It's All About Strategy: How Focus Leads to Breakthrough Outcomes

- Aaron Lieberman, Chief Executive Officer

In 2009, we completed a strategy review at Acelero Learning that led to a dramatic change in our mission and focus. Prior to that time, our top strategic goal was to be the biggest and best Head Start program in the nation, and we had a very generic mission statement that talked about providing comprehensive services in partnership with the community. When we revisited our strategy, we decided to remove the word “biggest” and instead focus on being the best, with a stated goal of closing the achievement gap and achieving breakthrough child outcomes. We similarly revised our mission statement: to bring a relentless focus on child and family outcomes to close the achievement gap for the children, families, and communities served by the Head Start program.

Based on this new strategy and revised mission statement, we made a series of important decisions. We decided to only apply for one new Head Start program per year so we could focus on improving our current operations. We also hired key content experts--Dr. Ellen Frede for education and Lori Levine for family services--to help us design a new approach focused on truly closing the achievement gap. We also committed to questioning all "sacred cows" and re-doubling our efforts to use data to track our progress on compliance and outcomes across everything we do.

Our big bet worked: an outside evaluation of child outcomes at our programs, conducted by the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers, has shown increasing year-over-year child outcome gains. Children we serve for two years are now making an average gain of 16 points on the PPVT--more than double the national Head Start average. These are some of the largest recorded child outcome gains at any early childhood program. Focus leads to outcomes: our more measured growth--adding one program per year--has helped us grow while increasing our quality and impact each year.

Over the last four months, we have engaged in a similar review of our work at Shine Early Learning, a sister company to Acelero Learning focused on disseminating the strategies and tools we use at Acelero Learning to the rest of the Head Start and Pre-K world. We have decided to adopt a similar focus on outcomes: our new mission is to demonstrate and deliver breakthrough child outcome gains for our Shine partners at significant scale. In this formulation, we are not simply trying to help others improve--we are holding ourselves accountable for our partners' achievement of breakthrough child outcomes in their own Head Start programs.

Shine Insight data system dashboard

Shine Insight Profile

Shine Insight Profile

The powerful thing about committing to a clear mission is how it helps you make choices. As such, we have decided to concentrate our work with other Head Start and Pre-K programs into expanding our Shine Assist model. Through Shine Assist, we provide partners with an extensive mix of hands-on, in-person, and virtual support to help customize our tools and approaches. Nearly 30 Head Start programs serving over 35,000 children are a part of this fast-growing effort. An increasing number of these programs are also using our Shine Insight data system--the first new data system designed just for Head Start in over a decade. Insight helps our partners see the data they need most to ensure compliance and drive outcomes, and it has our family services outcome tracking tools built in. By bundling our tools, our support, and Shine Insight, we can help our partners begin to achieve the same breakthrough outcomes we see at our own Head Start programs.

A good strategy also helps you make decisions about what not to do. In fact, a mentor of mine recently shared that if you have settled on a strategy that does not force you to make difficult choices---including some that will upset both customers and members of your team--then you likely have not focused in on real, strategic choices. So what difficult choices have we made? Based on our desire to concentrate and deepen our impact, we have decided not to sell Shine Insight and our Shine Access library as stand-alone products. These products are powerful and many Head Start programs use them, but we have decided to focus our time on working with partners who are most invested in pursuing breakthrough child outcomes through the Shine Assist model. This is a powerful new direction for us, and one that has made some of our leaders and current customers upset. It has cleared the hurdle, therefore, of placing sufficient focus on choice and trade-offs to make people uncomfortable.

On a personal level, this new strategy also resonates with the mission I have been focused on for every day of my professional career. I want to play a role in helping lift significant numbers of children and families out of poverty by ensuring every child who needs it receives a Head Start or Pre-K experience that truly changes their life. We are well on our way to achieving this goal for the 5,000 children served in our Acelero Learning Head Start classrooms.

By expanding our focus on helping others achieve results through Shine Assist, we can impact tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands more children in meaningful, life-changing ways. Our hope: this tighter focus will once again lead to breakthrough child outcomes.

What do you think? What resonates with your agency’s strategy, mission, and goals? What big choices have you made to ensure your agency is having the biggest possible impact?

As always, we appreciate your thoughts and feedback. Feel free to reach out via phone or email. We'd love to hear from you.