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Blatz: Football Is a Finite Game With Clear Winners & Losers. Ending Educational Disparity Is a Long Game. 3 Strategies to Help All Kids End Up Winners

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Like many of my fellow Cincinnatians, I rejoiced when the Bengals won the AFC Championship on Jan. 30 for the first time in over 30 years. For those in the “Who Dey” nation, it is a story of determination, hard work and overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds. On Sunday, they’ll play in the Super Bowl. Whether the game ends in victory or loss, one thing is for certain: The game will end.

Football reminds us of the nature of finite games — contests where there are fixed rules, a clear endpoint and easily identifiable winners and losers. On the other hand, an infinite game has one goal: to keep playing. Because of that, infinite players focus less on what has happened and more on what is possible. That mindset helps leaders effectively overcome challenges.

An election is a finite game. Democracy is an infinite game. The global pandemic is a finite match. Eliminating institutionalized disparities that are exposed during crises is an infinite one. 

Infinite challenges require as much innovation as they do ongoing attention. They require the ability to look at problems in a different way, to see opportunities to upend systems that never really worked for everybody anyway. Where are the bright spots? How can we highlight lessons learned? At StriveTogether, we leverage power in numbers — using data that reveals how students are succeeding and how systems are supporting or impeding that success, like the amount of funding per student in a school district. Such information illuminates the nation’s most pressing challenges, lays the foundation for tough conversations and brings communities to the table to act together. Community leaders accomplish more when they use data to guide small tests of change, innovate and then scale what works across systems — like housing, health, and education — that impact opportunity for young people.

Here are three things that I believe communities can do to put people of color and children living in poverty on a better path:

1. Use shared measurement systems at the community level to hold each other accountable for results. Leaders need more than a broad, common agenda; they need agreement on ways success will be measured. For example, in Norwalk, Connecticut, the community committed to making sure every child entered kindergarten ready to learn. Norwalk ACTS, part of the StriveTogether network, engaged 23 community partners to use the same tool to screen early childhood development to ensure that kids are on track. The shared measurement system and collaborative improvement strategies resulted in an increase in the number of children starting kindergarten ready to learn from 67 percent (2018-19) to 74 percent (2020-21).

2. Invest in data to redefine what’s possible. Data should be both quantitative and qualitative — there should be measurable results that also reflect the experiences of the community. It should be disaggregated to help shift practices, resources, policy and power to dig deeper into the roots of inequitable systems and to better understand what the target should be. For example, education shouldn’t ultimately be about credentials or prestige; it should be about creating economic mobility. In central Texas, E3 Alliance research used data to understand racial, ethnic and income-based discrepancies in student math achievement. It found that disparities begin in fifth grade, with students of color and those living in poverty taking regular math classes rather than opting into advanced courses. Schools adopted a policy to automatically enroll middle school students in advanced math classes, and the community invested in highly qualified teachers. Central Texas now leads the state with the highest percentage of students completing Algebra 1 by eighth grade, at 40 percent. Among Black and Latino fifth graders with the highest math performance, the difference in Algebra 1 enrollment compared with their white peers has been reduced by 75 percent and 50 percent, respectively.

3. Develop an abundance mindset. More federal funding from the American Rescue Plan, information and technology are available now than ever before. It is time to invest in communities rather than merely deploying stopgap measures that stifle systemic change. For example, the city of Milwaukee recognized the impact of high turnover rates among early childhood professionals on young children and invested $5 million to supplement salaries to reward teacher education and incentivize continuity of care. This investment was made possible by shifting federal American Rescue Plan funds as a generational opportunity. Community leaders need audacious goals that force them to step up, not a scarcity mindset that keeps us from stepping out.

There is no doubt that the country is facing some incredible challenges. But now is not the time to back down or get distracted by political skirmishes that don’t prepare children for what’s to come. Those of us working in education and systems transformation need to take the courageous act of renouncing cynicism as the primary vehicle of change. It is time to embrace the nation’s core values of liberty and justice. As Toni Morrison wrote, “the function of freedom is to free someone else.”

Community leaders need to operate with an infinite mindset and examine the larger picture of what is at stake. This means looking toward accountability, possibility and abundance. This is not a Hail Mary pass thrown in desperation; this is a deliberate strategy to lean on what’s working. If we fumble this moment, we could be setting up for an entire generation of learning loss. But if we succeed, we’ll have a new generation of leaders who take us further than ever before.

Jennifer Blatz is president and CEO of StriveTogether, a nonprofit working to transform failing systems with a collaborative improvement methodology that directs data from small changes to inform adjustments in the community. 

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