"Student outcomes don't change until adult behaviors change." So states a graduate of the Texas foster care system who is now the state's Deputy Commissioner of Governance.
Linking student success to board performance is not entirely new. The hallmark Iowa Lighthouse Studies of 2000 identified board behaviors that consistently characterized districts with strong student achievement. The successful board meeting results in stronger student outcomes. Such meetings don't occur by accident. The recipe for their success is an agenda book with one feature: goal-tracking indices. Such an agenda is but one step in a process that keeps boards consistently focused on student outcomes:
- At the annual meeting, the board develops a strategic plan with lofty aspirations for the coming year. Traditionally, this document then sits on a shelf collecting dust.
- This time, those aspirations are converted to quantifiable goals. If the strategic plan calls for improving ESL (English as a second language) reading proficiency, that objective is broken down into measurable components: "Raise ESL reading scores on sixth-grade state exams by 20%" and "Cut failing grades in literature classes for ESL students by 32%."
- Clear graphs are continuously updated to monitor progress toward these goals. Links on the graph can lead readers to detailed discussion of particular tests or initiatives that resulted in the changes they record.
- These graphs appear front and center on the board agenda — and on the board portal. Agenda items include links to documentation of the relation of that action item to this fixed set of goal-based metrics.
Modifying board materials in this way literally shifts the visual perspective of each board member. After all, even seasoned professionals are highly distractible — especially if actions entirely unrelated to student success themselves bear all the markings of professionalism: recommendation by expensive consultants, high-profile media coverage or connections to prestigious universities. Such trappings can catch the eye of pin-stripe-suited adults just as bright shiny objects draw the eye of the besotted toddler.
Consider a district that has invested in sophisticated software or professional development programs. The board is apt to be satisfied. The agenda features the staff who implemented the new initiative. The report indicates that they've completed the final stage of execution. Everyone goes home feeling good. The problem with this all-too-familiar scenario is that new computers or teacher training may have zero correlation to student improvement. They may even distract the staff from the needs of students, resulting in a negative correlation. The meeting nevertheless feels like a success.
Goal-tracking agenda books force board members to keep their eyes on the ball. Each agenda item is linked to an indication of student outcome changes in the educational area to which it pertains. If an expensive initiative is not paying off for students, it appears as the failure that it is. The tracking graphs provide instant and automatic accountability.
An agenda for a board meeting would then open, with a dashboard providing an overview of progress to the complete set of strategic goals for the present year. Scanning the agenda items, the board member can follow links to trace each topic to a barometer of how student performance has changed demonstrably in that area.
Such goal tracking works in good times and in bad. If a district is putting effort into programs that do not improve student performance, they see evidence of its failure early enough to change course. If a tutoring program or equipment investment is linked to better student outcomes, that, too, can be seen. The board knows how to bolster those efforts.
Some states are now requiring such goal tracking on the part of their failing districts. Texas is receiving extensive attention for its Lone Star Governance plan, through which the state education board is mandating continuous monitoring of student-centered outcome attainment by districts that have underperformed. Other states are now consulting with Texas as they consider adopting a similar plan.
Smart school districts won't wait for legislation to force them to adopt this practice. Early adopters describe the switch to a goal-tracking system as transformative. Before a district makes the transition, a sound plan can ensure that it reaps all of the potential benefits of this technology. They should look for software that offers all of these features:
Interactive MonitoringSuch software converts new information into measurements of progress toward goals set by the board. Say high school seniors have just received their SAT scores. An administrator can enter the data on their scores. An embedded formula will convert the data to a figure reflecting the percentage of progress made toward the stated goal of improving certain scores by a fixed amount. With no further effort, the bar graph changes accordingly.
Record KeepingAll communications and inputs relevant to each goal can be retained as records accessible by links. Links to that goal in the chart can send viewers to a list of next steps (e.g., when students are re-taking the exam, etc.). If a board member spent all day researching what classroom practices improve SAT scores, she can enter that information in a link to the goal for time-tracking. The board meeting agenda item "SAT scores" includes links to all such information, which accumulates over time. After a quarter passes — or a year — there is no scrounging for records on scraps of paper to reconstruct the actions taken on each agenda item.
Collaborative EditingFurthermore, good goal-tracking software makes collaborative editing easy. One person might track his changes to a document relating to a student-centered goal and then send that version to another official for comments. All of the versions would be tracked within the portal, and nothing would be posted until an authorized editor posted a concluding draft. Then, the document would be placed in the online portal's library under the tab for the category to which it pertains.
Video EmbeddingIdeally, software allows video recordings of board meetings to be embedded for public viewing. It doesn't get more transparent than that.
Using the software should simplify and streamline the record-keeping, note-taking and results-monitoring that is already taking place. Making the transition, however, will require education for users. (Texas legislation requires its users to attend trainings provided on various weekends over 18 months.) Software that does not offer training assistance may simply sit on the shelf.
Goal-tracking materials in agenda books can reconnect school board meetings to that often-elusive goal of improving education. Like businesses, schools have a "bottom line." It's just harder to see. With revamped materials, any school board can see it, discuss it and improve it.