A Lesson in System-Wide Change

The State University of New York (SUNY) consists of 64 campuses with 465,000 students across the system. While it outperforms many other university systems across the country, under the leadership of Chancellor Nancy Zimpher there has been a renewed emphasis on educating more people and educating them better. SUNY aims to have 150,000 students graduate every year starting in 2020. But how does such a large system go about achieving such a new lofty goal?

During her keynote address at Carnegie’s Pathways National Forum, Zimpher highlighted how the university’s improvement efforts are based on bringing evidence-based practices to scale across the entire system. An important element of this broad initiative is implementing Carnegie’s pathways—Statway and Quantway—across all 30 of SUNY’s community colleges within three years, then adding these pathways at the system’s four-year schools. SUNY students can then participate in these programs that have a history of supporting students to complete developmental mathematics faster and more effectively. Investing in evidence-based practices alone is likely to increase student success at SUNY, but the Chancellor and her team are also employing three key improvement principles to ensure these good ideas are working reliably across the system.

First, before jumping straight to implementing these changes across all SUNY institutions, Zimpher and other leaders sought to understand the system that is producing the results they currently see. They initiated a statewide conversation by visiting every SUNY school and meeting with students and faculty across the state. Through these visits and discussions, Zimpher and her team were able to better understand the current system, learning what was working for whom, and under what conditions. It was during these visits that the true power of being a large network came to light, resulting in the creation of a new term—systemness, “the coordination of multiple components that when working together create a network of activity that is more powerful than any action of individual parts on its own.” Systemness acknowledges the power of the network to test things in diverse contexts to learn faster, instead of seeing it as a hindrance that impedes change and progress.

Leaders sought first to understand the system that it producing the results they currently see.

In the process of seeing the system that is SUNY, there was great appreciation for the pipeline that students progress through before arriving to higher education. While the focus of SUNY is to improve the experience of students once they arrive, Zimpher and her team recognized that there are many leaks in the pipeline before arrival on their campuses that reduce the number of New Yorkers that are successful in achieving their academic goals. Thus, SUNY’s improvement efforts reach beyond their own campuses into K-12 systems across the state, hoping to align the two systems to better support students. They saw that to truly reach their goal, they could not simply draw a line between them and the rest of the educational system, but rather must embrace the relationship and work to increase coherence.

Second, after seeing the complexity of the system and understanding its health and strengths, the next step was to set a “big audacious” goal. Based on the listening tour, the idea of educating more people and educating them better was the obvious goal for these efforts. That, in itself, certainly offers a challenging goal, but they knew that was not enough to drive efforts or evaluate progress. Examining the current completion and graduation data, Zimpher and her team decided to push themselves to the goal of having 150,000 students graduate every year starting in 2020, up from 93,000 students who currently graduate annually. This will be a challenge, but given what is known about the current system, the investment they are making in new practices, and the shared vision across the whole system, it seems achievable.

We can "only get the results we are seeking if we constantly examine our practice."

Third, as they begin their efforts to reach this goal, they have made a commitment to monitoring their progress at the classroom and student level. This emphasis on using data as they move forward in these efforts will allow for adjustments as needed, for identifying bright spots to be learned from throughout the network, and for supporting students and faculty that need it before it is too late. They will also be publicly sharing a performance assessment system that will evaluate progress. Zimpher emphasized that we can “only get the results we are seeking if we constantly examine our practice.” Data must be collected and analyzed not just related to the large goal, but within each classroom and school to capture what faculty are learning, and in turn, inform practices across the system.

Creating change within a large system is a challenge, but Zimpher highlighted the potential for success if a system embraces a culture of improvement while implementing programs and practices that are evidenced based. And rather than rushing to make these changes, they have worked to understand each campus and the needs of its students, creating a goal that is bold, but attainable. Progress will be sustained by constantly evaluating changes through a rigorous set of measures at the practice, school, and system level. It is under this model that 10 SUNY colleges are implementing Statway and Quantway this year. Guided by these principles, educating more students and educating them better seems inevitable.