School Climate & Safety Opinion

What Does Computer Programming Have in Common With School District Planning?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — November 17, 2015 7 min read
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In his guest blog, Superintendent Jay Harnack, shares how the Sublette County School District #1 in Pinedale, Wyoming improved student achievement through integrated district improvement.

What does computer programming have in common with school district planning? Perhaps more than you might think. In 1982, Alan Perlis, Chair of the Yale Computer Science program wrote an article entitled Epigrams on Programming. The 120 plus epigrams listed in the article expressed Perlis’ vast experience with programming languages in a simple, enjoyable format.

The interesting thing about the epigrams, for me at least, was that many of them were focused on dealing with complex systems. Over the past few years, I’ve become convinced that reducing the complexity in our local education system is quickly becoming one of our most important leadership responsibilities.

In his book Schools Can’t Do It Alone: The Ever Increasing Burden on Public Schools, Jamie Vollmer documents 59 major new mandates that have been added to public schools over the last 35 years. The list is overwhelming, yet not included in this list are the additional demands to meet the requirements of state and federal accountability models, external accreditation processes, and a host of school improvement initiatives. As a result, the metaphor of the local school district as highly complex program is as relevant as Perlis’ thoughts on how to deal with that complexity.

Fools Ignore Complexity. Pragmatists Suffer It. Some Can Avoid It. Geniuses Remove It.
If only we were all geniuses. I’m certainly not. But ignoring the complexity we face is undoubtedly detrimental to performance. While it may take true genius to remove it, I believe that short of removing it completely, we can certainly reduce it, and thereby reduce the current “suffering” that exists in our predominantly pragmatic approaches. As such, we have made it an overarching practice in our district to reduce complexity whenever and wherever possible.

Every Program Is a Part Of Some Other Program and Rarely Fits
Several years ago, we were simultaneously preparing for a strategic planning process, an external accreditation visit (required in Wyoming), and continuing with our local school improvement work. At the time, these processes were not only separate; they were disconnected in many ways. These disparate processes were creating additional work for everyone in the district and generating an overwhelming cognitive load for teachers and administrators alike.

Symmetry Is a Complexity-Reducing Concept; Seek It Everywhere.
Our response was to create an integrated approach to continuous improvement that aligned these district-wide processes. We realized that time is our most valuable commodity, and less of the time we do have was being focused on our core business of teaching and learning. In designing the integrated approach, it was our goal to ensure that the work of everyone on our staff was critical and aligned to the key goals of the organization. In short, our objective was to remove the causes of failure in our system, and to help others to their job with greater efficiency and less effort.

Change The Specification To Fit The Program
Strategic plans, accountability models, accreditation processes, and school improvement initiatives will always be with us in some form. We tasked ourselves with changing the specification at the local level to fit the programs that currently existed. This meant connecting the district vision (strategic plan) with research-based practices (school improvement work), around a framework based upon our accreditation standards. Aligning these processes to the accreditation standards created a comprehensive approach that focused all of our work on the critical tasks all districts must undertake to ensure educational quality, created an effective internal review process, and greatly simplified our preparation for an external review.

In doing so, we were able to create a distinct through-line from the Board and the strategic plan to research-based school improvement actions. This process ultimately helped the board establish the District’s focus, communicate that focus to our staff, and establish the role of the board/superintendent team as one of providing schools with the tools and supports they need to be successful. When all staff clearly understand the goals of the district, identifying critical work tasks within each school becomes much easier. This defined autonomy clearly articulates expectations to both leaders and staff, while providing them with the flexibility to meet the individual challenges at their school.

A Good System Can’t Have a Weak Command Language
One of the values of aligning your strategic planning process to the accreditation standards is the creation of a strong command language for continuous improvement. All of our improvement efforts can be tied directly to our strategic plan and an associated accreditation standard. This provides not only a common language, but a common understanding for the improvement need as well.

The other key factor in designing the integrated approach was the implementation of a research based leadership framework. Our district chose McREL’s Balanced Leadership framework based on its research base, comprehensive nature, and effective planning tools. The Balanced Leadership framework focuses principals on research based responsibilities correlated to improving student achievement. All of our administrators were trained in the leadership framework, and this created a common language and understanding of leadership practices, which we could then align to any given improvement initiative. While we found this practice to be tremendously valuable, we soon realized that our greatest benefit occurred when we began training teachers in the Balanced Leadership framework. Helping teachers understand building level leadership responsibilities and subsequently involving them in the leadership process at the building level created significant improvements in teacher engagement, leadership, and collaboration with principals.

It Is The User That Should Parameterize The Procedure, Not Their Creators
Ultimately, it was our goal to create an environment of defined autonomy that allowed each building to parameterize the improvement initiatives within the confines of the district strategic plan and our accreditation standards. Each principal develops a planning tool for their school that is collaboratively developed with staff and aligned to the strategic plan. This process narrows the focus of principals and teachers in a complex environment. In addition, the principal evaluation tool is aligned to the Balanced Leadership framework and the teacher evaluation tool is aligned to the research-based school improvement practices. By focusing on the leadership responsibilities and actions necessary to implement the planning tool, both principals and teachers are taking actions that they know are mutually beneficial for the themselves, the district, and ultimately our students. By linking specific school initiative practices directly to the strategic plan through the planning tool, we were able to connect practice with purpose, and transparency became a tool to drive the improvement of instruction. This effectively de-privatized our educational practices and placed our improvement focus on finding where the system failed and fixing it, rather than identifying who to blame.

Simplicity Does Not Precede Complexity, But Follows It
It would probably not be accurate to describe our integrated process as simple per se, but it is certainly less complex; and this reduction in complexity has allowed our district to apply that recovered time and energy on our primary focus of teaching and learning. And that, we believe, is a programming for success.

Perlis, A. J. (September 1982). “Epigrams on programming”. ACM SIGPLAN Notices (New York, NY, USA: Association for Computing Machinery) 17 (9): 7-13. doi:10.1145/947955.1083808.
Volmer, J.R. (2010). Schools Cannot Do It Alone. Farifield, IA.: Enlightment Press

About Jay’s Work: After implementation of the integrated approach to district improvement, their accreditation exit report noted 8 Powerful Practices covering thirteen standards and their Index of Educational Quality Score (IEQ) was the highest in Wyoming in, and in the top 10% worldwide for the 1848 institutions reviewed by AdvancED in 2015. In addition, the elementary school and high school both received an “Exceeding Standards” ranking on the Wyoming State Accountability model. Jay blogs here.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.