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student outcomes don't change
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What Effect Are Our School Systems Having?

As we enter into a new school year, the most pressing question on my mind is this: how will we know whether or not our students are learning and growing? Every school board member and superintendent needs to be able to answer this question without hesitation. A great deal of energy is being focused on health and safety right now, and this is wise. School systems exist, however, to improve student outcomes so we can never let ourselves lose sight of this priority -- even in the midst of a crisis. 

Sometimes a fresh perspective is helpful to school system leaders trying to prioritize. So as a coach, I'm always looking for tools to help school board members and superintendents see their own school systems in new ways. Recently I came across a data trove that accomplishes this by letting you highlight the district of your choice. They've also provided two analyses that may inspire conversation and reflection.

Blog Posts:  

    Beware Junk Equity Audits/Plans

    There is much talk about organizations conducting equity audits / creating equity plans as a strategy for ascertaining and addressing an organization's role in perpetuating systemic oppression. Unfortunately, there's a lot of junk out there right now with many people and companies claiming to offer these services without having a rigorous framework for actually evaluating inequities across an entire organizational system. But it doesn't have to be that way.

    For equity audits/plans to be useful, they should differentiate between user segments (in the case of the school system example below, this means identifying which students have the greatest need). They should also address at least three key elements of the system's logic model: the inputs the system deploys, the outputs the system creates from the implementation of inputs, and the realized outcomes measurable at the end of each cycle. Be suspicious of any equity audit/plan that doesn't address all three.

    Student Need
    The first thing to be clear about is what is meant by equity. Equal means all treated the same or similarly. Equity means all treated differently in relation to need. For school systems, equity requires identifying the varying degrees of need of the students -- from least to greatest -- and then examining each element of the system to ensure that the neediest students are being disproportionately advantaged in a manner that is commensurate with their higher level of need. Most school systems behave this way in small pieces (e.g., due to categorical federal funding like Title 1), but not system-wide and rarely with a rigorous analysis of relative levels of student need (e.g., free/reduced-price lunch is a weak indicator). If an equity audit/plan doesn't help elevate this conversation, it is of minimal utility.

    For school systems seeking to be more equitable, I recommend that they focus purely on student characteristics. Most school systems make resource allocation decisions by balancing three competing considerations: 1) student characteristics (family income, English learners,), 2) adult preferences (favored programs, favored activities), and 3) school characteristics (school enrollment, building size). If a school system wants to focus on equity, this decision-making behavior is taking them in the opposite direction. If the goal is equity, student need as determined by a comprehensive and rigorous analysis of student characteristics should drive every decision.

    Inputs are the resources used by an organization and that are generally known at the beginning of a system's cycle -- the school year in the context of education. In school systems, the highest leverage inputs related to equity include highly effective teachers, high quality instructional materials, and the school system's annual budget. Each of these resources is under the control of system leadership and decisions about their deployment are typically finalized prior to the beginning of the school year.

    An equity audit/plan that doesn't evaluate the distribution of key inputs -- human resources, instructional resources, and financial resources -- relative to the level of need of students is of almost no value to students. Since the single most influential factor to improving student outcomes that school systems control is the quality of instruction, if the distribution of educator effectiveness -- are our most effective educators working daily with our neediest students? -- isn't a key focus, equity isn't either.

    One additional area of caution: pay close attention to how educator effectiveness is defined. If the conversation is only about the educator's level of education or years of experience, the data may not be telling you what you think it's telling you. Look for multiple measures of educator quality that include student growth (not student proficiency; that's not helpful either). As a starting point, if an analysis of educators doesn't reveal a bell curve distribution of effectiveness, then it also won't provide actionable information regarding distribution to our neediest students.

    Outputs are the results created by the system doing the work to deploy the inputs. Outputs can be thought of as a measure of how effectively the organization deployed the inputs and, as such, are generally knowable in the midst of the system's cycle. For school systems, equity-related outputs include data such as student participation in advanced courses/gifted & talented programming, hiring/retaining educators of color, student disciplinary disparities, percentage of board members/senior administrators who are people of color, and staff participation in implicit bias training.

