Would you go to a hospital that was still operating as it was 100 years ago, or even 10 years ago?
Would you be satisfied with a car using 1970 technology?
Why would you send your child to a school that looks like the school your grandparents attended?
When we recruited parents to AltSchool Max Ventilla always asked why parents would settle for schools that look and operate like those of a century ago. As a lifelong educator, I recognized the truth in his description of schools, and it made me uncomfortable. Throughout my career, I have worked for change and had grown tired of tweaking current practices in the hopes of achieving better results. I longed for innovation, new ways of designing and implementing learning experiences and new ways of defining success but I learned over and over that schools are built for stability, not innovation. I joined AltSchool because I was tired of the timid approach to change I found in independent schools and sick of the top-down, coercive mandates I saw in public and charter schools. Since AltSchool was founded five years ago, many public, charter, and independent schools have tackled innovation. Many are building models for personalized learning, redesigning curriculum and adopting technology to support mastery-based, learning. It is exhilarating to see the beginnings of an authentic transformation. Schools must innovate with speed and agility, attributes associated with successful start-ups. But the innovation we need in education will not come from start-ups, even those building great education technology. Educators must lead the messy, challenging work. Innovative schools need systems for setting goals, measuring progress, and ensuring continuous improvement. They need OKRs, objectives and key results, a process for executing on audacious goals that I used during my time at AltSchool. Before schools begin developing goals and identifying key results, there must be a unity of purpose and a culture that empowers teachers to make decisions, take risks and hold themselves accountable for results. Accelerated Schools, a late 20th century model for school reform, successfully built a unified, positive and empowering school culture but often failed to achieve sustainable innovation. By adopting the best of the Accelerated Schools model and adapting OKRs for use in schools, educators can discover, test and spread innovative practices.
The OKR system is not new. As John Doerr shares in his book Measure What Matters, it was in use in the 1980s when he learned it from Andy Grove, the chairman of Intel. Just a few miles from Intel’s headquarters Stanford professor Hank Levin was launching Accelerated Schools, a school reform initiative that changed the organizational model of individual schools from top-down, compliance-driven and tradition preferent to educator-centric. In Accelerated Schools, teachers were responsible for diagnosing challenges, setting priorities, identifying and implementing innovative practices, and evaluating outcomes. By the time I joined Hank’s team at Stanford’s National Center for Accelerated Schools a significant number of schools had achieved success with the AS Model. Through the process, educators, traditionally siloed in their classrooms, developed close relationships with one another and celebrated their shared passion for guiding children. Administrators and teachers reported a renewed pride in their work. But district leaders were frequently impatient with the amount of time it took to improve test scores. Sometimes schools would focus on priorities unrelated to learning or fail to identify rigorous and timely metrics of success. Too many schools dropped out, often when there was a change in administration. In the early 2000’s the Accelerated Schools model ceased to be a national movement, a victim of NCLB’s emphasis on high stakes testing and of the model’s cumbersome features and long timeline. The use of OKRs could have helped Accelerated Schools focus on the right goals and measure progress in a timely fashion.
Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?
When a young Steve Jobs recruited Pepsi executive John Scully to join Apple, he knew that people need a compelling reason why they should sign on for the uncertainty of a new venture. Start-up founders recruit top talent by sharing their passion, vision and, most importantly, why that vision is essential. Levin knew that people become teachers because they are passionate about changing the world, one child, one class, at a time. He also recognized their passion as an untapped resource. The most compelling feature of the Accelerated School model was that it brought all of a school’s educators together to construct and fulfill a vision for the success of the entire school. Launching AS was an exhilarating time when teachers, administrators, and parents came together to examine the why of school, celebrate their strengths and develop a shared vision. In Accelerated Schools and organizations using OKRs passion for a shared purpose is the launchpad for defining objectives, the what we want to accomplish
So you’re passionate? How passionate? What actions does your passion lead you to do? If the heart doesn’t find a perfect rhyme with the head, then your passion means nothing.
