Eyes on the Baldrige Prize

Disparate school districts in New York and Alaska are first honored for quality approaches by JAY MATHEWS

Much of the Chugach School District in Alaska can be reached only two ways, from the air in a small noisy plane straining to get over green and snow-covered mountains or from the sea in oily motorboats bouncing dizzily out of the port of Valdez on the heavy swells of Prince William Sound.

Finding the Pearl River, N.Y., School District is considerably easier. Just drive out of New York City, take the George Washington Bridge onto the Palisades Parkway for a lovely 20-mile drive up the Hudson River. There on the New Jersey border, just when you need to stop for gas and a soda, is the friendly bedroom community in the leafy suburban environs of Rockland County.
It is hard to imagine two parts of the country less alike, and yet Chugach and Pearl River have become tightly linked in their mutual triumph over inertia, old rules and unfocused teaching. For the first time, the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award was bestowed on educational institutions and the two school districts—along with the University of Wisconsin-Stout—won the prize.

National Models
The Baldrige Award was established by Congress in 1987 in the midst of a corporate frenzy over perceived American failure to match the Japanese in attention to the small details of customer service and product reliability that led to big profits and strong stock prices. The award was named after the late U.S. secretary of commerce, a rodeo-riding renaissance man who had led the charge to replace the American fondness for quantity with a more long-lasting commitment to quality.

The Japanese have since discovered that well-made products are not the only things they need to keep their economy strong, but American businesspeople and government officials attribute much of the U.S. economic success over the last decade to the Baldrige philosophy. Meetings to discuss the lessons learned from Baldrige winners are well-attended. The winners in the categories of manufacturing, service and small business have become models for businesses throughout the country.

In 1999, the Commerce Department’s Baldrige National Quality Program, headquartered at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Md.(www.quality.nist.gov), announced it would offer new awards for achievements in education and health care. The education category was open to any elementary or secondary schools and school districts, colleges, universities and university systems, schools or colleges within a university, professional schools, community colleges, technical schools and charter schools. Thirty seven educational enterprises applied for an award, and the three winners of the 2001 prize were the first to receive one.

Heavy Documentation
It was not an easy award to get. It was not even easy to apply for. Competing educators had to show achievements in seven areas—leadership, strategic planning, student, stakeholder and market focus, information and analysis, faculty and staff focus, process management and organizational performance results. Then came 300 to 1,000 hours of outside review, including a site visit by teams of examiners for applicants who reach the final stages.

Most of the reports produced by this fine-tuned process are not fun to read. They appeal to the most obsessed devotees of management jargon. But the winners themselves have become very adept at telling their stories in clear English.

Richard DeLorenzo, the wise-cracking superintendent at the heart of the Chugach transformation, says the district underwent a comprehensive restructuring effort in 1994. It was a huge job in a difficult environment. The district covers 22,000 square miles of south-central Alaska, some of the most rugged and least accessible territory in the United States. It has only 214 students and 30 staff members. Teachers not only need to know how to run a classroom but must be knowledgeable about wilderness and cold water safety and how to respond to a tsunami or a wandering bear.

President Bush and Richard DeLorenzo, superintendent of the Chugach School Dis-trict in Anchorage, Alaska.

When Chugach’s board and staff decided to change their way of doing things eight years ago, annual staff turnover exceeded 50 percent. The district’s Baldrige application cites the example of Ivan Velanoff, an Aleut middle schooler who in 1994 felt “no connection to his studies and [found it] difficult adjusting to the parade of teachers.”

He could captain a boat through a severe storm and was excited by the stories his elders told of their hunting exploits. But learning at school was different. His father complained of being beaten by teachers for speaking the native Sugcestun language when he was a student. Ivan “was not disappointed when his 2nd-grade teacher left after one week. He did not attend school for a month while a new teacher was sought,” the school district reported.

It was not surprising then that Chugach’s scores on the California Achievement Test at the beginning of the effort to change the system were the lowest in Alaska. The average student was three years below grade level in reading. Local businesses said when they hired local youngsters, they could neither read nor do math very well. In 19 years, only one Chugach student had graduated from college.

Biggest Obstacle
DeLorenzo notes that a small staff like his was just as resistant to change as a huge payroll in a major metropolitan school district. There were three kinds of staffers, he says. Twenty percent were what he called the “omnivores,” teachers ready to try anything. Sixty percent were the “Missouri people,” skeptics who folded their arms and waited for the reformers to prove—or to “show me” as the Missouri motto says—that what they were suggesting would work. And then there were the 20 percent DeLorenzo called the “OMDBs,” or Over My Dead Body.

“The great obstacle was tradition,” says Chugach’s assistant superintendent, Bob Crumley. That included the tradition of ignoring the ideas of the people who were doing the teaching. So the Chugach school leaders gathered together what quality gurus call the stakeholders—staff members, current and past students, parents, school board members and business and community leaders. They shared their views of what was wrong and agreed to work on and measure their progress toward improvements on five goals: basic skills, individual needs of students, character development, transition skills and technology.

