the cost-benefit of “investing” in preventative measures/interventions when districts typically are so consumed with fixing a failed system?  By focusing on continuous improvement, districts can spot problems early.   How might you align state and federal funding streams and stitch together pockets of value so, at the end-of-the-day, you won’t fall into the trap of the wrong pocket problem?  

From day-to-day decisions to long-term planning, how might you plan for who will pay for what does not happen?  The Blueprint Connections, Leader’s Corner, and Teacher’s Corner sections will confirm your thinking and give you some additional food-for-thought and potential actions.

Blueprint Connections

“We can pay to fix problems once they happen, or we can pay in advance to prevent them.”

~ Dan Heath

Let’s shift thinking a little.  Within the continuous improvement process, based on a needs assessment, teams determine evidence-based strategies to implement.  Throughout this process, teams ask, what is the right thing to do? And, can we do it the right way? 

Historically, teams tended to jump right into implementation without fully assessing district and school readiness.  The Hexagon Tool, from the National Implementation Research Network (NIRN), can help address, can we do it the right way?  Part of the Michigan Integrated Continuous Improvement Process (MICIP) is to use the Hexagon Tool to determine readiness for strategy implementation.  Continuous improvement teams evaluate the district and school(s)’ readiness on a scale of 1(low) – 5 (high) in six categories:  Need, Evidence, Fit, Usability, Capacity, and Supports.

You may be asking, “What does the Hexagon Tool have to do with being an upstream organization especially as it relates to who will pay for what doesn’t happen?”  Let’s think about Teacher Collaborative Routines (TCR).  As a district is getting ready to implement TCR, district and building teams determine readiness. Teams have conversations around and assess the six facets found within the Hexagon Tool.  Some example prompts may be:

  • Need – Does analysis of the data identify that this evidence-based practice is a specific area of need?  If the practice is implemented, what could potentially change for student outcomes?
  • Evidence – Are there research data available to demonstrate the effectiveness of this evidence-based practice?  What outcomes are expected when the practice is implemented as intended?  How much of a change can be expected?
  • Fit – How does the evidence-based practice fit with priorities of the district/school? How does this practice fit with other existing initiatives? 
  • Usability – Is there guidance on core features that can be modified or adapted to increase contextual fit?  Do these core features differ for specific populations, such as for racial/ethnic groups?  If so, how?  Is there a fidelity assessment that measures practitioner behavior (i.e., assessment of whether staff use the practice as intended)?
  • Capacity – Typically, how much does it cost to run this evidence-based practice each year? Are there resources to support this cost?  If the current budget cannot support implementation, what might be a resource development strategy?  Is leadership knowledgeable about and in support of this evidence-based practice?  Do leaders have the diverse skills and perspectives representative of the community being served?
  • Supports – Is training and professional development related to this evidence-based practice readily available?  Is training culturally sensitive?  Does the training use adult learning best practices?  Does it address issues of race, equity, cultural responsiveness, or implicit bias? What is the cost of this training?

At the end-of-the-day, when considering who will pay for what doesn’t happen, if district- and school-level teams don’t take time to consider readiness, they are sabotaging the intent behind their desire to build collective teacher efficacy through teacher collaborative routines.  By investing in implementing Teacher Collaborative Routines with fidelity, collective teacher efficacy increases, dropout rates decrease, graduation rates increase, students are successful, and society, overall, benefits.  

The Leader’s and Teacher’s Corner sections will support you with deeper thinking around who will pay for what does not happen.

Leader’s Corner

“Tiny shifts in large systems can have powerful effects.”

~ Dan Heath

Instructional Leadership Routines (ILR) 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 downstream actions. 

An instructional leader has a clear understanding of the vision established by the district for curriculum, instruction, and assessment, as well as how to coach and support their teachers so that they have the resources and knowledge to engage their students and reach the district’s vision.  With a goal to increase overall collective teacher efficacy, the instructional leader is responsible for: 

  • Promoting instructional coordination between general education and special education teachers,
  • Scheduling adequate time for teacher collaboration, and 
  • Developing and implementing a protocol for use in teacher collaboration.