    These are the areas where equity audits/plans traditionally focus so most will include nods to, at minimum, the least controversial of these topics for a given community. One argument for inclusion of a large number of these outputs is that it provides data for an analysis of the extent to which a relationship exists between related inputs and outcomes. In general, inputs and their resulting outputs that have  a stronger correlation with improvements in student outcomes are useful for informing future board policy decisions and managerial strategy prioritization.

    One area that many equity audits/plans miss is governance. When vetting equity audit/plan providers, look for methodologies that include an evaluation of how boards invest their time. What percentage of the board´s time each month is focused on monitoring student progress relative to goals? What percentage is monitoring equity-specific goals? With what frequency throughout the year are goals monitored? To what extent are agendas designed in a manner that prioritizes equity and/or student performance conversations? A meaningful equity audit/plan will speak truth to power, even if this risks future business/employment.

    School systems only exist to improve student outcomes, so any equity audit/plan that doesn't examine variability in rates of growth and proficiency regarding what students know and are able to do misses the entire point. The key here is a focus on what students know and are able to do: what measurable goals has the school board set that describe the outcomes they expect for their students. If the board hasn't adopted SMART goals for student outcomes and a system for monitoring progress toward the goals, that should be finding #1.

    If the school board has adopted SMART student outcome goals, then we can use the goal to look at student group A and student group B. Do we see converging or diverging levels of growth and proficiency relative to the goals?

    Sadly, many school boards lack SMART goals, lack goals that are exclusively focused on student outcomes, or -- in many cases -- lack goals altogether. In these situations the lack of board-adopted and board-monitored goals needs to be called out because the community's voice in securing equity over time is not being used. Governance malpractice can be a source of inequity and should be highlighted if this is the case. In the absence of board goals, it is reasonable for equity audits/plans to rely on broadly used data such as scores from state/national assessments, scores from college entrance exams, and dual/AP/IB credit earned [ Note: student participation data is an output, not an outcome ].

    Next Steps
    In the end, a great equity audit/plan provides an organization with self awareness regarding the specific areas in which inputs, outputs, and outcomes do or don't honor the organization's expectations regarding service to its users. This awareness provides leaders with the first step to improving equity. The next steps -- what leaders do or don't do with the information -- are even more critical.

    Blog Posts:  

      Three Steps To Effective Action

      How do we prevent police brutality? What can I do as an ally? I’ve been asked these questions repeatedly during the past week by school leaders nationwide. It is appropriate that school system leaders ask these questions because every school system is fully responsible a) for the discipline / behavior systems it deploys, b) for the safety officers / police officers with whom it employs and/or contracts, and c) for the extent to which the curriculum intentionally prepares students / staff to communicate with and respect the humanity of all people. While there are clear differences, much of the research around preventing police brutality offers insights that school systems can learn from as well.

      Want to know what to do next (on any topic)? Whether in the community or in schools, my coaching remains the same:
      1. Awareness: read the research (start here and here and here and here)
      2. Acknowledgement: interrogate your own participation in the very challenge you are attempting to confront (go here and here and here)
      3. Action: take the next step informed by and grounded in your acknowledgement of your prior complicity.

      My Experience
      I have spent much of the past week angry and scared. Between the ages of 16 and 26, I had some sort of interaction with the police at least once or twice per year. Each time this happened I was pulled out of the car, handcuffed, searched, accused of stealing the car, accused of having drugs, car searched from top to bottom. Finally I would be let go 30-60 minutes later with “a warning,” having been handcuffed and humiliated every single time. And these experiences were not limited to policing in the community; I encountered similar behavior from school officials/police officers in schools. I was 27 the first time I was pulled over and not handcuffed. Just told that my tail light was out and then they drove off. I was so shocked that I hadn’t been handcuffed that I called friends: “you won’t believe this: I didn’t get handcuffed!”  My black friends were amazed and said I must have gotten lucky or that maybe there was a bigger emergency elsewhere; my white friends had no idea what I was talking about.

