John A. Dues is the founding Director of the School Performance Institute (SPI), the social enterprise division of the United Schools Network (USN). He also serves as the Chief Learning Officer of USN, a network of high-performing public charter schools in Columbus, Ohio. Previously, he has served as a School Director and Dean of Academics at USN. Under John’s leadership, USN schools have regularly been among the state and nation’s highest performing urban schools. In 2013, John was recognized as the Ohio School Leader of the Year by the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
: Broadcasting live from RadioX Studios in Atlanta, Georgia, it’s time for Learning Insights, featuring learning professionals improving performance to drive business results.
: Welcome to another exciting and informative edition of Learning Insights. Stone Payton and Lee Kantor here with you. Lee, I loved doing this show. It’s brought to you by our friends at TrainingPros. And each and every time that we do this, we just seem to make really good friends and learn so much. I don’t think this is going to be any exception. Please join me in welcoming to the broadcast, Director of School Performance Institute and the Chief Learning Officer of the United Schools Network, Mr. John Dues. How are you, sir?
: I’m great. I’m great. Stone, thank you for having me.
: Well, John, can you share a little bit about the School Performance Institute and the United Schools Network? How are they related and how are you serving folks?
: Sure. So, United Schools Network is a nonprofit, an education nonprofit here in Columbus, Ohio. And, basically, what our nonprofit does is we are a network hub for four public charter schools here in Columbus. And sort of along the way, as we started the four schools in the USN organization, we also built a social enterprise within the United Schools Network called The School Performance Institute. And, really, what SPI is sort of the learning and improvement arm of our nonprofit organization.
: And then, so, the mission of that is to help learning. And who are the learners?
: Yeah, sure. So, at USN, sort of the mission is transforming the neighborhoods that we’re in by providing excellent schools to students and families in Columbus. And then, SPI has a related purpose, which is to sort of spread the best of what we’ve seen in the school visits across the country, as well as what we’ve seen worked in our own schools, to spread those ideas both within the schools that we have, and then also to other folks through workshops, and consulting services, and those types of things. And so, what we’re really trying to do is study what works, especially in high-poverty schools, and spread those best practices and lessons to as many other folks as we can through SPI.
: So, you’re teaching the leadership of schools, how to run their school better?
: Well, I think, what we’re doing is, for example, we have a workshop where we invite external participants in during a live school day, and they’re sort of learning techniques and observing them in classrooms. And then, throughout the day, they’re also sort of breaking those things down and talking about how they can apply them in their own schools.
: And it typically works best if a team of folks from another school come. So, a lot of times, you’ll have, you know, two teachers, and an assistant principal, and principal from the school building, and they will come to one of these workshops. And so, you have sort of a critical mass of people learning the same thing.
: And then, there’s, you know, multiple people on a building, the leadership team that can take that back to their own school and try to make, you know, what they thought would work in their own school work back in that setting. So, it’s teachers, it’s principals, and then, we also have district and network leaders that come with those teams as well.
: Now, are these people hungry for this type of learning?
: Yeah, I think so. You know, I think educators. in general, are hungry for this type of learning. I think, you know, by the very nature of being a teacher or a principal, you’re sort of tied to a building. And, you know, you have to be really diligent about getting outside, and seeking out that learning when you can. And I think that was true for me when I was a teacher and a principal. And, I think, it continues to be true that, you know, educators are really hungry to see things that they can use back in their own schools. And, I think, by the very nature of their profession, they are sort of continuous learners.
: So, we’ve had so far through the last 15 months or so coming to our schools for these workshops have been great, great participants, hungry for learning. They are great as, sort of, idea exchangers amongst themselves. And we have really great healthy discussion on sort of what works, what they’re seeing, and how can they make it work back in their own setting.
