So, who needs a school board? How can a candidate add value?
According to Bylaw 9000 (Role of the Board), the board serves five basic functions for the district: (1) setting its direction; (2) establishing its organizational structure; (3) supporting the superintendent and staff; (4) ensuring accountability for its schools' performance; and (5) providing community leadership and advocacy on behalf of students.
In my view, the first and fourth functions pose the greater challenges and should be the focus of this election. In serving these functions, I believe a board member should have the knowledge, skills and will to: (a) articulate a vision, (b) transform that vision into a set of meaningful, achievable goals, (c) demand accountability in meeting those goals, and (d) promote the diffusion of our successful practices through the district. It is easy to parrot these words but surprisingly difficult to follow through in the face of a robust status quo. Here are just of few of the challenges.
Identifying what works best and scaling that out broadly across the district: There is a widely-held belief among all stakeholders that we should look to best practices within and beyond our district and promote their dissemination. Yet there is also a tradition of bottom-up decision-making and an aversion to top-down decision-making. This is a key leverage point for improvement cited by Bertil Chappuis, the McKinsey consultant who spearheaded the development of our 2008 Strategic Plan.
Mr. Chappuis observed that "Palo Alto has an opportunity given that this is a medium-sized district with lots of talented people who are trying all sorts of interesting, effective teaching approaches, and yet we may be sub-optimized around identifying what works best and scaling that out broadly across the district." He noted the difficulty in "finding the right balance between individual teaching approaches and consistency and developing the Palo Alto program." In other words, where programs or practices work well in the district, the central administration, under the guidance of the school board, should identify them and promote their use more broadly.
There is a healthy but, in Mr. Chappuis' terms, "sub-optimized" tension between bottom-up and top-down decision-making. In my view, a greater degree of centralized direction would better serve our students in certain fundamental areas — meeting the needs of student sub-groups above or below grade level or otherwise in need, promoting student connectedness, managing student workload, aligning content and assessment in similar courses, and teacher/home communication in our digital age, to name a few. So I would look for a candidate who favors a degree of top-down decision-making to facilitate the use of successful practices across the district and understands the significance of "finding the right balance" between autonomy and centralization — one digestible, collaborative and transparent step at a time.
Goal-setting and holding ourselves accountable: not "the cardiac test: Harvard Prof. Roland Fryer has commented that educators, when asked how they know they are effective, answer that "you can feel it in your heart." He calls this "the cardiac test." Fortunately, the board does not use the cardiac test to measure whether district goals have been met, but it has at times struggled to identify what counts. This year, we made great strides in setting Annual Goals with specific, measurable, achievable results.
There is still a temptation, however, to tread lightly when goals are not met. For example, while we have made laudable progress toward meeting our three long-term Strategic Plan K-8 Academic Goals, we have not met any of them. Why have we fallen short? Can our programs be improved? Are our goals unrealistic? This reluctance to hold ourselves fully accountable has the unfortunate effect of preventing a more complete understanding of what did and did not work, which impairs our ability to effectively set new goals. With a new Strategic Plan "refresh" slated for 2013, it is imperative that the incoming board take that last step of evaluating progress under our current Strategic Plan as the first step in creating a new one.
Data-driven decision-making: The board has access to vast amounts of useful data, but we have not yet mastered a process by which to optimize use of those data. The challenge for a board member is to be effective in parsing data to evaluate our district's successes and shortfalls and to guide us in spreading our successes, correcting our shortfalls and establishing new goals. Recently, the board was asked to digest a 45-minute presentation on the three aforementioned Academic Goals involving CST scores. That trove of data has yet to be fully mined for information about program effectiveness and student progress. Last year, the district adopted new high school graduation requirements ("A-G"), and there will be an emerging, urgent need to figure out what data to track in order to monitor our work and student success under this new regime. We need an incoming board that will dig into data, ask probing questions and act on what it learns.
So, how can a candidate add value? S/he can acknowledge the significance of scaling out best practices, effectively use data in decision-making, work to set well-informed goals and demand accountability — selectively, intelligently, strategically, collaboratively and respectfully, of course.
Included in the BoardSource's list of "Twelve Principles of Governance That Power Exceptional Boards" are two of particular relevance: (a) a Culture of Inquiry ("seek more information, question assumptions, challenge conclusions, advocate for solutions based on analysis") and (b) Results-Oriented ("measure progress towards mission; evaluate the performance of major programs and services; gauge efficiency, effectiveness, and impact, while simultaneously assessing the quality of service delivery, integrating benchmarks against peers, and calculating return on investment").
In voting for a candidate, please consider these principles and enjoy your right to participate in democracy.