      Many of my white friends had received tickets for driving way over the speed limit and some had even been drinking previously. But none were arrested and none were handcuffed. After one particularly brutal encounter, white friends of mine contacted the local police chief to advocate on my behalf. They were told that I “looked suspicious” and that the officers had acted appropriately. The trauma from my character being less visible than my skin inspired me to choose self-destructive paths. Even now, all these years later — as I enjoy more privilege than I could have ever imagined I might have, and even as I have had friends put on the uniform — the impact of those injustices lingers and I still carry a fear of what might happen whenever police come near me.

      Action Grounded In Acknowledgement
      We have much to do before America’s communities and America’s schools are places where all students have equal access to America’s promises. Racism, like all forms of systemic oppression, is a tireless and often faceless villain. When I experience anger and fear like I have this week, my appetite for going to work and making a difference becomes insatiable -- especially because it nudges me to acknowledge the privileges I have and the systems of oppression in which I have been a willing participant.

      If you want a partner to talk through policy change and policy monitoring informed by research (awareness) and grounded in self reflection (acknowledgement), email me; I'm ready to step into action. As a dear colleague reached out and said to me this week: tu lucha es mi lucha.

      Blog Posts:  

        “Why” Isn’t Enough; Boards Also Need “How”

        School systems exist for one reason and one reason only: to improve student outcomes. And the function of the school board is to represent the vision and values of the community. But the “Why” isn’t enough to improve student outcomes without an effective “How”.

        Even though school boards have an inherent desire to see improvements in student outcomes, comprehensive analysis of hundreds of hours of school board meetings from across the nation reveals that few school boards invest a meaningful percentage of their time in behaviors that most correlate with improvements in student outcomes. Simply put, the design of most school board meetings and processes is focused on managing the adult inputs, not governing for student outcomes. In the absence of a coherent framework for what it means to “govern”, school board members often view the school board as being one layer above management. But that is a flawed understanding of governance; in reality the proper alignment of the school board is one layer below community. This sounds like mere semantics, but the difference in mindset manifests in wildly divergent adult behaviors in the boardroom -- the board positioning itself as inward focused super manager of adult inputs rather than a community vision- and values-focused protector of student outcomes.

        This clarifies why 100 years of school board orthodoxy is no longer adequate to protect the educational well-being of our students. When school boards approach “governing” the way it’s always been done, they unintentionally create school systems where improvements in student outcomes occur either in spite of the school board, or not at all. This norm is deeply ingrained in school board culture nationwide and requires dramatic transformation in adult behavior. But change is often difficult -- particularly for public officials who are often punished for any significant change in direction from the status quo.

        How, Part I: Decision Making
        As previously described, the board’s first step is to get clear about the goals and guardrails that represent the community’s vision and values respectively. Once a school board has adopted goals and guardrails, the school board now has a tool for evaluating any recommendations brought before the school board.
        • Should we adopt the budget proposed by the superintendent? Yes, if (and only if) the superintendent has demonstrated that it prioritizes accomplishment of the goals and adherence to the guardrails. 
        • Should we proceed with placing an item on the ballot for consideration? Yes, if (and only if) the superintendent’s implementation plan clearly shows how use of those funds will help accomplish the goals while honoring the guardrails. 
        • How will we evaluate the superintendent’s performance? That’s determined by the extent to which she made sufficient progress toward the goals while operating within the guardrails.  
        Once goals and guardrails are in place, every decision the school board confronts gets measured against the community's vision and values. It's a rarity that governance-level decisions won't connect back to either one of the goals or one of the guardrails (and such situations will more often than not relate to something the school board is required to do because of state legislation). In general, if it is operational in nature, isn't legislatively required, and isn't directly related to one of the goals or guardrails, the school board is well-served to delegate the matter to the superintendent so that the board is freed up to focus on monitoring student progress.

        How, Part II: Monitoring
        While the function of the school board is to represent the vision and values of the community, the function of the superintendent is to implement the vision and values of the community as described to them by the school board via the goals and guardrails. The school board should not blindly trust that the superintendent’s implementation of the goals is actually driving student performance improvements; it should trust, but verify.