There’s a strong connection between those three ILR practices and Teacher Collaborative Routines.  Research tells us that in order to grow collective teacher efficacy, teachers need to have time designated to collaborate three or more times per week within and across grade levels within the school day.  Teachers also need to have ongoing differentiated training provided to improve collaboration based on identified needs.  During this time, teachers should collectively develop and use agreed upon norms and protocols for collaboration.  These should be adhered to across grade levels throughout the district, and are monitored, reviewed, and revised on a regular basis.   

In order for these research-based practices to be successful, what leader and teacher actions might be needed?  How might those actions be monitored and adjusted based on data and feedback?  Sounds like the ingredients of an improvement cycle!  How might an improvement cycle support the successful implementation of teacher collaborative and instructional leadership routines?

So . . . Who will pay for what doesn’t happen?  If the district doesn’t do the work in this area, then what will happen?  Teachers’ ability to have collective efficacy is diminished.  If teachers are not effectively collaborating, the odds for student success greatly decreases.  The overall outcome of collective responsibility will not be met.  In other words, our students will suffer.  What might you, as an instructional leader, need to be mindful of when it comes time to do the readiness work around Teacher Collaborative Routines?

Teacher’s Corner

“So, together, by wading our way upstream, we can approach a world where the preservation of health is as valuable as the treatment of disease.”

~ Dan Heath

I’m going to take Heath’s quote from above and reframe it through the lens of our educational system. “So, together, by wading our way upstream, we can approach a world where the preservation of the student is as valuable as money spent on the incarceration of the prisoner.”

Did you know that the U.S. makes up only 4.4 percent of the global population yet it holds nearly a quarter of the world’s prisoners?  American prison populations have multiplied by 500 percent over the last 40 years according to GOBankingRates.  Prison spending in the U.S. is outpacing that of which should be one of society’s highest priorities: education.  Education spending in the United States loses out to huge amounts of money flowing into prisons.  

GOBankingRates included data from the Census Bureau’s 2016 Public Elementary-Secondary Education Finance Data to determine how much every state spends per pupil.  Michigan spends $11,667.99 per pupil.  The average cost per inmate is $35,809.  This means that Michigan could afford to send three more kids to school for every person it doesn’t send to jail!  

Pause and think about the statistics that were just shared.  Research clearly shows that no one has a greater impact on student growth than the educator.  After family, school is the second most important and formative site of socialization for children. School is where they learn social norms for behavior and receive moral guidance. When students drop out of school, they leave this formative environment. They also leave the safety and structure that school provides.    

So, what can you do as an educator?  How can you intervene so that your students feel supported?  What action(s) can you take so that they want to stay in school?  Conversations that you and your colleagues engage in have the potential to address the needs of students.  One practice within Teacher Collaborative Routines asks teachers to collaborate to analyze academic and non-academic data to make informed decisions.  Armed with data, teachers can make sure that every student is receiving what they need both academically and non academically.  This support can make the difference between a student staying in school or dropping out.  In other words, we are creating a system where the preservation of the student is as valuable as money spent on the incarceration of the prisoner.

So . . . Who will pay for what doesn’t happen? If teachers are not collaborating to analyze data to make informed decisions, then students suffer.  When students do not feel supported, this often leads to them dropping out of school. A 2014 policy memo, Ten Economic Facts about Crime and Incarceration in the United States, pointed out that there is nearly a 70 percent chance that an African American man without a high school diploma will be imprisoned by his mid-thirties (The Hamilton Project, 2014, p. 11).  So, who pays for what does not happen?  Society.  What actions might you, as an educator, engage in with your collaborative team to make sure that each student gets the supports that they need?

Timely Topics

2021 Summer Virtual Institute Events

Virtual Leadership Team Institute Leveraging Blueprint Systems to Move Upstream

We invite you to join us for a one-day virtual District Leadership Team Institute where you will have the opportunity to reflect on which district systems and building routines worked well and what new practices might be carried forward.  Your district leadership team will then apply that information to improve systems using upstream thinking.  As a culmination of our year-long work based on the book Upstream:  The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen, we are thrilled to have the author Dan Heath join us for a closing endnote address.  Dan will deliver a critical message for school leaders seeking to shift their energies upstream.

