School & District Management

Districts Compare Notes on Best Business Practices

By Jeff Archer — January 17, 2007 6 min read

In the corporate world, it’s commonplace to compare one’s business practices with those of competitors. But ask school district leaders how their student-assessment, teacher-hiring, or staff-training systems stack up against their peers’, and you’ll likely get a shrug.

Productivity guru C. Jackson Grayson thinks he can change that. Through the American Productivity & Quality Center, a nonprofit organization here that he founded 30 years ago to focus on organizational improvement in business, he’s helping districts “benchmark” their management processes.

That means letting school systems make apples-to-apples comparisons of their internal workings, to answer such questions as “Are we slow or fast in getting test results back to teachers?” and “How efficient are we, relatively, in terms of recruiting new employees?”

“You can’t improve outcomes without improving processes,” said Mr. Grayson, 83, who in the 1980s helped lead efforts to create the Baldrige National Quality Awards, which recognizes improvement strategies and whose criteria are shaping management practices in many districts.

Under the APQC’s 2-year-old benchmarking initiative in education, districts that choose to take part complete detailed surveys designed to capture a snapshot of a particular process and what goes into it, including staff time, money, and numbers of people.

Districts get their own results, with comparisons to average results, and those of “best practice” districts. After piloting three such surveys, the center gathered district leaders at its offices last week to discuss a study of staff development in 26 school systems. To take part, districts paid $5,000 each.

A Look Under the Hood

For many participating districts, the project marked a new way of thinking. Few had ever gathered much of the information for the surveys in the way the APQC asked for it, let alone been able to measure their efforts against those of other districts.

“Traditionally, we’ve identified issues as the whining comes up, … as opposed to saying, ‘Where do we stand and where do we need to be?’ ” said Paul Robinson, the research director for Michigan’s 5,300-student Carman-Ainsworth school district, which took part in the staff-training study.

The APQC isn’t the only group helping districts learn from one another. The Wall Street firm Standard & Poor’s produces comparable data on districts in some states. On their own, seven districts have formed a Western States Benchmarking Consortium to compare notes.

What sets the APQC apart is its work to quantify an organization’s inner workings. The center first honed a way for businesses to do that by coming up with common definitions for the components of particular activities, such a managing facilities or strategic planning.

With funding from the Houston Endowment and the Stupski Foundation, of Mill Valley, Calif., the organization translated that framework for school districts and pilot-tested it with 27 of them, examining human resources, information technology, and assessment.

What Works in Professional Development?

A “benchmarking” survey of training for the instructional-staff members in 26 districts found that the highest performers devoted more time to activities actually at the work site.

*Click image to see the full chart.

19benchmark c1s

SOURCE: American Productivity & Quality Center

The results are not nationally representative, but can reveal patterns. When the Beaverton, Ore., school district took part in the assessment pilot, it learned that its spending on testing differed greatly from that of participating districts deemed to be higher-performing, based in part on their student achievement.

Sarah Boly, the deputy superintendent of the 37,000-student district, said the best-practice school systems put a greater portion of their testing budgets toward periodic assessments to inform teacher judgments than toward annual state testing.

“We are still required to do the state assessment, but we also needed to develop this other companion system, because the state assessments come too late to impact individual student growth,” said Ms. Boly, adding that the Beaverton district is working to do so.

The new benchmarking study on professional development also showed clear gaps. Higher-performing districts in the study did more of their staff training on the job, as opposed to off site. They also tended more to link that training to district-improvement goals.

Many district leaders have found the survey questions themselves revealing, as they struggle to dig up data on finances, programs, and staffing that may relate to the same process, but have been kept in different places. Completing the questionnaires often takes weeks.

But the surveys are only half of the equation. Mr. Grayson is adamant that for organizations to improve, the people in them must interact with those in better-performing ones. For each of its studies, the APQC arranges for participants to meet and to visit participating districts.

“Benchmarking means you physically go look at where there is better practice, ask questions face to face, and make observations on your own,” Mr. Grayson said. “And by involving your own staff in benchmarking, you will address skepticism that it can’t be done.”

Use of Workshops The best-performing

At last week’s gathering at the American Productivity & Quality Center, which the group called a “knowledge-transfer session,” representatives of several best-practice districts told how they have built systems to ensure not just that people are trained, but that the training results in better student learning.

Leaders of the 140,000-student Montgomery County, Md., schools told how when they recently rolled out a new curriculum, they not only trained teachers on it, but also trained instructional coaches based at each school to help educators employ it in the classroom.

“In order to ensure even implementation we put that step in,” said Betty Collins, who directs professional developent initiatives for the district.

“Every child deserves to have a teacher who is capable of providing the learning environment that will ensure that they meet high standards,” she added.

‘Marginal Gains’?

It remains to be seen to what extent districts will be able to copy such practices. Some participants at the session here shook their heads upon hearing that Montgomery County had 150 central-office staff members devoted to training, while they had only a few.

But Ms. Boly of the Beaverton, Ore., district said benchmarking could help districts make the case for more resources. “We will be able to give constituents concrete data around the relationship between student achievement and where we’re putting our money.”

Asked about the APQC’s work, Marc S. Tucker, the president of the Washington-based National Center on Education and the Economy, said in an interview that businesses—which have clearer bottom lines and lack the political governance of education—have more incentive to improve productivity.

“In business, the more efficient you are, you either make more money, reduce your price, or gain more of the market—none of which applies to education,” he said. He predicts that the education benchmarking work will produce only “marginal gains” in the field.

Mr. Tucker believes significant improvement requires wholesale change in how schools are governed, financed, and held accountable, which is the premise of a report released last month by a panel that he spearheaded. (“U.S. Urged to Reinvent Its Schools,” Dec. 20, 2006.)

Mr. Grayson disagrees. By learning from the best performers, he contends, districts can improve just American companies did by learning from Japan in the 1980s—something he helped facilitate by creating the APQC, which receives most of its money from corporate clients.

To make that happen in education, he has ambitious plans. He’d like every major U.S. district to take part in the center’s benchmarking studies, the fees for which are now $7,500. Upcoming studies will examine transportation, procurement, and literacy instruction for adolescents.

“You can’t tear up a company and totally re-engineer it,” said Mr. Grayson, a one-time business school dean and economic adviser to the Nixon administration. “You need to take it from where it is to where it needs to be next.”

Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the January 17, 2007 edition of Education Week as Districts Compare Notes on Best Business Practices


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