UP Education Network – dramatic results through people and process
School by school, UP Education Network is proving that school turnaround is possible through its thoughtful investments in human capital and data management.
In Massachusetts, the United States’ top performing state in K-12 education, there are roughly 77,000 students attending failing public schools (8% of public school children).  Across the country, thousands of students are stuck in persistently under-performing schools. In 2010, HBS graduate Scott Given founded UP Education Network, a non-profit designed to address this issue.
The UP Business Model
UP Education Network (UP) is an education management organization that “rapidly transforms chronically under-performing district schools into extraordinary schools that sustain high achievement over time.” UP does not open new schools; it partners with school districts to restart and manage their most struggling schools. UP implements a new school model and hires new staff, while continuing to serve the same students that previously attended the school.
The process of restarting a school is complex. In order to minimize disruption for students and their families, the school closes at the end of one year (i.e., end of June) and opens the following fall (i.e., late August) under UP’s management. Over the span of two months, UP must onboard a new staff of 50-85 teachers and leaders, train them on UP’s model, renovate the building, and build relationships with students and families.
The work does not get easier once the school reopens. UP restarts deeply struggling schools with broken cultures and students who are multiple levels behind their peers. UP must rebuild the school culture and behavior norms, while accelerating student learning. The districts hold UP to high performance standards and they must quickly demonstrate results to maintain their partnership agreement.
UP’s Operating Model
In order to fulfill its promise of restarting schools and delivering outstanding results to students, CEO Scott Given had to design an organization with unique capabilities. In particular, Given made critical investments in two functions – human capital and data management – that separate it from a typical school district and other school management organizations.
To manage its immense annual hiring needs – each restart requires 50-85 new staff and its existing schools have ongoing hiring needs as a result of attrition – UP staffs a large talent recruitment team. Compared to other school management organizations, UP has nearly 2.5 times as many recruiting staff per student served. (See video for sample recruitment resources).
UP’s investments in human capital extend beyond recruiting. UP designed teacher and leader residency programs to develop talent in-house. Aspiring teachers and school leaders are embedded in a school and, over the course of a year, observe master teachers and leaders, take on increasing responsibility, and participate in professional development. UP’s residency programs build a pipeline of new talent trained specifically in UP’s model.
Focus on Data
To ensure that its schools are able to quickly raise student achievement, UP is investing significant resources into data management. UP gives its schools real time information on students’ academic and behavioral progress and helps them use that data to shift their teaching practices.
- Data collection: Explicit data collection procedures require teachers to document student performance and behavior. UP is now working to build its own assessment system to measure and monitor student academic performance throughout the year.
- Access, Analysis and Action: UP created a series of dashboards that provide detailed information on the student, classroom, and school level; dashboards showcase trends and allow for cross-classroom comparisons. UP offers workshops on data analysis and the management team regularly reviews data with school leaders to establish routines around data use.
UP now manages five schools in Massachusetts and has achieved remarkable results to date. On average, in the first year of turnaround, its schools improved by 34 percentage points in math and 18 points in English Language Arts (ELA). Comparatively, the average 1-year improvement in “restart” schools across the country that reopened in 2011 was 4 percentage points for math and 1 point for ELA. UP’s first turnaround school, UP Academy Boston, has ranked #1 for growth in math among all schools serving middle school students for four consecutive years (see graph for 2015 results comparing UP to peer schools). UP’s sustained results are driven by high quality, committed teachers and leaders who have the tools and training to unlock students’ true potential.
 Families for Excellent Schools http://www.familiesforexcellentschools.org/campaign/massachusetts
 UP Education Network mission statement.
 Data, information and multimedia resources regarding UP’s operating model were sourced through conversations with UP and its schools, as well as organizational documents and its website.
 Analysis of organizational charts from UP Education Network and charter management organization peers.
 Analysis of Massachusetts Department of Education data.
 Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Student comments on UP Education Network – dramatic results through people and process
Fantastic analysis! I’m so glad you chose to write about UP – I have really been inspired by their work over the last few years. I’m so happy to see students that have been underserved for so long get the opportunity for a top notch education. I know several teachers and members of the recruitment team, and definitely agree with your views on the importance of a focus on human capital at UP. I also think you hit the nail on the head with your mention of the residency programs – creating and mentoring a pool of high quality internal candidates with institutional knowledge is critical for UP’s success.
A couple of concerns I have for UP going forward are:
1. Teacher burnout. This is an issue at nearly all high-performing turnaround schools, and I hope that UP is putting the necessary resources behind addressing this potential problem. Since Scott Given is a former teacher, I assume he is taking steps to combat burnout.
2. Public resistance to “no excuses” education. There is no question that UP is demanding of its students, standing behind the “no excuses” system that has become popular in recent years. While I think this is critical to maintaining a positive and productive school culture, it has led to some public backlash in some cases. My hope is that the school’s fantastic student performance data is enough to preempt resistance to the behavioral system.
Great thoughts, Garrett! Thanks for writing.
Re: 1 – Burnout is definitely issue across the ed reform sector. Compared to a typical charter where teachers are paid below-market rates, I think that UP benefits from its “in-district” status and the fact that teachers are paid on the district scale, which is higher than most charters. But money is not enough to sustain high quality talent! They also have great leadership opportunities for teachers that help with retention. Lastly, I think a lot of teachers are really driven by the mission and the fact that UP is not a typical charter – it uses a charter-like model to turnaround a struggling district school.
Re: 2- definitely a concern. UP tries to build a lot of love and positive energy in its school. UP actually sets goals around the ratio of demerits to merits that teachers should give out and it uses its data tracking system to track performance. UP is also monitoring its graduates to see how they perform as they get to HS and to college. As graduates of UP and other no excuses charter schools move through high school and college and into jobs over the next few years, it will be really interesting to see their progress and hear their reflections on how the no excuses model prepared them for the “real world.”
Great to see the opportunity UP is creating for these students. I’ve worked with a charter school when I was living in Chicago and it was sad to know how many students outside of that charter network were going under served. I echo Gerrit’s concerns around teacher burnout because often times these teachers are new and/or inexperienced and are faced with a steep learning curve. Furthermore, they’re being brought in because the school has been facing serious issues, which is a tough environment to develop within in a healthy manner.
While I love their mission, I do wonder how well they will be able to scale this model as they encounter more and more troubled K-12 institutions. Finding 50-85 capable and available staff who are willing to take on such a challenge on an annual basis is both difficult and expensive. I wonder how often UP is able or willing to leverage existing staff within the failing school and putting them through UP capacity development programs as a means of reducing costs and leveraging existing knowledge and experiences. That said, I hope they are able to scale and excel – the students need it!
Thanks for the comments! I think your thoughts are spot on – I see human capital as the key barrier to their ability to scale. This is especially true as UP looks to serve students outside of the major cities (e.g., Lawrence or Springfield MA). These smaller cities don’t attract talent in the same way that Boston or NYC does. Luckily, UP isn’t the only organization that needs to recruit talent in these places. UP has started to partner with other organizations, local foundations, and city officials to develop recruiting and marketing efforts that will draw talent out to these cities. For example, a group in Springfield has engaged a real estate developer to build a new apartment complex to provide young teachers with enticing housing options.
2 other quick thoughts on talent:
1. The need for human capital is also the key driver behind their move to create residency programs for leadership and for teachers.
2. As UP continues to deliver outstanding results using this unique turnaround model, they’re building a really strong brand and reputation that attracts high quality talent.
I love that you profiled UP! It is definitely a unique value proposition in the education space and one that has been invaluable to rethinking how to turn around failing schools. I know the word limit makes it tough, but I would also love to read more. Human Capital and data are two critical features, but as you allude to there are so many components that make these schools work, which is part of what I found difficult in breaking down a school’s business and operating models. Definitely an interesting read and I look forward to continuing to watch them work! I will also just echo the talent comments and how important and hard talent recruitment becomes, especially outside of major cities like Boston. Thank you!