  • Date: June 15, 2021,
  • Time: 8:45 am – 3:30 pm
  • Intended Audience: District Leadership Teams
  • SCECHs: Up to 5.5 hours can be earned
  • Registration Link – Free copy of the Upstream book (mailed to you) included with your registration!
  • Watch this VIDEO to learn more about the Virtual District Leadership Team Institute!
Virtual Blueprint Institute VII
Engaging and Refining Our Systems to Support Continuous Improvement

This Institute will be two days of learning and discussion around how we refine the systems in our districts, schools, and classrooms.  This year we welcome two keynote speakers to our virtual institute.  On August 4, Manny Scott will share real, life-changing lessons and support participants in learning to transform our schools into safe, positive environments where adults are equipped to reach all students. On August 5, Jenni Donohoo will provide the foundation for understanding the source of collective efficacy for teachers and school leaders as well as the significant impact collective efficacy has on student achievement.  Daily networking opportunities will allow for discussion around relevant topics and district highlights. Our 90-minute learning sessions will be application-focused providing examples, tools, and/or protocols that will support all efforts toward continuous improvement.

  • Dates:  August 4-5, 2021,
  • Time: 9 am – 3 pm
  • Intended Audience:  Teams made up of district, building, and teacher leaders
  • SCECHs:  Up to 10 hours can be earned
  • Registration Link
  • Watch this VIDEO to learn more about the 2-day Virtual Blueprint Institute!

We currently offer on-demand learning courses:  Educational Improvement Through Systems and Changing Minds to Address Poverty in the Classroom. Anyone can access quality content, on their schedule, anytime of the day or night. On-demand learning offers flexibility, convenience, and courses that are easily accessible. No login required. 

Our next round of online learning begins June 16 and runs through August 11.  Please browse the professional learning calendar for courses that may interest you and/or address your district’s goals. To register, click Events Registration.


[He] realized that he could have helped these kids much more if he could have intervened earlier in their lives.”

~ Dan Heath

The Nurse-Family Partnership matches registered nurses with low-income, first-time pregnant women where the up-front investment has surely paid off with huge dividends.  To learn more about this partnership and its positive outcomes, take a moment to view this 4-minute overview, Better Worlds Start with Great Mothers. And Great Mothers Start with Us (Nurse-Family Partnership, 2018).  As you watch, reflect upon how might this proactive, preventative thinking be applied within your context?  By reviewing this 2-page overview of the Nurse-Family Partnership Trials and Outcomes (Nurse-Family Partnership, n.d.), you can begin to answer the question, Who will pay for what does not happen?

Anderson, J. (2019, May 22). America spends much more on prisoners than students – Here’s why.  Retrieved from

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

Kearney, M. S., Harris, B. H., Jacome, E., Parker, L. (2014). Ten Economic Facts about Crime and Incarceration in the United States, The Hamilton Project.  Retrieved from: 

Metz, A. & Louison, L. (2018). The Hexagon Tool: Exploring Context. Chapel Hill, NC: National Implementation Research Network, Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Based on Kiser, Zabel, Zachik, & Smith (2007) and Blase, Kiser & Van Dyke (2013).

Michigan Department of Education. (2020, October 20). What is the Right Strategy and Can We Do It the Right Way?. In MICIP Professional Learning Bites. Retrieved from 

Michigan Department of Education.  (2021, April 26).  Gifts That Keep Giving [Video].  YouTube. 

Miller, Ted. (2013). Nurse-Family Partnership Home Visitation: Costs, Outcomes, and Return on Investment: Executive Summary. 10.13140/2.1.1508.5440. 

Nurse-Family Partnership. (2018, October 30). Better Worlds Start with Great Mothers. And Great Mothers Start with Us [Video].  YouTube. 

Nurse-Family Partnership. (n.d.).  Nurse-Family Partnership Research Trials and Outcomes.  Retrieved April 29, 2021, from 

Rice, M. F. (2021, April 26).  Using Non-recurring Funds to Develop Gifts that Keep Giving – MEMO #COVID-19-183 [Memorandum].  Michigan Department of Education.

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