: Now, do you find that they’re jaded by just having seen so much, you know, great ideas that maybe you haven’t bared fruit and like-
: I mean, I think, there could be some of that. I mean, I think, even, you know, really good people, if you sort of are in a setting where, you know, there’s sort of a series of reforms, and one after the other to sort of try it out, you don’t really fully understand like how it’s supposed to work in practice. And then, it’s sort of abandoned in a couple of years. And if you’ve been through that cycle, you know, you’re 15 years in your career, you’ve been through that cycle four or five times, there can definitely be some initiative or some reform fatigue that happens.
: I think, the feedback that we’ve gotten so far has been extremely positive. And we’ve had some 15 and 20-year veterans say, “Oh, wow. Like some of the things that I saw today just really refreshed me, and I’m hungry to take this back to my own classroom, my school, and try to make them work.”
: So, I think, that certainly can happen. And, sometimes, it’s for good reason. But I think what we’re seeing is because folks are interacting with people from, you know, across the state, and we’ve gotten people actually from from Atlanta and Memphis come as well. And so, you know, I think, you know, just seeing something new just sort of refreshes people and energizes people. We’ve got the early feedback we’ve gotten.
: Can you share some of the initiatives that have worked?
: Yeah. I mean, I think, you know, in that particular workshop series, it’s called Study the Network. And, basically, what we’re doing is we’re sort of outlining in five areas our key systems and procedures. And it’s, you know, grounded in research, sound research. And it’s not really rocket science type stuff, but it is stuff, especially in a high-poverty setting, that is really hard to get right and to keep right.
: And so, we’re talking about things like how do you design a purpose for curriculum, how do you deliver that curriculum purposely, how do you gather data on that teaching to make sure that, you know, what you think kids are learning is actually being learned by kids.
: We also get into some things that are, sometimes, overlooked by schools that are really important things, like how do kids come into the building first thing in the morning. We have a really sort of strong entry routine. And, you know, if you don’t have that as a school, that can lead to lots of lost time both at the beginning of the day, and then sort of throughout.
: So, we go over sort of one of the system and the procedures that we have in place, at both the classroom level and the school level, that allow kids to enter the building safely, and efficiently, and move between their classes, and exit the building safely and efficiently. So, we’re going over all of those things.
: We also talk a lot about our school culture. How do we build it, how do we maintain it, how do we keep both the adults and the students engaged in their classrooms and their school community. And then, sort of, we wrap up the day with a focus on, you know, the importance of, you know, very clear mission, and vision, and values, and how do you get people that are an add to those missions or are aligned with the mission, vision, and values. So, those are sort of the five main areas that we’re tackling across that workshop day.
: And then, you developed this while dealing with like super high-risk kids right and super high-risk environments?
: Yeah. I mean, I think I would probably frame it as kids that have been traditionally underserved. All of our schools, our four schools, our network, 100% of the students are economically disadvantaged. Meaning, they qualify for free-and-reduced lunch. You know, there are challenges in Columbus in terms of providing an outstanding education. And that’s sort of what we’re trying to do. We certainly do not know everything in the space, and we are continuous learners ourselves.
: And so, part of what we open our doors to others is to sort of learn from them as well because before launching this particular workshop series, myself and our superintendent, between the two of us, we went on about a 120 school visits across the country to mostly high-poverty schools to learn from them. And, sort of, we’ve brought those lessons back to our own schools, the oldest of which is 10 years old. And then, we’ve been continuously studying those things and trying to spread them to other folks through this launch of the School Performance Institute.
: John, you talked about addressing these five areas or five pillars in the course of a workshop day. Sounds like an awful lot. That’s a live face-to-face instruction day. Is that accurate? This is person-to-person, in-person training. Yes?
: Yeah, it is. So, it’s an all-day workshop. You know, typically 8:00 to 4:30. And we spend about 75 to 90 minutes on each of those modules, each of the areas. And that time is always split up between sort of learning about the area. Also, there’s time within a module to go into a classroom and observe. And then, come back and break down what they saw. So, yeah, it’s definitely an intense workshop. And then, we also offer workshops where we spend a whole day with folks just on each of those five areas as well.