They junked the old system of credit hours and grade levels after getting a waiver from the Alaska Department of Education and installed an individualized, student-centered approach. Each student would be judged on his or her ability to achieve proficiency in 10 areas of performance: reading, writing, mathematics, social sciences, science, technology, cultural awareness and expression, personal/social/health, career development and service learning.

Students worked at their own developmentally appropriate pace. Some achieved proficiency at high school graduation level as early as age 14. Others met the requirement at 21. Once students reached what was called “master level four” midway to graduation, they received a wireless laptop computer to help accelerate their progress and use modern technology to beat back the inconvenience and isolation of their mountainous and watery environments.

In their Baldrige application, the district reported that Ivan Velanoff, the once-shy student who preferred to stay away from school, created a bar graph on his computer to get a view of his reading achievement. He reviewed the results with his dad and his teacher. “They celebrated colossal gains in the targeted areas and made plans to deal with word and passage comprehension,” the district report said.

Overcoming the skepticism that greets any new venture took time. Crumley says that when district leaders told stakeholders they were actually going to adopt their ideas, they didn’t believe it. But “when stakeholders saw us acting upon their input, the trust began to grow,” he says.

Performance Pay
One crucial barrier was teacher compensation. “As administrators who had worked through the teaching field, we were frustrated with the salary schedule that equated a teacher’s worth to the amount of time they had been employed by the district,” Crumley says

“Were the veterans sincerely earning their earnings?” Crumley asks. “Therefore we created a cutting-edge, research-based, teacher evaluation that would allow us to measure comprehensively each teacher’s performance. We, the administration, proposed to our teachers a freeze in traditional salaries with optional performance pay available which would be determined by their teacher evaluation score.”

The union reacted as teachers’ unions have reacted to such proposals elsewhere in the country. The union said the proposal appeared divisive and not nearly as motivating as its creators thought it was. But since the administrators had made such a point of stakeholder involvement, these teachers decided, in the spirit of quality management, to make a counter proposal. Rather than each teacher receiving performance pay based on his or her individual score, they suggested that the scores of all teachers be averaged and each get an equal share of whatever performance pay was due them.

Crumley says their rationale was: “If we all receive the same performance pay, higher scoring teachers will coach lower scoring teachers to raise the district average. In this way, rather than being a potentially divisive program, it will enhance collegiality and performance of teachers as a whole.”

This was exactly the kind of constructive feedback that the Baldrige award was designed to encourage. The district administration embraced the counterproposal and made it part of its basic contract with teachers.

The district also increased the number of annual faculty training days to 30, double the state average. The board created a professional development fund with up to $1,000 per teacher for outside training. That enabled each teacher to develop his or her skills at teaching different kids in different ways. Since the goals for graduation were so clear, progress could be precisely monitored and if one approach for one student was not working, the teacher was motivated to try something else. Perhaps the struggling student needed visual instruction. Perhaps he was better off hearing things. Perhaps manipulatives were in order. Each would be tried and the results recorded.

The fruits of this process, the Baldrige judges agreed, were extraordinary. Chugach scores on the California Achievement Test rose from the 28th percentile in reading in 1995 to the 71st percentile in 1999. In math the jump was from the 54th to the 78th percentile, and in language arts from the 26th to the 72nd. In all four areas of the state’s High School Graduation Qualifying Test, Chugach scored better than the state average. It went from producing one college graduate in 19 years to several college graduates in five years.

Persistent Underachievers
A crow flying from Chugach to Pearl River travels about 3,300 miles. But the problems the New York suburban district faced a decade ago were equally distant from those of the Alaskan wilderness school system. Pearl River had 2,500 students, more than 10 times as many as Chugach. There were 203 teachers in three elementary schools, one middle school and one high school. Instructor turnover was relatively low. Many students went to college. It was an average American district.

And that, the Pearl River school board and administration decided in 1991, was the problem. Most people liked the schools, but 29 percent chose to attend the more than 80 private and parochial schools within 15 miles of the district. Forty percent of Pearl River students did not earn a Regents diploma, reserved for those who passed a battery of state tests. In 1996, only 53 percent of the district’s students scored a 3 or higher on the Advanced Placement tests that were becoming an increasingly important factor in college admissions.

The Pearl River board and administration decided that although some students were doing well, the schools were not reaching as many children as they could. In 1991, they adopted a mission—“every child can and will learn”—long before that became a national political slogan.

There were three strategic goals: improving academic performance, improving public perception of the district by incorporating quality principles and values, and maintaining fiscal stability and improving cost effectiveness. The board adopted what it called a “balanced scorecard”—a scannable composite of leading and lagging indicators of progress. Which goals and strategic objectives were being met? If they had not been reached, how far behind were they and what were the ingredients of that failure to keep pace?

