Failure Is Not an Option: Making the Case for High Reliability Education Systems

James Eck

What should schools have in common with hospitals, commercial airlines and even nuclear power plants? In this article I will assert that all should strive toward higher reliability, or toward becoming high reliability organizations (HROs).


The characterization of a “high reliability” organization was developed coincidently in the 1980s by Karl Weick from the University of Michigan and Karlene Roberts from UC Berkeley to describe their observations of flight operations on a nuclear aircraft carrier. 

Weick outlines five principles of HROs:
1. Preoccupation with failure
2. Sensitivity to operations
3. Organizing around expertise
4. Reluctance to simplify interpretations
5. Commitment to resilience

These principles of high reliability were applied easily to improve the safety records of other “high-risk” industries, such as nuclear power generation and chemical manufacturing. The commercial aviation industry, with the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board, began to think about striving toward higher reliability in the 1990s, even though passenger airline service in the US at that time wasone of the safest forms of transportation.  However, when there is an accident, it is often catastrophic, with dramatic loss of life. By adopting and employing HRO principles and practices, since 2009 there have been ZERO commercial aviation deaths in the United States. 
Learning from Healthcare
The medical and healthcare industries have more recently begun to explore and apply concepts of high reliability.We can certainly understand the catastrophic effects of errors and mistakes in hospitals, such as when a patient dies on the operating table. But we also have seen alarming rates of misdiagnosis, wrong-site operations, or hospital-borne infections from improper handwashing techniques where failure of the system does not result in immediate deathbut causes unneeded suffering or haslong-term negative effects. The healthcare profession has also begun to explore the application of high reliability concepts to other “slow burning” medical issues such as battling heart disease and obesity, improving patient experience, reducing recurring admissions, and improving long-term care.

As with healthcare, we in education can make some immediate connections to more traditional examples of need for higher reliability, such as improving student and staff safety. We continue to take a system-wide look at improving preventative measures and rapid response procedures to minimize casualties.But what if we take this further and we approached student failure from a perspective of failure of the educational system to the child, not as a shortcoming or fault of the student or her family? Sure, there are any variety of external influences on a child’s learning and success, but instead of excuses these factorsshould be taken into account and adjusted for, like inclement weather or mechanical failure on the flight deck.
An ultimate outcome of student failure in (or as a result of?) our schools is their inability to graduate or that they drop out of school. Every year, over 1.2 million students drop out of high school in the United States alone. That equates to a student every 26 seconds – or 7,000 a day!
Imagine this: if we consider this failure rate as potentially catastrophic, this would be comparable to nearly 7500 Airbus A319s crashing every year, or 20+ crashes daily! 
Okay, so our dropouts don’t die immediately. But like the “slow-burn” effects in healthcare, the personal long-term implications are staggering. For example, statistics tell us that a high school dropout will earn $200,000 less than a high school graduate over his/her lifetime and almost a million dollars less than a college graduate. Or the social implication that in the U.S., high school dropouts commit about 75% of crimes.

The good news is that the dropout rate has fallen from12.1% to 7.4% between 1990 and 2010. But should we be happy with that level? Aren’t some dropouts unavoidable? As John Nance said in comparing healthcare results to commercial aviation, “If we don’t aim for zero, what chance to we have of getting close? We haven’t had the will because we haven’t had the understanding.” 

High Reliability Education Systems
My working definition of high reliability education is: Increasing the quality of instruction and reducing the variability in instructional quality, for every student, in every classroom, every day so that more students graduate ready for college, career and life.
I will try and strengthen an understanding of high reliability education by explaining how each of the principles may be applied.

1. Preoccupation with failure
School systems should consider student failure as catastrophic as an airplane crashing or a patient failing to recover from surgery. This will require changing our core beliefs and assumptions about education. Our intentions may have evolved beyond the industrial “sort and select” model, but we have maintained a mindset that some students will succeed in school and some will fail. Tom Bellamy writes about “fail-safe” schools and how we can apply multiple preventative layers and balanced responses at the first signs of student failure.