: Well, it does sound like a very intensive day. And part of my purpose in asking, I was wondering if you have some designs toward or maybe you’re already doing,this blending the medium, blending the platform, and maybe providing some sort of support, or follow-up instruction, or material before and after this in-person experience.
: Yes. What’s been typical is one, you know, for example, we had a district last year that was very interested in the workshops. And so, across we had six of these workshops. Three in middle schools, three and elementary schools last year. And across the course of the year, this particular district superintendent and the chief academic officer each came to two or three workshops themselves. And every time they came, they brought a team of like five to seven people. So, they were coming repeatedly throughout the year. So, that’s one thing. A lot of people will bring various members of their team either at the building or district level, so that there is a repeat experience. And more and more people also experience it.
: And they also get a drive with the various materials. So, for each of the five, sort of, the core areas that I talked about that we discuss during the workshop day, there’s also an internally written manual that explains, sort of, all of our practices in that particular area. So, for example, we have a culture manual that explains all of our culture systems and procedures school-wise. So, they get that manual. They walk away with that manual.
: And then, a lot of times what happens is, for example, a teacher will be here participating in the workshop, and you know, they’ll see something that they think they want to know more about, or they see an artifact that they’d like to have. And so, then, they reach out to me afterwards, and I often connect them to one of our teachers that can sort of work with them, at least, on an informal basis, and share, and provide some insight into how they got their classroom looking like they did that day, or if they have, you know, a specific question about, let’s say, a math lesson that they observe that they can follow up with the teacher to sort of learn more about that.
: It sounds like the ideal habitat, or breeding ground, or environment for a group of people with common mission and purpose that I bet there are a lot of new relationships forged from the people participating in this process and the alumni coming back through and adding their experiences. I bet you’ve built one heck of a really strong community in doing all this, huh?
: Yes. That part’s been probably the best part of doing this.
: You know, I’ve been fortunate to be a part of, at least, a loose network of schools across the country that are sort of like-minded and mission-oriented. And I’ve learned a lot from going to those places. And they’ve tended to be schools in urban areas. That’s just where I’ve spent my career in Atlanta, and Denver, and now in Columbus.
: And one of the interesting things is that one of the leaders that, he’s very reform-minded that I connected with very early on last year and came into a number of the workshops with his team with the superintendent from a rural area, and what I learned pretty early on was that we are dealing with a lot of the same issues. We have kids in high-poverty situations. They’re coming, you know, significantly below grade level. And so, because of those conditions, we deal with a lot of the same things.
: Now, we have, you know, problems that are unique to our, you know, urban environment. And they have are problems that are unique to the rule environment, but very quickly, you know, this idea that what we were dealing with was totally different was sort of put to the side, and we’ve developed a relationship, and been able to share back and forth over the course of the last 12 or 15 months. That part has been pretty cool to see sort of the similarities between different types of schools.
: Also, you know, there can be — You know, in our world, there can be sort of sometimes a divide between traditional public schools and public charter schools. And we’ve actually seen sort of an equal split between those two camps, those two groups coming to our workshops. And we’ve also had actually some private school principals that have come, especially if they’re dealing with sort of a similar student population. So, it’s been really interesting to bring all those types of people and all those groups of people from different settings together. And lots of shared issues and lots of shared ideas for how to move forward.
: Now, do you have any data? I know it’s kind of new in this area, but do you have any data that supports like how quickly they see improvement if they institute some of these initiatives?
: I think, you know, most of our data in that respect would be anecdotal. You know, we definitely did, you know, a survey to see how our materials and our workshops were being received. And, you know, that data was extremely positive. So, we asked, you know, what your overall workshop experience? You know, they’re giving it a 9.5 out of 10. You know, would you recommend our workshop to others? 100% of people said they would. And 7 out of 10 of those people said they would actually go out of their way to make that recommendation.
: So, people are definitely latching onto the idea, They think the workshops are well received. I think we’re a little early in the game in terms of knowing how much we’re pushing the needle in other places, but that’s something we’re definitely interested in exploring more.
