Feature

An Audit of Human Capital

A district focuses on organizational development to dispense with the usual blame and to emphasize the business of learning by Sandra Chavez

Guided by a visionary, savvy and resourceful superintendent for the past 10 years, the Beaufort County, S.C., School District was a reflection of its rich history, diverse culture and idyllic low country setting, resplendent with enormous live oaks draped with Spanish moss, scenic marshlands, bountiful rivers and beautiful beaches.

The superintendent worked hard to gain public confidence and the financial support to acquire the latest technology and provide the finest facilities for our students. This meant all students, regardless of their socioeconomic status or geographic location, enjoyed the advantage of state-of-the-art learning environments, safe schools, high-quality learning materials and highly qualified educators.

I joined the district in fall 2001, eager to bring my experience and success from the private sector as an organizational development consultant to bear upon the superintendent’s interest in cultivating a “culture for success.” The existing culture was steeped in a philosophy of site-based governance where each school, led by innovative and independent-minded principals, was encouraged to create a unique brand defined by its curriculum and supported by its instructional strategies.

By traditional standards, the formula for student success was in place. Or so it was thought. But year after year, our school district’s students failed to keep pace with state gains and national norm-referenced academic results. Did success need to be redefined?

Predictive Data
How was it possible to have nationally recognized programs and state award-winning schools, yet be an underperforming and mediocre district? This scenario prompted much soul-searching and many questions from many angles.

For some, the answer was simple. Our floundering academic results were due to the large number of economically disadvantaged students. Others pinned blame on the parents of these students, claiming they weren’t involved in supporting their children’s schooling. For others, the exploding population of Latino students explained the poor test scores.

There were more questions than real answers. The loudest of these questions was spawned by our school board. The board believed the performance issue was rooted in process, or the lack of oversight of standards-based instruction. School board members demanded to know whether teachers were teaching to the state standards, and they wanted a way to assess the extent to which they were doing so.

While this was going on, I was coming to understand the nature of the K-12 education business within a school system — the work processes, disciplines and not-so-subtle political pressures influencing decisions and policies. I was intrigued by the reliance upon “post-mortem” student data as the sole source of information about performance and the lack of a comprehensive business intelligence process to make leading and predictive indicator data available to leadership to help them navigate and guide the district’s complex system.

I observed that this reliance caused a reactive orientation among the school board, district staff and the community, rather than embodying a creative orientation to fuel new ideas, strategies and outcomes. The data generated by our state’s standardized test, the Palmetto Achievement Challenge Test, is an intrinsically limited tool. Without specific item analysis, the test cannot be used to gauge what actions are necessary to improve academic achievement.

As a consultant to Fortune 100 companies like AT&T and Lucent, I was accustomed to a leadership paradigm that relied on multiple performance indicators — customer or client value, employee satisfaction and profitability — to inform action. I believed our school district’s leadership would benefit from this type of reliable and predictive data and went on a search to find it.

Common Denominator
During this time, I also became keenly aware of how readily educators relied on curriculum, instruction, assessments and professional development as the path to improved student performance and how many educators believed private-sector thinking or solutions didn’t apply to public-sector issues.

I found it prudent to acknowledge that the issues being faced by the education industry challenge conventional wisdom and could not be resolved by simply imposing business processes to the practice of teaching and learning. But I felt a professional responsibility to challenge these mental models and suggest that the private and public sectors share a common denominator — each relies upon people, its human capital, to use effective processes to achieve its goals. The answer to the achievement gap was more complex than whether teachers were teaching the state curriculum and yet not as simple as whether employees were satisfied with their work.

In pursuit of creating a culture that would contribute to the successful learning outcomes envisioned by the superintendent, I returned to my roots and experiences in organizational development. I discovered an article about McBassi and Co., an agency specializing in the assessment of human capital management. McBassi’s philosophy was immediately captivating. An employees’ experience with the work environment — the degree to which processes are in place to support their work and professional needs — is critical to the functioning of the organization and a predictive measure of its success.