Quinton C. Van Wynen Jr.

Quinton C. Van Wynen Jr., president of Pearl River school board, says it was important to keep track of the numbers. “The use of databases, year-to-year comparisons and testing results help to point out strengths and weaknesses of the programs.”

All Pearl River goals had to be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and timely, and each year the district’s stakeholders would meet to access progress.

Superintendent Richard Maurer says the key was taking one step at a time. It is wisest, he says, “to start with a program, a school building, a department or grade level. Trying to take on the whole district is like wrestling an alligator. From there, decide which items to improve. Report the results. Again, do not try to improve all the items or the alligator will win.”

He adds: “It is best to work on items that are closest to improving student achievement. Everyone can jump on that bandwagon. Not everyone will get excited about improving the physical appearance of the building.”

Competitive Spirit
The stakeholders decided the best approach was to remove structural obstacles to achievement and create a clear line-of-sight from kindergarten through high school graduation. Teachers, for instance, would study scores on a fourth grade assessment test and use the results to make changes that would ensure, eight years later, more students graduating with Regents diplomas.
Curriculum maps, what the Pearl River called the A-plus Approach for Classroom Success, were crucial. The entire curriculum was aligned to state and national standards. The curriculum maps detailed the content area covered as well as the method of instruction and assessment used at each stage. The testing data would be analyzed and the map adjusted.

“The greatest obstacle was moving the improvement process out of administration hands and into the teachers’ hands,” Maurer said. “The entire change means nothing if it does not get into the classroom.”

So Maurer made sure it was teachers who developed the A-plus approach. “This they taught to other teachers,” he said. “It was simple, it worked and it reflected what actually went on in the room.”

Van Wynen says, “Our efforts to streamline management forced us to encourage classroom teachers to try new ideas and pass on their success to others. It also gave them the opportunity to work together to modify programs.”

Friendly competitions for best student performance popped up among teachers as they saw the clarity of the data they were being given and the benefits of paying attention to improvement. “We celebrated our test scores and other data,” says Maurer, Pearl River’s superintendent since 1998. “We made it fun, involved the entire staff and recognized heroes who made it work. We overcame inertia by generating sufficient energy to overcome it.”

That means, as it did in Chugach, a great deal more attention to teacher training. “Our staff development program basically teaches them how to teach the Pearl River way,” Maurer says. “We have to re-train them and it takes a full three years. But this is often a 25- to 30-year commitment.”

The results impressed the Baldrige judges. The percentage of Pearl River High School seniors receiving a Regents diploma increased from 60 percent in 1996 to 86 percent in 2001, only four percentile points below the top high school in the state on that measure. Last year, 76 percent of students taking an Advanced Placement test scored a 3 or above, compared to 53 percent in 1996. Seventy-five percent of the district’s special education students took the SAT I exam, compared to only three percent in the state and two percent nationally. A survey of student satisfaction showed an increase from 70 percent in 1998 to 92 percent in 2001. Parent satisfaction in the school system also went up, from 62 percent in 1996 to 96 percent in 2001.

Now, Van Wynen says, the district has reached a cruising speed that makes it easier to keep ahead of the pack and no longer be just average. “Pride in a job well done and measured successes feeds on themselves and help the district to continue to achieve,” he says.

Leading Indicators
Among the reams of statistics Chugach and Pearl River have collected, there are some small gems that the administrators of the Baldrige-award winning districts display with unusual pleasure.

In Pearl River, it is this: Whereas 29 percent of school-age children in the area chose to go to non-public schools in 1990, by 2001 that figure had dropped to only 10 percent. By starting small and moving steadily into all the areas that need help, “you can expand the improvement program and take on the bigger items,” Maurer says. “Eventually the alligator will lose.”

In Chugach, where half the staff often did not last more than a year, this school year for the first time saw absolutely no teacher turnover. The increased performance money helped, says Crumley, the assistant superintendent, but “salary is like soap. You need a certain amount of it to get clean but using a bunch more doesn’t get you any cleaner.”

Instead, what worked was the Baldrige quality emphasis on getting everyone to agree on what must be done and respecting each other’s views and contributions as the effort proceeded. Chugach’s most recent report on Ivan Valenoff showed him attending the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and studying business. While his father may have been beaten for speaking the old language, Ivan “has gained a deep pride in his Aleut culture and is confident his subsistence skills are valuable knowledge,” the district report said.

So the quality process encouraged by Baldrige let academic achievement grow without forsaking the values of the most important stakeholders, the next generation. “It’s a feeling that we’re all in this together,” Crumley says, noting the importance of cooperation on the chilly waters of Prince William Sound. “We sink or swim together, but we’ll continue to do what’s right for students.”

Jay Mathews is an education writer at The Washington Post. E-mail: mathewsj@washpost.com