: And I think, you know, one part of that is expanding our work to be also in schools and not just bringing people to us because we know the research is pretty clear on, you know, you can get a lot out of professional learning, but unless it’s something that’s done on an ongoing basis, it’s really hard to move the needle on results.
: And the other part of that would be, you know, checking for fidelity, of doing, you know, whatever the techniques are. You’d have to be doing those in the right way to sort of tie it back to what they learned during the workshop day. But that’s something we’re definitely exploring, and we get asked that question a lot. And I think it’s something, especially in such a human-centric sector like education, that’s something that’s sort of hard to parse out, but it’s something that we’re working on right now.
: Now, this started in Ohio. So, you have future plans to expand this to people all over the United States? That’s the overarching mission?
: Yeah. I mean, I think. you know, we started in Ohio, obviously, because that’s where our schools are and, you know, our networks are sort of most dense here in Ohio. What we’d ultimately like to be, our sort of vision for the future, is a true school improvement institute. So, a place where people come and share ideas on moving this work forward.
: And we have a couple different ideas for what that would look like. A lot of those ideas are borrowed from the healthcare world. And, you know, sort of, all of that is couched in doing this work through a specific methodology called improvement science. So, that’s one of the things that we’re learning how to do right now. And what we’d like it to do or what we would like it to become is, sort of, the foundation for this Improvement Institute.
: And so, we’d like to work on improvement projects with schools which whether they’re in Ohio or elsewhere. We’re certainly open to that. And we’d also like to be an institute where people come to both learn the science and to, sort of, spread the lessons they’ve learned on the improvement front, especially if they’re working in, you know, high-poverty settings where there’s a lot of need and a lot of urgency for schools to get better.
: This improvement science methodology, is it pretty closely tied with a, I don’t know, change management, architecture, framework as well. Do you find that you need to employ some sort of change management methodology as well when you’re doing this work?
: Yeah. I think, change management would — You know, implementation science, change management, sort of the lean six sigma work, there’s a lot of similarities between those things and improvement science. Improvement science really boiled down to sort of the scientific method basically. So, you’re just doing improvement. You know, you’re asking sort of three core questions. You know, what’s our problem? Why are we getting it? You know, how are we going to know if whatever we’re doing is going to make that thing better? And what are some of those things that we could do to try to change the results that we’re getting?
: The methodology and the framework itself is is fairly simple. Getting the people that are undergoing the change to actually change their behavior. That’s the tricky part. There’s psychological, sort of, techniques, I think. There’s change management, there’s knowledge management, there’s learning how to work in sort of a networked team environment. And doing that, thinking about very early on in the work how are going to spread and scale the lessons that you learn.
: So, it’s sort of a combination of a number of things in different industries that’s called different things, but really, it’s sort of a scientific method to approach to problem solving.
: Now, does this methodology, is it kind of Russian nesting dolls in the sense that what you’re doing to reach the children, are you using similar approaches or anything alike in reaching the adults? Like are some of the way that you teach children, are you using any of that to teach the adults, so they can teach children?
: Yeah. I think, you know, in thinking about improvement science methodology, one of the keys is that you are starting with a problem that you surface in your organization, and you spend a significant amount of time trying to understand what that problem is and how it came to be.
: And I think, the point there that, I think, in education that we we, often, sort of, have a problem that we loosely understand, and we often very quickly jump to solutions. But the solutions, a lot of times, may not actually match, sort of, the the root causes of the problem because we didn’t explore that deep enough, or, you know, there’s just sort of — We have a lot of fads, be it curriculum, or technology platforms, or whatever in education. Then, we sort of latch onto these ideas. But, actually, knowing how to get those things to work under the conditions in which people are working, many times, those sort of ideas are way under specified.
: And so, that’s sort of links back to the fatigue that teachers often feel when the district adopts some new thing. And then, that new thing doesn’t produce the results that the district wanted, and they abandon it. And then, there’s another new thing. And, you know, people may or may not be trained on it. People may or they may not buy into it. People may or may not know how to make that thing work. It may not even be the right thing for that environment in the first place. And then, you sort of go through that cycle.
