School & District Management

Governance Project Teaches Value of Policy Framework

By Dakarai I. Aarons — October 12, 2009 8 min read
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Sophomores in an honors American Literature class at Sports and Medical Sciences academy complete a reading exercise.

Tell school board members in most districts that you want to spend economic-stimulus dollars on reading interventions, and their answer is likely to be: “Sounds great! Approved. Next item.”

But Penny MacCormack, the chief academic officer of the 22,000-student Hartford school district, knew she’d better be ready to answer another question: How does this help us meet our policy goals?

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Such questions are common from the nine-person board, whose members have spent the past two years working on a policy framework that lays out expectations for improving academic performance in Connecticut’s largest district. That focus started with the district’s participation in Reform Governance in Action.

Launched in 2004, the program is a two-year institute that brings hand-picked urban school boards and superintendents together to work on creating tools that help them not only govern effectively, but also bring about meaningful results for students.

Three Levers

The program was the brainchild of Donald R. McAdams, a former Houston school board member who formed the Houston-based Center for Reform of School Systems. It is funded by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, which teamed up with McAdams to run an earlier effort, the now-defunct weeklong Broad Institute for School Boards.

The training is based on the philosophy that school boards have three major levers: using reform-oriented policy to drive change, building community support for the agenda, and hiring superintendents who can carry out the vision.

“We are school reformers first,” McAdams says, “and we are looking for governance as one of the ways to respond to the challenge of achievement in urban schools.”

Dan Katzir, the managing director of the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation, says the philanthropy’s founder, Eli Broad, has invested in the program because there were few options available to train urban superintendents and school board members on closing achievement gaps.

“If we are going to change the game in terms of overall results for disadvantaged kids,” Katzir says, “we have to enable a higher level of knowledge and action and ability, frankly, of the governing body.”

In the training, a school board learns to use research to select a “theory of action,” create a policy framework that supports it, and evaluate the superintendent based on how he or she meets the goals aligned with the theory of action.

The Broad Foundation pays most costs associated with the program—more than $200,000 for each district—but school districts are required to pay the approximately $60,000 in expenses for the in-district consulting visits.

Reform Route

Governance expert Donald R. McAdams lays out this path for school boards to follow in order to effectively govern districts and ensure a focus on academic achievement.

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SOURCE: Reform Governance in Action

The school board and administrative team for each participating district meet every other month with a consultant for a weekend of planning and working toward putting their ideas into practice. Then, the board, superintendent, and two top administrators meet in four large-group sessions that bring together all of the four or five urban districts in each training cohort. Those meetings take place in a variety of locations across the nation.

“It really teaches you your role as an oversight board,” says Hartford board member Pamela Richmond. “We found there were things we were sticking our hands in that we shouldn’t have.”

By Invitation Only

The school districts take part on an invitation-only basis, and must keep up with the training and policy-crafting to remain in the RGA program. McAdams says the program targets districts that have shown a commitment to reform.

Teacher Lorrie Kellogg leads an exercise in a 3rd grade reading class at Breakthrough Magnet School last month.

Board-administrative teams use the information learned in sessions to help guide them in crafting policies in a variety of areas, from constituent services to professional development. They get feedback from RGA staffers and board members in other districts.

“Our work is really designed for boards that really want to do something and governance teams that get along reasonably well,” McAdams says. “It’s not therapy.”

Boards are taught about theories of action that other districts have used to great effect. The Long Beach, Calif., school district, for example, uses “managed instruction,” under which all schools use the same curriculum. New York City’s system, in contrast, uses “performance management,” giving principals significant autonomy over how their schools are run.

The theory of action in Hartford is “managed performance empowerment,” a blend of the two approaches. The district’s relationship with each school depends on its performance. As schools meet targets, their principals gain more autonomy over budget, personnel, and curriculum decisions.

Goal Number One

The Hartford school district’s strategic plan sets these specific targets for the proportion of students scoring at least “proficient” on Connecticut’s tests.

3rd Grade
2009 Reading Baseline:
37.3%
2011-12 Reading Target:
49.3%

5th Grade
2009 Writing Baseline:
64.8%
2011-12 Writing Target:
76.8%

8th Grade
2009 Science Baseline:
35.3%
2011-12 Science Target:
47.3%

10th Grade
2009 Reading Baseline:
57.8%
2011-12 Reading Target:
69.8%
2009 Writing Baseline:
65.9%
2011-12 Writing Target:
77.9%

SOURCE: Hartford Public Schools

“Our theory of action says the people best able to make the decisions are at the school,” MacCormack, the chief academic officer, says. The central office views itself as “in service” to the schools, she says, creating the tools and working with school-level staff members to find the professional development that meets their needs.

