Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Continuous Progress; continuous improvement; using the NSBA model

I've been talking about the continuous progress idea embodied in the National School Boards Association Key Work of School Boards. This is a Baldridge-based excellence model designed to serve as a framework for school boards to focus their attention on their primary mission, which is to improve student achievement and to deliver high quality education to all students. If you are interested in how the model works, follow the link above.

The Key Work of School Boards model focus on continuous progress, and you cannot effectively operate on a continuous progress basis unless you have standards against which to measure your progress. The model calls upon us to:
  • Establish clear standards for student performance and communicate them continually
  • Base standards on an external source that has credibility in the community
  • Disseminate standards clearly and widely to students, staff and community
This year, the Board of Education adopted a new comprehensive scorecard, sometimes called a "vision card" with which we are going to measure our performance as a School District. It sets objective measurable goals for improvement in a wide variety of areas at the district level and at the school level. Examples of performance objectives in the scorecard are the number of students taking Advanced Placement Courses and the number of courses taken. We will be measuring, for example, the number of first-generation students (students who will be the first in their family history to attend college) who are taking AP courses--an important measure of a school district's ability to promote upward educational mobility. We will be using world-class progress based testing instruments to measure how much each student progresses. The idea is that a good school takes proficient students and takes them beyond proficiency, and takes students who are far behind and catches them up a bit each year. We'll be reporting the number of students who score proficient, as always, but we'll be reporting also the amount of progress students are making from year to year, as compared to national standards.

When I first joined the Board of Education, it seemed as though the idea was that we should report our "test score successes," as if the goal of the Board of education was to celebrate any good news that we could find. If the mathematics test scores of the 8th grade students were 1/10 of a point higher this year than they were last year in mathematics, that would be a cause for celebration. The problem with this approach to reporting test scores is that it allows you to present performance information in a way that really doesn't measure the progress that you are making. Maybe a 1/10 point increase is a meaningless improvement. Maybe its actually a large increase. Maybe the class of students who performed marginally better this year were actually far far behind last year's class at the same grade level, and so their marginal improvement is actually a tremendous success. Or perhaps the reverse is true. Maybe this year's class is way more talented, or way more accomplished, than last year's class, and the marginal improvement is actually a great failure.

The point is that if a school district is going to use testing results, it needs to be a whole lot more sophisticated. And that's where the continuous progress idea comes into play. When a school district only reports and discusses its test score successes, that is a sure sign that the school district is not committed to continuous progress. Whether it is a school district where almost all students in the community are coming to school ready to learn, or a school where many students are coming to school not ready to learn, the answer is the same. The Continuous Progress model demands that we use test scores not simply to showcase our successes, but also to drive the organization to improve. And you cannot do that, unless you drill into data, and discuss openly and honestly the places where your organization needs to improve. In the coming year, we are going to publish our successes, but we are going to scrutinize in great depth the areas where we need to improve. Our commitment to the Baldridge-based excellence model is just that deep. You cannot improve unless you identify where you need to improve.

I get a kick out of school districts who claim that they are successful because a certain percentage of their students scored proficient on a given test. God bless you for that, I say. But what are you doing about the students who come to you with disadvantages? The measure of a great school district is not whether the students who live there have parents who read to them. The measure of a great school district is that it takes every child, rich or poor, advantaged or disadvantaged, talented or with more limited talents, and challenges each and every one of those students to excel. And to find out if your school district is excelling in this way, you need to drill down much more deeply into data. Every school, every teacher, every school district, can improve, and when you only discuss the data that makes you look good, you are on the road to mediocrity and failure.

But wait a minute. That's a really bad idea for elected officials, isn't it. Your handing ammunition to your political opponents on a silver platter, aren't you Jerry. Absolutely. Because in a continuous progress organization, you are constantly identifying where you need to improve. We don't serve on the school board simply to celebrate successes. Our job is to set high standards and to marshall resources so that we make continuous progress.

In the coming year, every school in our district is going to be measuring itself against district measurable objective goals. Classroom teachers are going to be getting data on the progress of their classes. Not so we can figure out who is a "good teacher" and who is a "bad teacher". This is formative data: used to help everyone improve. The goal is to marshal resources to identify how each teacher, each student, and each school can improve. The continuous progress idea is not about humiliating teachers or humiliating schools, or serving as a vehicle for self flagellation. If the continuous progress philosophy is going to work, it must be based on the concept that we are finding are strengths and our weaknesses primarily for self-improvement and strengthening the quality of our product, which is educating children.

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