: So, in improvement science, you really spend a lot of time with the problem identifying the root causes. And in small test, iterate your way to changes that will work in your context because you’re doing the test in the very context where they would need to work. So, I think, that’s a long answer to your question but the answer is definitely yes.
: And so, one of the things I’m doing right now is actually running one of these improvement projects internally. And the out or the goals are twofold. One, we want to solve the problem that we’re tackling, the problem that we surfaced, but we also want to build this capability for more and more people in our network of schools to do improvement through this disciplined lens, so that more and more people have this capability basically.
: And in this, we think we create that virtual sort of cycle of improvement. And, you know, instead of admiring the problems and sort of talking about them cathartically. We’re actually working in a systematic way to address them and test changes. And in doing so, get better.
: And so, yeah, a lot of the problem that we would address would definitely be teaching problems. It could be attendance problems. Really, it could be discipline problems. So, anything that’s sort of getting in the way of you achieving your ultimate goal as a school, which is educating kids could be a problem for study within this methodology.
: It sounds like a marvelous and noble pursuit to me. And I think it’s going to be fantastic if you believe you can consistently continue to pull this off. And it sounds like you’ve made some great strides. You have, what I’ll characterize as an added dimension that I think is maybe the brave among us would find interesting and intriguing. But I don’t know. I might find it downright scary, I think, if I were involved in this.
: And that you’ve got this whole population that is so critical to this that doesn’t work for you. It’s almost like I’ve seen this in some volunteer-run organizations, but what are the key components to pull this off is the home life, right, having these involved families? Can you speak a little bit to to managing that piece of the puzzle, the home side, the family side?
: Yeah. I mean, I think, unfortunately, you know, in our society, certainly, we have lots of systemic barriers to success and inequities, for sure. I think, my experience has been that, by and large, across all kinds of lines, be it economic lines or whatever, almost every parent I’ve ever met wants the same thing for their kid. They want their kids to go to school. They want them to be safe. They want them to have friends. They want them to learn.
: So, while there may be some additional challenges in a high-poverty setting, I think what parents want ultimately is the best for their kids. And so, you know, our job is to find ways to make that happen. And that can be a little more challenging sometimes in high-poverty settings. So, you know, one way this plays out is, let’s say, we know have parent conferences, we know that many of our parents have work schedules that are less flexible than maybe other parents would have, right.
: So, we have recognized that and created systems where parent conferences are just not from 5:00 to 7:00 in the evening. So, we’ll have parent conferences in the morning. We’ll have parent conferences in the afternoon. Then, we also will do sort of one-off parent conferences for parents that can’t make either the slots.
: So, yeah, there’s additional challenges, for sure. And sort of part of our job is to figure out how to design our system, so that it is, you know, reflective of the needs of the folks that we’re here to serve. So, yup, additional challenges, for sure.
: One thing that we have talked about for the last couple of years is this idea of getting proximate. And that means to us that we are in close contact with our families to make sure we know how to best serve them basically. So, that’s sort of our approach to what can be some challenges, for sure, in a high-poverty setting.
: Can you share any lessons learned in this year that you’ve been doing this?
: Yeah. I mean. I think — So, School Performance Institute is part of an existing organization, but it is a startup. And, you know, startups are a big lift. I think, maybe that’s not a lesson learned this year because this is the seventh startup that I’ve done. But it’s when you start a new one, you quickly are reminded of what the lift is like when you start something with scratch. That’s fresh on my mind, for sure.
: I think, always on our mind is how to find the right people that are mission-aligned. It takes a significant amount of time, and it’s well worth the front-end investment to find the right people. And it’s really critical right from the get go to have a very clear purpose. What do you call that? Mission, Vision, core purpose, or whatever, and a set of core values that you stick to, and that you’re really clear about, especially as you bring on new folks to your organization. I think that’s really important.
: I think, you know, in some ways I had to have sort of more of an appetite for failure with this startup than the other startups that I’ve done. The other startups have all either been USN non-profit that we started as a hub for our organization. And then, the five schools, four here and one in Denver, that I started up.