2. Sensitivity to operations
Teaching and learning sit as the core business of schooling and that classrooms represent the front line of operations in our industry. Teachers should be able to make real-time decisions, individually and collectively, based upon relevant and accessible data and their constant interaction with students. Sometimes this entails devising “work-arounds” when traditional methods don’t work, but it doesn’t mean each teacher doing their own thing behind closed doors. 

3. Organizing around expertise
Most schools have already organized collaborative groups of teachers into professional communities or PLCs for unit and lesson planning, using data for identifying groups or individual students who are falling behind, and responding with flexible classroom grouping and intervention strategies. By including other school professionals and administrators into the collaborative community, we acknowledge that nobody has all the answers, but that somebody probably has the right answer.

4. Reluctance to simplify interpretations
Knowing that life in schools is complex, teachers and administrators need to adopt multiple perspectives to understand the shadings that are hidden below the surface of the obvious. Far too often, we use data to reinforce our preconceived notions, or seeing what we believe. We should not be so quick to blame a student’s struggle on their home situation, English language status, or some other easy to identify label. What is it that is actually causing that student to have difficulty and what will we do about it?

5. Commitment to resilience
Do something! Sometimes we can get so hung up in looking at the data that we fail to take action. Or we think we have the silver bullet and spend a great deal of money, and worse a great deal of our students’ time, instituting a program that ultimately doesn’t give us the results we want. Instead, we can employ short-cycle processes for improvement and innovation, such as the use of Plan-Do-Study-Act cycles adapted from manufacturing and currently in widespread use in healthcare. We try something on short-term basis with a limited number of teachers and students, collect and analyze data on the effects of the intervention, and scale up those that show promise. 

Years ago, before he started exploring HROs, Weick wrote about the concept of loose and tight coupling in various organizational systems. He characterized our public education system as the epitome of a loosely coupled system, where decisions in the boardroom seldom make it to real changes in the classroom. With the evolution of standards, and where we see positive implementation of “what works” in research-based instructional practices and effective evaluation practices, we are becoming more tightly coupled systems. Although traditional HROs are hierarchically structured and have tightly coupled processes, they also realize the need to be flexible, adaptive, and responsive. In our public education enterprise we need to find this balance and employ the principles and practices toward becoming high reliability education systems.

Bellamy, T., Crawford, L., Huber- Marshall, L., & Coulter, G. (2005). The fail-safe schools challenge: Leadership possibilities from high reliability organizations. Educational Administration Quarterly, 4(3), 383–412. (2016). 11 facts about high school dropout rates. Retrieved from
Eck, J. H. (2011). Best in the world: High performance with high reliability. Noteworthy Perspectives: High Reliability Organizations in Education, 36–44. Retrieved from http:// Organization Development/0121 MM_HRO_Noteworthy_sml.pdf
Hoy, W. K., Gage, Q., & Tarter, C. J. (2006). School mindfulness and faculty trust: Necessary conditions for each other. Educational Administration Quarterly, 42, 236–255.
Jansen, B. (2016). 2015 one of the safest on record for airliners. USA Today. 
Retrieved from
MedStar Health. (2014). John Nance on high reliability, aviation and healthcare. Retrieved from
Weick, K. E., & Sutcliffe, K. M. (2007). Managing the unexpected: Resilient performance in an age of uncertainty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Weick, K. E. (2011). Putting HRO into practice. Presented at High Reliability Organizing Conference, Washington, DC. Retrieved from http:// Weick_Keynote_Speech_ HRO2011.pdf

Jim Eck has devoted his career to public education. He spent 25 years as a teacher, principal, assistant superintendent and with the Colorado Department of Education. For ten years he was a consultant and director with McREL International. Mr. Eck now continues his work as an independent consultant and coach, specializing in educational leadership and a high-reliability systems approach to educational improvement and innovation.
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Issue 18.2 | Fall 2016

Southeast Education Network

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