What Are Your Canaries?

Dating back to 1911, coal miners in Britain began taking canaries in birdcages into the mine shafts with them.  Canaries had a sensitivity to dangerous gases, such as carbon monoxide. Miners worked in areas that had potential for gases to be exposed after a mine explosion or fire. If the canary became distressed or died, miners knew to evacuate the mine shaft as soon as possible.  For the miner, they served as an early warning detection. Hence, the quote, “A Canary in a Coal Mine”.

As leaders, what are your canaries?  Like the miner, educational leaders need to also develop early warning detection systems.  Also, like the miner, early warning detection systems are created to avoid negative consequences to stay healthy, move towards the intended goals, and stay alive.  Too often, leaders find themselves in trouble that could have been avoided if only they had identified and observed early warning signs.

As leaders develop goals, institute initiatives, and create action plans, establishing early warning systems is crucial.  The work is not in just developing and executing plans; real leadership involves four “Monitors” in identifying and using early warning systems for success.

Monitor 1: Monitoring the Right Data

These days, leaders aren’t lacking in having data at their fingertips.  The goal isn’t in having data but selecting the right metrics to use and monitor them on an on-going basis.  The leaders who seperate themselves from good to great are those who use research-based metrics to identify progress as well as potential obstacles or problems in the future.  Our school district is piloting Ohio’s Student Success Dashboard.  We are using this tool to help identify our levels of risk at the building and student level based on a research-based multi-metric approach.  As we determine our at-risk students in need of additional support, having the right data is important to monitor our progress effectively.

Monitor 2: Monitoring Results with a Team

Another key factor in ensuring the success of an early warning system is monitoring the system as a team.  As part of Ohio’s systemwide, comprehensive approach to improving student achievement for all students, the Ohio Improvement Process was developed.  The improvement system is predicated on the notion of collaborative leadership in leveraging the collective talents and accountability systems in systemic and systematic processes. As a result, a focus on constructing District, Building, and Teacher-Based Leadership Teams is essential. When teams are in the habit of collecting and analyzing data together, they are better equipped to observe and respond to situations at each level.

Monitor 3: Monitoring Fidelity of Action Implementation

Sometimes initiatives are perceived to fail because the data doesn’t look good.  If initiatives are implemented based on research-based, high-yield results, it may not be the actual initiative but a system failure in the initiative’s consistency, fidelity, and implementation.  Not all the time, but it’s possible the data is corrupt due to a lack of proper training, inconsistent actions in its delivery, lack of fidelity in the work, or improper efforts in implementation.  Therefore, early warning systems should not only measure and monitor student achievement outputs, but they should also measure the adult implementation inputs.  Teams need to be deployed to monitor how initiatives are implemented – not just waiting for what happens later.

Monitor 4: Monitoring the Ability to Respond

Early warning systems need to be monitored in the response to problems similar to the need to conduct fire drills.  Sometimes, emergency plans are developed that sit in a binder on a shelf never to be reviewed or practiced.  Then, when a situation occurs, people don’t know what to do or how to respond.  Real leadership takes place when teams have the proper data and are agile in making decisions to attend to the situation.  Leaders need to ensure the team is meeting regularly to look at the data, be researchers in identifying alternative strategies, and be ready to respond.  I’ve seen teams in paralysis to change directions or stop doing other things when they believe they are in way to deep.  Leaders in this situation need to have the image of the miner in mind – when the canary dies, the miner drops everything and gets out without hesitation!


Interestingly, the practice of canaries in the mine shafts continued until the 1980s.  A technology was finally developed to measure and notify miners of dangerous gases that replaced the need to bring canaries into the mines.  While it’s important to have and employ early warning systems for success, it is important to constantly reflect and review on the system itself for better ways to detect situations before they arise.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s