: The one thing, those are all hard. When I say stomach for failure, I mean, as an enterprise I am trying to sell things to people. And so, there is sort of more frequent rejection whether it’s, you know, we’re going after grant funders that are turning us down or we’re going after — you know, I have, you know, an email list that I send workshop notices to and people unsubscribe. So, there’s sort of failure all around in this world, and you have to have you have to be willing to say, “Yeah, that’s fine. I’m going to keep at this, I’m going to keep working no matter what.”
: We always talk about sort of you’re going to be in the startup world, and you’re going to be in the — Especially in the urban school world, you got to be willing to sort of run through walls to accomplish your mission. And so, that’s sort of the mindset that you have to take at the beginning, but you also have to keep it and sustain it. And that can be really hard.
: And then, I think, you know, you have to definitely love and believe in what you’re building because you’re spending so much time on on whatever that thing is. In my case, it’s this institute. And so, it happens to be something I love. So, the thing that I’m reading, the things that I’m studying, the things that I talk about with people, I love to do it because it all is stuff that I’m pretty passionate about.
: Well, what can we do to help, man? What do you need more of right now? What do you what are you in search of right now?
: You know, I think, one big thing is that we are sort of pursuing some funding, grant funding mostly since we’re a non-profit, to be able to fund sort of an approach to the work that has to do with improvement science. It also has to do with taking improvement science and doing it in a collaborative fashion.
: And they do this in healthcare, but we don’t really do this in education where there’s sort of this learning system where it happens over the course of time. Instead of coming for a one-off workshop, there’s a system that we’d like to put together that would tackle, you know, a significant problem in education that the learning plays out over the course of 6 to 18 months.
: So, we’d love to get the funding to sort of test out that idea to see if it is sort of a new approach to educational professional development that would really benefit people. That’s something that we’re really looking for and always looking for people to sort of spread the message that, you know, a lot of it is this divide between traditional and public and public charter schools that no matter where you are on that, we would encourage you to just actually sit down and have a conversation with somebody that’s on the other side of the issue. Maybe it’s even something you disagree with.
: And you can go further to take a step into one of those public charters that you maybe heard negative things about charters or something like that, but, maybe, you’ve never actually been there or talked to somebody that’s worked in one. We always love people to come, and visit us, and be willing to sit down and have that conversation. So, those are two big things for us.
: So, if you do get that funding, and I have no doubt that you will, do you think you may invest some of those dollars in a more robust, more ubiquitous, maybe with the aid of e-learning or whatever distribution of this learning, and these workshops, and these trainings? Is one of the places you might invest some of that money?
: Yeah. We absolutely would. And especially with the improvement science methodology, part of how the leader, the thought leaders in this area are doing this work is through these things called a networked improvement community, which often requires a group that is spread out across the country that can work on a common problem.
: And so, technology certainly plays a role in being able to make those communities, those collaborative work. Technology for sharing information, technology for the workshops, technology for knowledge management. So, I don’t think you can do this work through this improvement methodology without a technological component. So, we would absolutely be interested in that type of investment.
: Well, John, thank you so much for sharing your story today. If somebody wanted to learn more about School Performance Institute or United Schools Network, what’s the best way to get a hold of you?
: Yeah, the best way is my e-mail, which is JDues@UnitedSchoolsNetwork.org or feel free to call me on my cell phone. Should I give that or?
: Well, I think let’s do the e-mail. And if you have a website, that would probably be good.
: Yeah, sure. Website is www.SchoolPerformanceInstitute.org.
: Well, John Dues, Director of the School Performance Institute and Chief Learning Officer of the United Schools Network, it has been an absolute delight visiting with you this afternoon. Thank you so much.
: Yeah. Thank you, guys. And I really appreciate the opportunity.
: All right. Until next time, this is Stone Payton for Lee Kantor, our guest today, John Dues, and everyone here at the Business Radiox family saying we’ll see you next time on Learning Insights.