I thought this assessment of an organization’s work processes might be as applicable to public education as it was to business and felt it would provide insight into the issues affecting the student achievement gap. It was a risky idea, but a risk worth pursuing.

When I spoke with Laurie Bassi, McBassi’s CEO, and explained our dilemma, she was intrigued by the challenge of applying her well-researched and validated measurement tool to a school district. But Bassi couldn’t guarantee the data would be statistically linked to student achievement. To find out, we agreed to provide our district’s student test data for analysis. We were both intrigued by the unprecedented research opportunity and the potential benefits for students. With support from the superintendent and the school board, McBassi was awarded the contact to implement the Human Capabilities Scorecard (we affectionately call it “The Audit”) and began work immediately.

Human Capital
The measurement framework used by McBassi assesses five key indices: leadership practices, employee engagement, knowledge accessibility, workforce optimization and learning capacity. Each index is comprised of related factors that are the basis for the 60-question web-based survey. Employees respond to each question using a five-point maturity rating scale. Our staff was asked to assess the maturity of our organization’s systems and processes, rather than offer their perception of the workplace. This went well beyond the typical “smiles” test often conducted by an organization to assess whether employees are happy and satisfied.

Over the past three years of data collection, rigorous statistical analysis and a couple hundred headaches, McBassi has made a remarkable discovery — human capital factors are as important to student achievement as are the disciplines of curriculum, instruction and assessment and have more impact on student achievement than does a student’s socioeconomic status!

Analysis of our district’s scores on the state exams, as well as data from the Northwest Evaluation Associations’s Measures of Academic Progress, revealed two things:

 

  • human capital management is vastly more important than student socioeconomic status in determining improvements in student achievement; and
  • specific and actionable aspects of human capital management are causal drivers of student achievement. Most importantly, the human capital factors affect changes in student test scores.

 

A Reality Check
These findings stirred a great deal of emotion among our school district’s leaders. The commonly held beliefs for poor test scores — low socioeconomic status, lack of parental involvement and the quality of standards-based instruction — were being challenged and refuted. The data from the audit proffered a new paradigm that stated improvements in students’ test scores are highly dependent on our school and districtwide leadership and their ability to create productive work and learning environments.

“Facing the brutal reality,” as Jim Collins aptly put it in his best seller, Good to Great, proved to be a difficult process. Imagine a leadership paradigm that shifts the burden of achievement from students and their parents to the organization responsible for their teaching and learning. This premise offended many of our leader’s sensibilities.

I have to admit that in the beginning, Bassi and I tip-toed around the issue because these findings were being perceived as intrusive and invalid (along with my credibility). Looking back on those initial meetings with our school and district leadership, I found myself collapsing the tension in the face of indifference, anger, confusion and regret. In a private conversation, a principal of one of our elementary schools revealed he did not share the data with his teachers because, as he stated, “I am too embarrassed for them to know this about me and my leadership ability.”

A critical learning for me has been that the audit provides our leaders with insights and direction, not solutions. I’ve learned that how the data is presented has become as important as what the data portrays. The data provides a glimpse of current reality — a look into the current work processes and learning environments that we have created for our employees, the very people who create the learning environment for our students. The data makes tangible and quantifies those elusive factors such as trust, openness, inclusiveness and respect that are at the heart of healthy relationships and the hallmark of successful work environments.

The audit gave voice to our employees’ concerns, and they told us that factors such as accountability, information sharing, hiring practices, professional development offerings and teamwork (these were just a few of the factors identified!) needed urgent leadership attention and improvement.

The audit in and of itself does not provide a clear roadmap for corrective action, nor does it speak to the capacity and desire that exists within each educational leader. It does provide our leaders with a starting point and a bridge to what matters most. The process of working with the data from the audit has challenged every leader to be willing to be more transparent, to value multiple sources of data, to accept accountability, to be egalitarian and to understand that leadership is about being a continuous learner. I believe it has been a catalyst in our leadership’s professional and personal growth.

Data collected in subsequent years suggests our leaders are responding to the serious instructional and organizational challenges in our schools and owning the responsibility to take action. As administrators at the site level and central office have become increasingly conscious of which processes need the most attention and move their staffs from dialogue to problem solving, the schools are experiencing improvements in their scores on the maturity model.

As the schools modified their internal workings to support human capital by responding to the needs of teachers, they witnessed a rise in student test scores. Thus the circle is complete — providing capable and committed leaders with meaningful predictive measures yields improvements in student learning. Although this has not been an easy process, our leaders have demonstrated resilience, persistence and a willingness to raise the bar, an indication of their unwavering loyalty to their students and staff and their indelible focus on student achievement and staff needs.

What Matters
Whenever we conduct an audit (we’ve done it three times now in our district), we look for the factors with the strongest statistical link to changes in student test scores. We’ve coined them the “top 10.” These 10 leading factors become the focus of our district’s strategic plan and each school’s renewal plan. They also become part of the performance expectations for each department and school leader.

This year’s most important predictive factors include the following:

 

  • Employees are held accountable for quality work;
  • School has well-defined processes for getting work done;
  • Employees trust colleagues to get work done;
  • Administrators communicate news and strategies to employees;
  • Administrators clearly communicate what is expected of employees;
  • School improves quality and usefulness of best practices and tips;
  • Work is well-organized and enables a quality job;
  • Employee’s job is secure;
  • Climate is helpful for meeting student performance goals; and
  • Colleagues consistently demonstrate high expectations for students.

 

These factors run the gamut of accountability, communications, expectations and work process. While most may seem obvious, what is not so apparent is what these factors mean to each teacher in each school or each employee in each department.

There are no cookie-cutter solutions. Digging for meaning through dialogue and with inquiry and creating new processes brings these factors to life in schools and the central office.

Aretha Rhone-Bush, the principal of our newest state-of-the-art science and technology high school, used the Top 10 factors as the focus of a leadership retreat prior to the opening of the school in fall 2004. She gathered a leadership team together, including members of her instructional and support staff, parents and community members to talk about the audit and its importance to student and staff success.

Rhone-Bush’s team identified four factors most important the first year. They provided explicit definition for each factor and assigned team responsibilities. Throughout the year, the team assessed their progress on modifying processes. While few of our schools receive high maturity ratings overall, this new school achieved the highest ratings of our four high schools during the following year’s audit. Was it beginner’s luck? Rhone-Bush would say it had a lot to do with knowing what mattered most and how it unified her leadership team around a common focus with targeted intention.

Three Lessons
Our school district’s mission — “A challenging, engaging and safe school district connecting each child to a successful future, everywhere and every day” — is enhanced by our experience with the audit. We’ve learned three important lessons:

 

  • The measurement framework is as applicable to education as it is to business because both worlds share a common ingredient: employees. What intuitively makes sense — that paying attention to employees’ needs creates a better working environment — was confirmed statistically by the McBassi method.

     

     

  • An expanded definition of leadership that includes the tenets of organizational development has a positive impact on student achievement. The practice of organizational development has been overlooked and underused in public education. Our data indicates these tools show great promise to help us close the achievement gap.

     

     

  • No longer can we use socioeconomic status as the barrier to student achievement. As my colleague, Assistant Superintendent Ginger Hopkins, summed up: “It’s what we all need. We can’t hide behind labels and assumptions. We can’t allow students to be labeled by their subgroup or socioeconomic status. We have to be willing to be honest and talk about the toughest issues and figure out what decisions we can make to fulfill our responsibility to educate every child. We have to look at our system and see what works and what doesn’t, and the audit was the tool that got us thinking, really thinking, about what we could do to create a better school system.”

     

    It is somewhat ironic that the discipline of organizational learning and development has been so slow to penetrate our nation’s education system — the very system that is in the business of learning. The results from our school district’s audit have expanded our definition of leadership. Our students are the benefactors.

    Sandra Chavez is an organizational development and research administrator in the academics and accountability department of the Beaufort County School District, 1300 King St., Beaufort, SC 29901. E-mail: slc9284@beaufort.k12.sc.us