In his 2018 TEDTalk about OKRs’ Doerr played a video of Bono endorsing the system and explaining, in the above quote, that passion without action leads to nothing. Objectives, the O in OKRs, set the focus for action. In start-ups and seasoned organizations, the executive team selects objectives that are significant, concrete and action-oriented. Doerr says good objectives are a vaccine against fuzzy thinking. In my work with schools, public and independent, I often encounter fuzzy thinking. Educators take many decisive actions each day but have little experience analyzing how their work aligns with their colleagues in addressing the schoolwide challenges. In Accelerated Schools, teachers struggled with the model’s whole-school process for setting priorities. Schools tackling innovation need a leadership team of three to five members who work closely with the head administrator just as executive teams work with CEOs. This will not be a return to the hierarchical governance structure resented by teachers if the group includes classroom teachers who have innovated in their classrooms and earned the respect and trust of the faculty.
The first job of the leadership team is to work with the head administrator to guide the schoolwide visioning process. Then team members identify schoolwide objectives by asking, “What are the most critical things we can do now to advance toward our vision?” Objectives answer that question. The team selects three to five organizational objectives.
Objectives articulate commitment to a vision but, as Doerr says, “they are the stuff of inspiration and far horizons.” Next, the leadership team identifies key results for each objective. Key results are measurable and verifiable outcomes. They describe how objectives will be achieved and measure whether they were. Objectives are longterm, lasting for a year or more. Key results always evolve as the work progresses through the phases of innovation, research, design, pilot, and implementation. Progress toward objectives is driven by cross-functional working groups formed around the schoolwide objectives and chaired by a member of the leadership committee. A school tackling the objectives listed in Figure One would have five working groups: mastery-based learning, learner co-design, goal setting, community service and applied learning. Working groups develop group objectives and key results in service of the broader goals. Figure 2 and Figure 3 show how objectives and key results cascade, creating alignment across grades and departments throughout the school. Note that the schoolwide key results have a nine-month timeline while the working group results are graded every three months. The working group will write new key results every trimester.
Working groups meet weekly to report and score, progress on key results. When a key result is on track, it is scored green. When there is an obstacle to progress the KR is in the yellow zone, and the working group must identify challenges and explore solutions, including refining the key result. Key results scored as red may no longer be useful and, with the support of the leadership team might be dismissed.
Every three months each working group grades progress toward their objective. Doerr recommends grading an objective by averaging the percentage completion rates of its associated key results. For example, if there are five key results for an objective and three are completed the objective would get a grade of .06. A grade of 0.7 to 1.0 means the objective was accomplished. If the objective was in the research, design or pilot phase, the working group will move it to the next stage and develop new key results. If the objective was in the implementation stage, it does not have to expire. New key results can be written to monitor ongoing effectiveness. A score of 0.4 to 0.6 signifies that progress toward the objective was made, but not completed. The working group and leadership team must decide whether to continue into the next quarter, modify or dismiss. A score of 0.0 to 0.3 means no authentic progress was made. The working group and leadership team must pinpoint obstacles and determine how they can be overcome. Sometimes the objective is refined, and it may be dismissed. Weekly scoring and quarterly grading hold working groups accountable and empower members to reassess and iterate as needed. Annual and quarterly OKR wrap-ups are a time for reflection, planning, and celebration.
Despite decades of advocating for change and countless mandates for reform today’s schools look very similar to those of a hundred years ago. Few people are satisfied with the status quo, but innovation is still fragmented and frustrating. It doesn’t have to be. The Accelerated Schools model demonstrated the importance of establishing urgency, building a leadership coalition, and creating and communicating a vision. OKRs aligned with the school’s vision and measured by agreed-upon results will give educators guidance and the freedom to experiment, make errors, learn and generate new ideas. Coupling processes from Accelerated Schools with OKRs can push educators to create innovation that will stick and spread across the school and beyond.