Friday, April 1, 2016
Figuring Out The Figures
This is one piece of a continuing series of posts on school improvement reflecting my professional experience. I had prepared this manuscript for publication but time eluded me. The blog posts advance in time and concept in book-form beginning with the Blog post on March 21.
Therefore, we marshal resources and direct attention at behaviors staff members can exercise to burnish an organizational culture nurturing the attributes noted above. Qualitative data should not be discounted or obscured by quantitative data.
Figuring Out the Figures
The probe for opportunities starts with a review of the mission of the school. Reiterating what you do and why you do it will guard against organizational deviation. Energy and resources are allocated with respect to the constant frame of reference: the mission. Recognizing our true purpose, we must focus on examining data that can be utilized to facilitate progress toward the vision of our ideal school. Two important points of advice follow with regard to the need to exercise care in the perspective adopted for analyzing data relative to progress toward the mission. John Gardner says, “Neither uncritical lovers nor unloving critics make for the renewal of society.” (Gardner, p. XVII) Sir George Pickering stated that, “Not everything that counts can be counted,” and conversely, “not everything that can be counted counts.” (Garfield, p. 156)
The power lies in whoever exercises the influential task of determining what counts and how it gets counted. If school leaders merely sit back and accept what others decide should be measured and how it is tabulated their inactivity will be irresponsible. Armed with a credible and right vision, a mission that evokes a constancy of purpose, and supported by appropriate data, the school leader is in a position to lobby for measurements that are in concert with the school’s direction.
In their book, Corporate Culture and Performance, Kotter and Heskett explained a trait of effective leaders: “When convincing data was not available, they created new measurement systems to obtain it.” (Kotter and Heskett, p. 95) Osborne and Gaebler recommend the following two related thoughts, “Entrepreneurs do not seek risks, they seek opportunities.” and, “Pinpoint the opportunity and exploit it.” (Gaebler and Osborne, p. xx)
Let the Mission Lead the Way
Let’s look at one school district’s mission as an example. The mission is, “The Amarillo Independent School District will ensure that all individuals become productive, lifelong learners.” (AISD, 1988) Clarification not only brings definition to those responsible for pursuing the mission but it also allows for the construction of a viable system of collecting feedback on progress. Those developing the mission should expand upon each .
For instance, the school district involved in the sample mission above provided the following explanations: ensure “means intend, promise, do all we possibly can, and to accept responsibility,” all individuals refers to “all students, all staff, all community, and all parents,” productive is interpreted as “maximum potential of each individual, contribute to society, and being all you can be,” lifelong learners are considered “inquisitive, flexible, questioning, always seeking new information, and processors of information.”
The school staff, equipped with the philosophical parameters supplied by these definitions, is now in position to create methods and devices for collecting information relevant to this mission that reaches out to 5,000 employees and encompasses 30,000 learners in an extremely diverse city school district.
Tools of the Trade
Microscopes, Telescopes, and Kaleidoscopes
Selecting the right instruments is the next step. A microscope is too often employed in the analysis of reports and statistics. Some results are very difficult to understand from up-close under a microscope. Immersion can obscure an investigation. Instead we could benefit by exploring distant possibilities and forecasting future opportunities with a telescope. Once we have our target in sight we can view the data through a kaleidoscope that offers ever-changing patterns and perspectives. Rowan refers to the practice of kaleidoscopic thinking as, “The ability to see new patterns in old phenomena by taking the existing fragments, twisting them, and coming up with an exciting new view.” (Rowan, p. 175) The intention, as Waterman , is to seek “a difference that makes a difference.” (Waterman, p. 124)
The Rewards of Data
Without the means of establishing benchmarks with concomitant data we expect to sustain support from clients and members of the public, or organizational members, who are uncertain of whether we are doing what we say we are doing. This brings to mind the often-used adage, “What gets measured gets done.” Again, lacking the ability to assess progress and share it with followers we will not only become distant and lose credibility, but we may also become unable to recognize and reward those constructively pursuing the mission. We will not be able to extend the previous proverb with, “What gets rewarded, gets done again.”
Thoughts on Data
You need to begin with the end in mind before you immerse yourself into a reservoir of data. Go back to the vision and mission guiding the organization. Converting the data into information that can be applied as leverage in improvement efforts requires establishing metrics firmly related to the vision and mission. These standards may differ from the traditional benchmarks of graduation rates, admission to college, attendance figures, and performance on state mandated tests. Such measures do not readily reflect customer service, employee satisfaction, branding, name recognition, share of market, community investment and confidence levels, parent opinions, and many other areas of potential impact. What do you need to measure to assess progress? What does data on staff turnover, the number of grievances filed, transfer requests, number of applicants for vacancies, staff attendance, partnership requests from external agencies like higher education and the private sector, and staff interest in voluntarily attending professional development opportunities say about the direction of the school? There are any number of data points, the key is finding those that directly support the vision and mission of the school.
There is a saying that goes something like this, “If you always do what you’ve always done, then you’ll always get what you always got.” I believe the same can be said of measuring. Waterman suggested that one of the fastest ways to initiate change is to change what you measure. In Good to Great and the Social Sector, his companion piece to the best-selling Good to Great, Collins states “It doesn’t really matter whether you can quantify your results. What matters is that you rigorously assemble evidence, qualitative or quantitative, to track your progress.” (Collins, p. ) To further that point, Collins refers to the work of Tom Morris, Executive Director of the Cleveland Orchestra, who sparked significant improvement in the organization by simply asking the company, “What do we mean by great results?” Morris then replaced conventional measurements of revenue, endowment, and cost structure, with evidence involving the number of standing ovations, invitations to appear at prestigious festivals, ticket demand, not just in Cleveland but when playing in other cities, whether other orchestras mimic their style of programming, and several other benchmarks. (Collins, p. )
In simplest terms, one of the major determinants of our success in Schuylerville is similar to that of the late Walt Disney: “Keep the same smile on people’s faces when they leave the park as when they entered.” (Blanchard, p. 29) While we can’t stop every one of the children to check for smiles as they leave the building, it does reinforce the critical value of customer service, care, and compassion in everything we do. In addition, we administer a parent survey each year to solicit anonymous comments from parents regarding their perceptions of our general performance, strengths and weaknesses. Not surprisingly, a word find analysis of the resulting remarks produces the three most frequently cited responses associated with our perceived strengths: Care; Communication, and a sense of Community. These three themes, or as we call them, the 3 C’s, have topped the list of comments each year for the last ten years, thus forging our brand and propelling our collective effort to sustain an environment of dignity, trust, and respect as a precursor to learning.