Friday, February 18, 2011

Visionary Leadership, Focus on Success for All Students, and a Dash of Humility

Yesterday the AASA named Marc Johnson of Sanger, California the National Superintendent of the Year. I happened to meet Marc a few weeks ago at a superintendents' conference and was very impressed with him. He is passionate, wise, and committed to kids -- and very modest about his accomplishments -- he was able to turn around a failing district in just a few years - and not with millions in federal funding. Read here to learn more.

What Marc did was focus on a limited set of critical results for student achievement and then depend on teacher collaboration to develop solutions. Good teachers want to improve the learning environment for students and they generally know how to do it. Marc Johnson knew this and initiated professional learning communities in Sanger, and then got out of the way.

Teachers collaborated to develop, implement and measure strategies to make every student successful. Now the district is no longer in school improvement and most of the schools are achieving at high levels. The results are magnificent!

What did the teachers do? They identified minimum standards for students to achieve at every grade level and then committed to help every single child achieve those objectives (rather than pushing them to the next grade unprepared).  Through the PLCs they shared best practices and coached each other. They always focused on the kids - not politics - and the school leadership ensured that everything that worked was measured and replicated.

It's not that complicated, but in most districts, there are too many distractions on 'new programs' to perform miracles rather than focusing on the processes that work.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Productivity Study - On the Right Track, Almost

As reported in EdWeek recently, the Center for American Progress has released their report on the productivity of thousands of school districts across the country.  The study compares district spending per student to achievement on standardized tests. They found that "after adjusting for inflation, education spending per student has nearly tripled over the past four decades. But while some states and districts have spent their additional dollars wisely—and thus shown significant increases in student outcomes—overall student achievement has largely remained flat."

Some of their conclusions are fascinating but not surprising - there were mixed results. For example, some of the higher performing districts spent much less than others, low performing urban school districts spent more than higher-performing similar districts in many cases, and suburban districts with almost identical demographics spent widely ranging amounts. The study did not uncover clear reasons for these differences and similarities - that will be the next study I imagine.

What's lacking in this study, as with many other recent reports on district productivity (the new buzz word), is solid recommendations for what to do to make school districts more efficient. What's missing is the focus on PROCESS improvement.

All work is a process and all processes cost money. Districts lose money every day on disorganized and complicated processes, many driven by outdated or unrealistic policies and assumptions. Until district leadership gathers their cross-functional teams to analyze what they are doing and why they are doing it, productivity will not go up. Using an organized approach with process improvement tools will enable teams to identify wasted time and effort. It will also uncover the sacred cows and the elephants in the corner that must be dealt with and eliminated.

Only by focusing on process redesign can district leaders give more time and money back to student programs that really work and where funding really belongs.