        Once goals and guardrails are established, the work of the school board shifts to monitoring progress to ensure that reality increasingly matches the goals and guardrails. School boards that truly desire to create the conditions for improvements in student outcomes invest at least 50% of their time each month into monitoring progress toward their goals for student outcomes.

        This is not easy; changing adult behaviors requires effort to overcome institutional inertia. But with a framework, training, and coaching, school boards can change their adult behaviors in ways that most correlate with improvements in student outcomes. This is what it means to be intensely focused on improving student outcomes. This is what it means to engage in student outcomes focused governance.

        Blog Posts:  

          Why School Systems & School Boards Exist

          School systems exist to improve student outcomes. That is the only reason for which school systems exist. School systems do not exist to have great buildings, have happy parents, have balanced budgets, have satisfied teachers, provide student lunches, provide employment in the county/city, or anything else. Those are all means -- and incredibly important and valuable means at that -- but none of them are the ends; none of those are why we have school systems. They are all inputs, not outcomes. None of those are measures of what students know or are able to do. School systems exist for one reason and one reason only: to improve student outcomes. 

          An immediate challenge is that throughout the community there are many ideas about which student outcomes -- which measures of what students know and are able to do -- should be focused on (I refer to this as the community’s “vision”) and which means should/shouldn’t be used to accomplish this (I refer to this as the community’s “values”). A school system can’t be effective if it’s trying to pursue a myriad of incoherent visions while implementing a cacophony of conflicting values. So the decision was made to select a group of individuals who would collectively represent the community’s vision and values. We refer to this group as a school board. The function of the school board is to represent the vision and values of the community.

          Goals & Guardrails
          Even though the school board has far fewer members than the community as a whole -- typically around 5 to 9 members -- the school board members may still disagree on what the community's vision and values truly are. If school boards aren't intentional, they can start focusing on the wants and wishes of individual community members rather than the vision and value of the community as a whole. To resolve this and to create a way of holding the school system accountable, the school board as a whole adopts two special types of policy. It adopts policies that reflect the community's vision (I refer to these as Goals). And it adopts policies that describe the community values that must be protected while in pursuit of the goals (I refer to these as Guardrails).

          Because the intention of Goals is to reveal the community’s vision for its students’ outcomes, Goals are only about student outcomes -- what the community wants its students to know and be able to do. Ideal goals will be SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, results-focused, and time-bound), will describe what the community wants its students to know and/or be able to do, and will number between one and five (I generally recommend three). Goals describe what the school system is trying to accomplish over the next three to five years. Examples of Goals include:
          • The percentage of kindergarten students who enter kindergarten school-ready on a multidimensional assessment will increase from 21% on August 1, 2019 to 65% by August 1, 2024 
          • The percentage of graduates who are persisting in the second year of their post-secondary program will increase from W% on X to Y% by Z 
          • The percentage of free and reduced lunch-eligible students in kindergarten through 2nd grade who are reading/writing on or above grade level on the district’s summative assessment will increase from W% on X to Y% by Z 
          • The percentage of students at underperforming schools who meet or exceed the state standard will increase from W% on X to Y% by Z 
          • The percentage of males of color who graduate with an associate’s degree will increase from W% on X to Y% by Z 

          The community will also have other things it values beyond the vision. These other items relate to what the adults are doing to cause the Goals to happen -- they are the inputs, not the outcomes. They are about the means, not the ends. I refer to the written version of these values as Guardrails. Ideally a school board will adopt one to five such overarching statements (I generally recommend three). Guardrails describe how the school system will avoid behaving -- what it won't do -- as it seeks to accomplish the goals. Examples of Guardrails include:
          • The Superintendent will not allow underperforming campuses to have principals or teachers who rank in the bottom two quartiles of principal or teacher district-wide performance 
          • The Superintendent will not propose major decisions to the Board without first having engaged students, parents, community, and staff 
          • The Superintendent will not allow the number or percentage of students at underperforming campuses to remain the same or increase 
          • The Superintendent will not allow the inequitable treatment of students 
          The more clearly defined the school board’s adopted Goals and Guardrails are, the easier it is for the school board to ensure alignment not only of the school board’s work, but also of the superintendent’s work (the function of the Superintendent is to implement the vision and values of the community once they have been defined by the school board). These are the first and most vital steps the school board can take to create the conditions for improving student outcomes.