That philosophy, Superintendent Steven J. Adamowski confirms, is etched into the hearts of each board member.

“Some boards rent the superintendent’s theory of action,” he says. “Ours owns it.”

Hartford Mayor Eddie A. Perez, himself a member of the school board, appoints five of its nine members; the rest are elected. The policies stemming from the Reform Governance in Action training, he says, have created “a measuring stick that is clearer than it has ever been.”

“Everybody is on the same page,” the mayor says. “It is clear when your school improves or not, and what are the ramifications.”

Elizabeth Brad Noel, a board member who’s been involved with Hartford’s schools since she began her counseling career in the system in 1967, says the training sessions helped create a bond among board members.

“One of the values was all of us getting to be together with the superintendent and leadership for three or four days,” Noel says of the out-of-town institute sessions. “You don’t get that kind of opportunity when you are home.”

Fifth grade students in aubrey Orenstein’s class work on a writing exercise at Breakthrough Magnet School.

Hartford has been the most improved district in Connecticut the past two years, Adamowski notes, a feat that he believes would not have been as easily achieved without the outside help.

Ada M. Miranda, the chairwoman of the board, says the intensive program was like going through a graduate-level class on school governance. The training, and Adamowski’s leadership, have transformed the way the district does business, she and other board members say.

“Boards come and go, and so do superintendents. We don’t want what has happened to be dropped. So we are focused on sustainability,” Miranda says. “What you have in policy, someone will have to get consensus to change. Policy is a key sustainability element.”

‘Productive and Helpful’

Kriner Cash, the superintendent of the 108,000-student Memphis, Tenn., district, says going through the RGA training has been a boon to his district. Cash and the members of the school board started the program shortly after he took the reins last year; the district is midway through its training.

Ruvit Jimenez, 13, conducts a lab experiment in an 8th grade science class at Breakthrough Magnet School.

“I think it has been extraordnarily productive and helpful, in that the board recognizes its primary role, and a key one, in creating policies that focus on reform,” he says.

“We have many compliance policies, but we need policy that deals with reform and transformation of the district. That’s what [board members] have been focusing on—transforming our culture into a high-performing one of academic achievement.”

McAdams, the founder of Reform Governance in Action, points to the Aldine Independent School District in Texas, which this year won the Broad Prize for Urban Education; the Duval County, Fla., schools; and the Charlotte-Mecklenberg, N.C., district as among the program’s success stories.

Some Don’t Finish

But he also counts as successes some school district teams that didn’t finish the program, but implemented what they learned.

Denver is one example. Bruce Hoyt, a school board member there, says the training members received helped lay the groundwork for the improvement agenda the board pursued with then-Superintendent Michael Bennet, who later left that job to accept an appointment to a U.S. Senate seat.

Hoyt says Denver didn’t finish because participants found it hard to implement their reform plan with Bennet while also trying to finish RGA’s strict schedule. But the program’s case studies were key, Hoyt says, allowing the Denver board to see how other urban districts were tackling similar problems and getting results.

Wallace Report: Leading for Learning

The sixth annual Leading for Learning report, funded by The Wallace Foundation, examines the school board’s role in education leadership.
Click here to read the full report.

“It has really given us tremendous confidence in knowing we are implementing the right reform model, even if we haven’t seen the results flow as fast as we’d like,” he says. “It’s time well spent. The entire training is right on point with what every urban school board member and school team needs to know.”

McAdams says the program also was getting “real traction” with school board members in the District of Columbia before Mayor Adrian M. Fenty took over the school system in 2007.

Katzir of the Broad Foundation says the results of the training have been mixed, with some districts showing greater progress in improving student achievement than others.

“Good school boards are not a sufficient condition for high-performing schools,” McAdams says, “but they are a necessary condition.”

“They are not going away,” he adds, “so helping them become productive as reform leaders seems to be a very wise public-policy direction.”

A special report funded by The Wallace Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the October 14, 2009 edition of Education Week as Governance Project Teaches Value of Policy Framework

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