Preventative Practices Work for Homelessness, So How Can They Work for Student Success?

I’ve been thinking a lot about education lately. Well, “lately” makes this sound like it’s new. In some capacity, it’s all I really ever think about. But what I’ve been thinking this time is somewhat depressing. The nature of improving education is so inherently directly tied to improving people that it’s exhausting. Every teacher is, in some capacities, also a social worker and a therapist.

Teachers aren’t trained to do that, but the best ones excel in those roles as well. We spend all of our days trying to help individuals while thinking of sweeping policies that would be good for all. I was reading this article about Austin’s population who experiences homelessness (shout to one of my best friends and favorite people Taylor Cook who is on the iTeam). iTeam is an innovation group focused on evaluating and coming up with new strategies to address Austin’s growing homeless population. I couldn’t help but draw the parallels of what iTeam is accomplishing to what education hopes to accomplish. In particular:

When we brought all the different departments together, that was really our aha moment,” says interim Austin Assistant City Manager Sara Hensley, who oversees the newly coordinated city effort called for in the audit reports. “The most important part was us recognizing who was spending what and how much and when. Internal departments were all spending dollars on important things, but not everyone knew who was doing what.”

Another article referencing the impressive success of University of South Florida mirrors this saying:

At USF, as with nearly all universities, student services like health care and residential life had been kept on one side of an administration/faculty demilitarized zone, with academic affairs on the other. So [our vice provost for student affairs and student success] created a new body called the Persistence Committee.”

That shouldn’t be a shocker. Areas with identified need often have multiple groups identifying the need. The separate and individual efforts often compound to an improved outcome but at the end of the day it feels impossible to know which dollar fixed which problem.

In the case of Austin’s homeless population, some of the iTeam’s way to track success are: Which problem did we fix? Is our homeless community less hungry? Do more of them have a bed to sleep in at night? Are more of them getting substance abuse treatment?

Educators tend to track success with questions like: Are our students passing more courses? Are our students attending tutoring? Are our students more engaged in student activities? Which dollar for each student changed the trajectory of an otherwise grim outcome?

Hensley attempts to capture this process by looking at the impact of funding. “There’s a lot of questions we’ve been asking,” says Hensley. “Is it working? Have we been giving out money and not getting results? We also realized we have a lot of different funders, and we pulled them together to ask what they were doing. If we could agree on what needs to be funded first and pool our resources to their highest and best use, we could have a big collective impact.”

This strategy is possible at scale, with data rigor, in higher-ed. If we know which intervention was most impactful, we can call the right plays for each individual student.

This is one of the hardest parts to incorporate into education. The siloed nature of departments and colleges means that the pooling of resources is often not on the table. Even in smaller private K-12 spaces where I have worked, I never had visibility into what anyone else was doing. I just needed to teach my curriculum and care about my students and make sure they were fed, happy, and educated.

“We started, as an IT company would, by talking to the users,” says iTeam project manager Taylor Cook (who is also coincidentally one of my best friends and favorite people ever). “Which had never been done in a deliberate and systematic way before. They have a lot of knowledge of what leads to homelessness and what allows you to exit, and why a lot of people do fall back into it. Even those who’ve been housed, there’s a lot of stress there. Your landlord may change their mind. There’s not much of a safety net there. The best indicator of future homelessness is past homelessness.”

If we reword Taylor Cook’s statement and swap out some terms for education buzzwords, we get this:

We started, as an IT company would, by talking to the users. Which had never been done in a deliberate and systematic way before. The students have a lot of knowledge of what leads to non-persistence and what allows you to persist, and why a lot of people drop out. Even those who’ve been successful academically, there’s a lot of stress there. Your home life may change. There’s not much of a safety net there. The best indicator of future struggle is past struggle.

This business process Taylor speaks of reminds me of a presentation I saw from the Registrar and Research Analyst at Brazosport College at this past year’s American Association of Community College conference. They had a feeling that certain business processes at their community college created obstacles for students.

Ever try to make a doctor’s appointment and you were on hold for a minute longer than you wanted to be and so you hung up only to forget for weeks that you still need to go to the doctor? Imagine that situation but the act of forgetting to call back for weeks meant that you missed the registration deadline. This registrar’s efforts to find the gaps in their process was facilitated by a data visualization company for community colleges called Zogo Tech. Imagine finding out that roughly 40% of your students who don’t persist were held up by a hold that theoretically has an easy resolution. Kudos to Priscilla Sanchez and Cindy Ullrich at Brazosport College for figuring this out and reducing dropouts by 5 percentage points in one year.

Screen Shot 2018-08-29 at 3.00.46 PM Diagram courtesy of Brazosport College, 2018.

People who go into education, social work or homeless prevention were drawn to those areas because they wanted to serve a human problem. The idea that we can fix it if we throw our hearts into it is only going to be good for one person at a time and sadly does nothing to cure anything at scale.

I think this feeling is what got to me at the end of my teaching career. Every year I would see the same problems and have to start all over again. I always wondered, if I had taught a grade younger, would I be able to fix the problem before it was too late? I have a feeling if I carried out that experiment, I would have begun a journey that has no end.

The reason I find this so difficult is that most interventions are reactionary. It’s waiting for something big to happen so the person or entity in power can respond. USF’s approach is to find the signal in the noise before the catastrophic event. It’s picking up on vibrations 100 miles from the coast and signaling a tsunami warning. It’s changing information at scale. It’s analytics at a whole separate level. It’s causing change at scale.

About a third of universities I speak with on behalf of Civitas Learning have a newly formed Student Success Task Force/Retention Committee/Student Success Council or some other cross-functional group that is attempting to do for students what the iTeam in Austin is doing for homelessness: view every current effort, identify duplications, establish priorities, evaluate the user experience, and then go. My job at Civitas Learning is to learn about schools and their initiatives and help guide them to their success by making recommendations and guiding them through their decision to change. 

In the face of knowing that improving education means agreeing to tackle the social ills that have and sadly will always permeate humanity, we must set up business practices to create systems that correct the core problem and provide opportunities to intervene individually with potential to scale. We will always have these problems, and these problems may persist over time in new, creative ways. It’s our job to always have the solution.

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