          Blog Posts:  

            Everything Has Changed... Except This

            Below, I posit nine different instructional models that school systems might choose to pursue while their school buildings are temporarily closed.


            learner expected to lead their own learning using educator provided tools/materials

            parent expected to lead their student's learning using educator provided tools/materials

            educator expected to lead their students' learning using educator provided tools/materials

            less than 25% of instruction occurs in real time between learner and educator
            Option 1
            Option 4
            Option 7

            26-74% of instruction occurs in real time between learner and educator
            Option 2
            Option 5
            Option 8

            more than 75% of instruction occurs in real time between learner and educator
            Option 3
            Option 6
            Option 9

            Pop Quiz:
            • Which of these nine options describe the most ideal instructional model your school system wants to pursue while buildings are closed?
            • Which of these nine instructional models most describes where your school system is today?
            • If your answers to the above are different, what are the most significant barriers between the two that need to be overcome?

            As I've visited with students, parents, teachers, administrators, and school board members nationwide over the past month, I hear a nation's worth of people working hard and working collaboratively to confront the daily realities imposed by a global pandemic. In that regard, almost everything that we know to be normal about school systems has operationally changed. But in those same conversations, what I have yet to hear is anyone make a strong argument for why our aspirations for our students should be any lower today than they were two months ago. While everything circumstantially has changed, our collective desire to see improvements in student outcomes has not. Our collective expectations for what our students should know and be able to do at the culmination of their PreK-12 experience remain unaltered.

            I take from these conversations two things (shared in reverse order).

            Second, the next big challenge for school systems will be about how best to prepare for and make appropriate modifications for the return to in-school instruction. There will likely need to be significant changes made and planning for that should be ongoing right now. There are opportunities for innovation here; the future need not look like the past.

            But first and more immediately, school leaders need to confront that how they address instruction today largely determines the circumstances their return to in-school instruction will face. And that if your ideal or realized instructional model today is anything other than blended schooling (option 8) or online schooling (option 9), you are likely setting your students up to fail because they will lose relational time with their teaches and will have already fallen so far behind in their studies.

            Unfortunately, most of what I'm seeing right now looks more like offline enrichment/homeschooling (options 1 and 4).

            Blog Posts:  

              Not a time to fear; a time to adapt

              This is not something to panic over or fear. It is simply change that we can confront and will overcome. The first step: understanding and accepting what we're facing.

              Regarding Society: It sounds crass to say in the face of such a massive tragedy, but we got lucky this time and we've gotten lucky every time before. Mother nature is a creative murderer; imagine if this had been 5x more virulent or if it had been fully airborne. We'd be counting losses in another order of magnitude. This is our chance to learn how to be a 10B person species. I've long believed that some solutions emerge from a sufficiently critical mass of human power (if coronavirus requires a 7B-mind solution, imagine what a 14B or 21B-mind human species can solve!). But to experience them, we have to figure out how to do our species at scale. This is mom taking off the training wheels. It's on us to embrace our teetering and from it learn balance.

              Regarding Education Systems: Hinging on our willingness (because I know we are fully capable) to adapt is the educational welfare of a generation. We are entirely up to this challenge -- of figuring out what a no longer pre-Covid globe does to keep it's children safe while educating them effectively. It kinda puts the struggles of before into stark perspective. But if there's anything I have experienced to be true of our species, it's that when we come together, when we pray together, when we work together, we can cause tremendous blessings for our loved ones. That is now at stake for our children. Take a few minutes to grieve yesterday, certainly. But remain not in pining for a past that will not return; seize the new possibilities for our children that circumstance will challenge us to create.


              Blog Posts: