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You Can Learn A Lot from Third Graders: 4 Tips to Lasting Transformational Change from an Education Startup

Systemic change is within the reach of our educational system and startups when we think different.


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Michael Ashley

3 years ago | 6 min read

Henry Ford once said, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can't -- you're right.”

The surprising thing about this remark is how it assigns agency to us, not outside forces. No doubt, the automation king witnessed his share of people arguing for their own limitations. However, Ford recognized we wake up to our power once we mind-shift from the impossible to the possible.

Education is also an area in which people too readily submit to limited thinking, especially regarding transformational growth. For years, we have lost ground on literacy. According to ProLiteracy, more than 30 million Americans cannot read or write above a third-grade level. However, rather than rethink our thinking, we seem to be doubling down on a losing strategy. Each year educational budgets increase. And yet literacy test scores remained unmoved.

When companies do this: throw good money after bad with poor results, they hit walls quickly. The way out is to change your thinking, according to Jay Connor, Founder/CEO of Learning Ovations, an educational startup whose motto is, “You will know us by your outcomes.”

To date, his organization has worked with more than 1,000 teachers, impacting 20,000 students in 25 districts across the country. Their 2018-2019 outcomes prove it’s possible to transform how teachers support kids learning to read. Historically, across these districts, two-thirds of students read at below basic levels on average. In just the past year, after partnering with Learning Ovations, the first graders' reading scores improved by more than 50% and are on a trajectory for well over 90% of children to read at or above grade level by 3rd grade’s end.

Witnessing such remarkable growth led Connor and me to work on a new book about transforming our educational spectrum one mind at a time. However, the insights we have received from writing it don’t just apply to the education field, they are required learning for a cutthroat economy demanding innovative thinking. Connor and I believe today’s forward-thinking businesses can achieve similar great outcomes by following these tips.

Tip one: focus on the aspirational, not the marginal.

Organizational buy-in best occurs when people are driven by outsized goals. Consider recent movements. Whether it be the fight for marriage equality, or the biggest ever climate change protest change, fired up participants galvanize not at the prospect of enacting moderate reform, but seizing lasting, extraordinary change.

Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old activist at the forefront of the latter movement, put it best when speaking to the UN Climate Action Summit on the dangers of global warming half-measures. “The popular idea of cutting our emissions in half in 10 years only gives us a 50% chance of staying below 1.5 degrees [Celsius], and the risk of setting off irreversible chain reactions beyond human control. Fifty percent may be acceptable to you… a 50% risk is simply not acceptable to us — we who have to live with the consequences.”

In a similar vein, Learning Ovations witnessed how vitalizing aspirational goals can be for school districts beaten down to believe they can only expect marginal literacy improvements. “Once they realized higher achievement was possible, they stopped accepting incremental gains,” said Connor. “Instead, they began seeking ways to spur unprecedented change.”

This paradigm shift matters for organizations because marginal improvement neglects the whole. It allows systemic stagnation because siloed departments can keep doing what they are doing — to the same (little) effect. On the other hand, tackling major feats requires substantial efforts throughout the entire organization. Connor experienced this firsthand working with school districts. “Setting a goal to get everyone reading in three years motivated the stakeholders to achieve the seemingly impossible.”

Tip two: change your limitations expectations.

The key takeaway from Learning Ovations’ literacy approach is that educators must individualize instruction for children. Instead of blaming teachers for lack of progress — or worse, accepting the notion some students will never be able to read — we must redefine what outcomes we will tolerate.

To put this idea in context, would we accept mediocre commercial airline flying? Would we be okay with planes safely landing 90% of the time? Of course not. Likewise, would we be fine with surgeons leaving sponges in 10% of their patients? Not at all.

Connor couldn’t accept such lackluster outcomes either. Prior to taking Learning Ovations’ A2i (Assessment to Instruction) program to the educational marketplace, he served as a Divisional President and Senior Vice President Marketing for two Fortune 100 corporations. No stranger to the business world, Connor knows we are not only failing future generations by not solving literacy for all, we are dooming our economy.

The data backs this up. Literacy is a gateway problem, leading to incarceration and lower lifetime earning potentials. These negative individual outcomes also then spill over to society at large. To this point, a study by McKinsey and Company shows gaps in educational achievement cost the US trillions of dollars annually. (That’s trillions, with a capital T.)

“Educators must put their foot down. They must say this is not acceptable,” says Connor. “The same goes for parents, policymakers, businesses professionals — really, every citizen. Our ability to function as a nation, not to mention, thrive, depends on a literate populace. Once we agree nothing else is acceptable will we enact full transformational growth.”

This truth extends to today’s businesses. Once the rank, and especially the file, sets their sights on unchartered vistas, they must decide which outcomes are intolerable. In entrepreneurial consultant Gino Wickman’s book, Traction, he makes a point to demand everyone in an organization embrace core values. “It all comes to getting the right people in the right seats,” he writes.

Bottom line: if any team member doesn’t share a group’s vision as to what is acceptable — and what is not — they are a hindrance to transformational growth. And they must go.

Tip three: pinpoint a benchmark for emulation.

When I first began my content marketing company, I studied the competition. Even though whenever I attended networking mixers, people told me they had never met someone who does what I do: transform aspiring authors into thought leaders through collaborative storytelling, I knew there were professionals who did this well.

The best in the business co-created meaningful projects impacting major aspects of life, from entertainment to politics to government. To understand what might be possible with the right strategic messaging and packaging I reverse-engineered their processes. I contemplated data points, like book sales, social media followers, and revenue streams to understand how I could emulate my industry’s standards — and maybe even surpass them.

Through his experiences working with other educators also daring to emulate others’ successes, Connor found a corresponding benefit. Think of it as a rising-tide-lifts-all-ships analogy. Should one school district encounter another obtaining unprecedented literacy improvement, they could make achieving similar results their own new target.

“This same phenomenon holds true in business,” says Connor. “Whether it be manufacturing, sales, or logistics, look around to see who is doing something well. Then go back and ask your team, ‘How can we do what they did? How can we hit their benchmark? And how can we do things better?’”

Tip Four: conduct a stakeholder benefits analysis.

Returning to Wickman’s insistence on team members embracing an organization’s vision, getting clear on who will benefit from transformation is the final buy-in must. Analyzing a spectrum of indicators can allow groups to understand if alignment is possible. In Learning Ovations’ experience, they found it beneficial to calculate how literacy progress could impact stakeholders at every level. Understanding priorities not only informed key aspects of their literacy platform, it helped Learning Ovations communicate with each party.

“Recognizing individual concerns allowed us to streamline our incentives process,” says Connor. “Literacy challenges at school often manifest as behavioral problems. When this happens, both students and teachers can succumb to feelings of hopelessness, yet their reactions may vary. Teachers can burn out while students misbehave or disengage. Likewise, district level leadership can also suffer from their own stresses as educational costs mount, criticism rises, and results languish.”

Evaluating what matters most to each stakeholder and what can happen when their needs aren’t being met, allowed Learning Ovations to optimize alignment at every level. Every concern, from better scores, to reduced budgets and behavioral problems, to stress alleviation, factored into their model. “We made it a point that the intended benefits impact each player at each level in the educational system. Even the families,” says Connor. “For instance, it wasn’t enough to promise sufficient cost savings if the ultimate results didn’t line up with everyone’s expectations for transformative improvement.”

This type of a holistic benefits analysis best serves the interests of businesses, too. The recent instance of Volkswagen cheating on their emission tests illustrates how myopically considering a limited set of stakeholders doesn’t just hurt others, it damages an organization in the long run. Beyond costing Volkswagen over $30 billion dollars, damages extended to the company’s faltering stock price, and just recently, criminal indictments of senior leadership. Worse than betraying the public’s trust, Volkswagen’s foolish decision is only contributing to the same climate change problem raised by the aforementioned activists.

Ultimately, today’s organizations stand to benefit from transformational growth when they forgo shortsighted thinking — when they chase the seemingly impossible. As Connor’s experiences demonstrate, the state of education may be viewed as a bellwether of society’s health. Embracing insights gleaned from Learning Ovations’ efforts to produce systemic change can make today’s businesses stronger. More importantly, emulating such forward-thinking on a massive scale can help us all create a better world.

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