The following blog appeared in the November 18th Catholic School Matters newsletter.

Last week I was in Baltimore for the Education Committee and the conversation there (just like at CLS!) turned to enrollment numbers.  Have you noticed that conversations about enrollment in Catholic schools tend to cause discomfort?  We talk about the number of students we’ve lost since last year, since 2008, or since 1960.  This hypersensitivity to enrollment has caused some schools to adopt a simple mission—survival.  But keeping the doors open shouldn’t be a mission.

I cracked open Ron Heifetz last week and re-ead Leadership on the Line, his 2008 work with Marty Linsky.  This is the third time I’ve read it.  It’s supplanted Good to Great in my toolbox because it’s focus on technical versus adaptive problems is a mental framework which helps me approach problem-solving.  For a simple explanation, watch Heifetz explain it in this 6-minute video.

Technical challenges are solved by experts.  You break your arm, the doctor fixes it or your car breaks down, the mechanic gets it running again.  While the solutions might be complicated, they are simply handled by experts with the proper training.  Enrollment in Catholic schools is not a technical problem.  If it was, read an article like this one, apply the lessons, and off you go!  Isn’t that what our stakeholders want?  They imagine a new marketing plan, a new program, or the right presentation at Sunday Mass will transform enrollment.  Instead, enrollment is an adaptive challenge.

How do we know that enrollment qualifies as an adaptive challenge?  On page 60, he lists the characteristics of an adaptive challenges which include the need for people’s hearts and minds to change, the need for more learning, the persistence of conflict, and the presence of crisis.  All of these exist.

Courtesy of this article on, let’s look at Heifetz’s adaptive framework to look at the adaptive challenge of enrollment in Catholic schools:

  1. Get on the balcony. Do you see the big picture?  This is not a new problem.  In fact, enrollment in American Catholic elementary schools declined by nearly 2 million between 1965 and 1975 and an additional 1 million over the next 40 years.  This is not a new problem.  We need to pay attention to the national trends and stop pretending that your individual school problems are unique.  And then start looking around to find where enrollment is increasing.
  2. Identify the problem. You need to confront the brutal facts and figure out why your market share is decreasing.
  3. Regulate distress. Heifetz also refers to this as “orchestrating the conflict.”  We want to make sure we don’t turn up the heat too much (driving people to despair) or ignore it altogether.
  4. Maintain disciplined attention. Locate strategies to tackle the tough issues.  Pace the work.
  5. Give work back to people. It’s not all on you.  We need help from pastors, superintendents, teachers, advisory councils/boards, students, and parents.  Find a way to get everyone involved.
  6. Protect voices from below. We need to welcome feedback and ideas from all stakeholders and not pretend that all the best ideas reside in our offices.

My fear is that some school leaders through their hyperfocus on keeping the doors open have lost sight of other important measures of success.  Heifetz provides a great mental model for tackling the adaptive challenge of enrollment.