Systems Calibration: How Boards Can Save our Most Challenged School Districts

calibration

Once we establish that our education system is complex, fragile, and precious (see earlier posts), the responsibility of leadership becomes one of calibration.

In https://marabhuber.com/2015/01/17/towards-a-practical-and-scalable-solution-for-saving-our-most-precious-and-vulnerable-community-systems/ we identified key points of fragility within school systems that can be tightened through  self-study or guided evaluation. They include internal organizational integrity, co-evolution of the system with its environment, and the vision toward which the system is moving. While these areas can be tweaked independently, the complexity of their interactions demands a highly strategic approach that addresses the system in its entirety, identifying key levers of change that can be manipulated toward greater functionality and optimization of outputs.

If we examine the education system, and more specifically our most challenged school districts through the lens of complex adaptive systems, we can begin to appreciate the urgent need for calibration. While urban districts are vastly complex, they are also dangerously out of alignment with their key facets (internal organization; co-evolution; and vision) functioning at cross-purposes, and little comprehensive control or oversight. Accordingly, even when the system tries to pivot or refocus on some new mandate or external expectation, there is no effective mechanism for doing so, with even the most well intentioned efforts throwing the system into greater misalignment and instability.

With that said, it is entirely possible to recalibrate our education systems, but it is clearly a design challenge. In doing so, we need to view individual components through the lens of the greater system and place them within their respective places. Teacher unions and contracts, state mandates and assessments, school-level operations and policies, these are all components or variables that are critical to the ultimate performance of our school systems. But none of them, individually, should be drivers, determining the functionality or vision of the entire system. When given disproportionate weight or power, any of these components can begin to lead, causing further misalignment and fragility, not to mention compromised performance, ultimately threatening the viability of the systems themselves. Put simply, our most challenged school districts have become so complex, fragile, and misaligned, that they are no longer viable or sustainable.

If we are serious about fixing our education system, and more specifically our failing school districts, we must begin to view leadership through the lens of calibration. Ultimately, our school boards are responsible for setting the vision and overseeing progress. And yet few boards fully accept this responsibility and have the competencies or support necessary for doing the work. Clearly, boards can not to do it alone. Consultants and accrediting bodies, along with community foundations and consortiums, should provide the frameworks and strategic support needed to guide them through the complex and important processes, helping them clarify the necessary steps and roles that need to be filled. Only when this design work is done effectively can superintendents and leadership staff be hired based on their ability to lead and execute the identified plans.  Only then can we begin to recalibrate our systems and achieve the results we seek not by chance, but by design.

Why Stability Isn’t Always a Good Thing: Nonprofits as Complex Dynamic Systems

aaa

When it comes to the future of our communities, nonprofits should be of considerable interest and concern. Since we rely heavily on their associated outputs, especially for our most vulnerable communities and social sectors, we have a responsibility to ensure their continued viability and efficacy.

Our primary mechanism for monitoring and optimizing nonprofits is through board governance. Whether via boards of directors, trustees, school boards, or advisory committees, we expect these groups of highly qualified individuals (however measured) to ensure the continued effectiveness, efficiency, and sustainability of organizations, making necessary decisions, adjustments, and investments while monitoring the nonprofit’s health via ongoing assessment and evaluation.

By assembling what we perceive to be highly competent boards comprised of well-educated and/or respected individuals, we believe that our organizations are in good hands. And when it comes to assessing and monitoring their effectiveness, we assume that their efficacy is reflected largely by their ability to obtain funding and sustain their respective work. Since grants and direct contributions are the primary sources of funding for community organizations and nonprofits, they must continually make a case for their viability, complying with funder expectations and demonstrating the quality and need for their work via programmatic outputs and impacts. Accordingly, if an organization is able to thrive and continue to support its respective efforts, then it must be a doing a good job, and should be viewed as an important community asset worthy of ongoing support.

This thinking is both circular and dangerous, given the prominent role that nonprofits play in our communities and larger society. Clearly, fiscal stability is often an important indicator of organizational success. Yet when it comes to the world of nonprofits and social needs, organizational stability, in its traditional manifestations, can actually inhibit optimization of impact.

In order to explore this assertion, we must step into the fascinating world of complex dynamic systems, a field of inquiry that draws on insights from diverse fields of study including biological systems, computers, AI, cognitive science, and other domains towards the goal of understanding and modeling approaches that yield optimal performance and efficacy.

If you think of nonprofits as systems, with inputs, outputs, and internal programmatic functions, you might assume that they are largely self-regulating. If the organization is doing a good job and fulfills its purpose and mission, then it should thrive and remain relevant and robust. Conversely, if its mission and work are no longer effective or in alignment with the needs of the community, then its ability to sustain itself should be compromised, favoring emergent states of adaptation and nimbleness through sensitivity to both internal and external factors, and an ability to flex and pivot as needed.

However, rather than programmatic pivoting, organizations have a tendency to layer themselves in complexity. Even though they may start with a clear and simple mission, they tend to become increasingly complex over time. Because of their inherent need for self-funding, which is largely tied to specified programming, their ability to grow or sustain themselves often leads to new layers of programmatic and staffing complexity.

On a systems level, we rarely see parameter setting for the number or diversity of concurrent programs. In other words, the notion that adding new programs inherently necessitates the cessation of existing programs is rare at the policy or leadership levels. Instead, the assumption is that existing programs are important and necessary, and should be maintained if at all possible. Accordingly, the need to self-sustain and grow becomes the functional focus of the system, with leaders and boards selected and maintained based on their ability to meet this expectation.

By definition, as organizations become more complex from an infrastructure and programmatic standpoint, they become more opaque and less sensitive to internal and external changes. This in turn can make them more rigid and unable to adapt. Although when viewed through the lens of community needs, this tendency should trigger concern and a sense of vulnerability, it is not necessarily perceived or treated as such. Because we have not developed sensitivities to these types of metrics or systems-level fragilities, notions of stability and fiscal health remain our proxies for efficacy. As long as our systems are able to feed and sustain themselves, we can enjoy a false sense of security associated with this notion of stability.

In the end, organizational leaders and the boards that sustain and steward them are ultimately responsible for the future of our community organizations and nonprofits. Perhaps by adopting new levels of programmatic discipline and restraint we can force our organizations to be more nimble and responsive, and less susceptible to the dangers of layered complexity.