The Road to a Baldrige Award

Overcoming self-satisfaction at the outset to develop a learner-centered school system for students and staff by TERRY HOLLIDAY

I had told my cabinet members this was the morning for the big phone call. We were anxiously awaiting notification of whether we would be recognized as a Baldrige National Quality Award recipient for 2008. Even though I was expecting the call, I jumped when my cell phone vibrated.

With nervous anticipation, I listened as the voice on the other end asked me to “please hold for Secretary Gutierrez,” who led the U.S. Department of Commerce at the time. Then the voice on the other end said: “On behalf of President Bush, I would like to be the first to congratulate you …”

HollidaySuperintendent Terry Holliday (right) presents his district's most-improved banner to Troutman Middle School.

I jumped out of my skin and did the Tiger Woods pump (my shoulder still hurts). Over 12 years of work, frustration, high points and low points in two school systems had resulted in recognition that few school districts have obtained — the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award.

Along the journey to the Baldrige Award, we encountered many turning points.

A Serious Misstep
One turning point occurred during a board of education meeting toward the end of my second year in my current school system in central North Carolina. During the first two years of our journey, we had “picked the low-hanging fruit.” We had implemented our model for continuous improvement in Title I schools. These schools were an easy and logical starting point because the No Child Left Behind legislation required school systems and schools to have a model to close achievement gaps.

We experienced early success in narrowing the learning gaps for African-American students and children with exceptional needs. We actually closed the test-score gulfs by almost 30 percent within the first two years and raised our school district achievement from well below state average to above North Carolina’s average.

Buoyed by these early successes, we almost committed a fatal mistake. We pushed the continuous improvement model out to all of our schools. As a result, we got a great deal of resistance from teachers in schools that were already performing at moderate to high levels. In these schools, most teachers and staff did not see a need for significant change. The complaint we heard most was, “Leave me alone and let me teach. We are doing just fine.”

As a result of this resistance, we established focus groups of teachers and used a local consulting firm to analyze the concerns voiced by teachers during focus-group meetings. What we discovered was a polarized teaching force. A little over 50 percent of teachers in our district strongly supported our model for continuous improvement, and about 50 percent were strongly opposed. The report was presented at a board of education meeting.

I knew the school board was about to make a decision that would either move us forward or end our journey prematurely. I had worked with our administrative team to prepare several recommendations that would show we had listened to teachers and would move ahead with modifications to the rollout of our continuous improvement model. The board unanimously supported the administrative recommendations, and we were allowed to continue. Of course, strong support from a board does not happen overnight.

Attacking Status Quo
The focus groups and consultant’s study identified a key issue. We did not have the full support of our building administrators. Our principals did not have the capacity to address teacher concerns about change and, in fact, several building administrators had been “protecting” their staffs from district expectations.

When we analyzed the consultant’s report, it was obvious many administrators were comfortable with the managerial role principals had always held, but were highly uncomfortable with change management and the strategic and instructional leadership roles that were being required of them by our continuous improvement model. Coming out of the school board meeting, I knew our continued progress was linked to how quickly we could provide support to help principals change from being building managers to being true instructional leaders.

During this time, I had been reviewing AASA materials and resources from presentations by Brian McNulty, Robert Marzano and Doug Reeves. Though some leaders might suggest my next step should be to “get the problem people off the bus,” I believe W. Edwards Deming, the father of total quality management, was right when he claimed 95 percent of problems are related to the system with only 5 percent related to people.

From my studies of these wise men, I formed the following core beliefs that guide me today.

•  If children are not learning to high levels, the classroom is not a learning-centered classroom.

•  If classrooms are not learning-centered, the school is not a learning-centered school.

•  If schools are not learning-centered, the school district is not a learning-centered district.

In other words, the level above must enable the level below it to be successful. If teachers were not buying into our continuous improvement model, it meant principals were not buying into our model, which meant the superintendent wasn’t providing the needed coaching and support processes that would enable principals to become strategic leaders of change management and instruction.

Applied Training
But what specific training do school leaders need to move a school from teaching centered to learning centered? Our school system answered this question by using the Baldrige criteria and reviewing the research mentioned above. We knew it would be important for every member of our central-office leadership team to model what we were expecting of principals.

The Board’s Buy-in to Baldrige by Terry Holliday

Without the support of the board of education, no superintendent is able to create lasting change in a school system. In addition, one’s tenure as superintendent will not likely extend beyond the contract’s initial term.

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One of the first things we did was change our monthly principal meetings from “sit and get” meetings filled with announcements focused on managerial information to staff development meetings focused on change management and instructional leadership. We stopped the onslaught of e-mails from the central office to principals by having one weekly “principal know and do” section of the superintendent’s cabinet meeting agenda minutes. This meant principals received only one e-mail each week from the central office, and it contained all the operational announcements. We changed the format of staff development time for principals and assistant principals to meet the recommendations of the National Staff Development Council. This required we move from stand-up content delivery to actual application, modeling and coaching of what we expected school leaders to know and be able to do.

One of our first efforts for application-based staff development of building administrators was a book study. Many school systems do book studies. What was different about our book study was required deployment. Multiple sessions with Doug Reeves taught me that most change initiatives fail to produce results because they are not deployed with fidelity.

As superintendent, I led the book study of Learning by Doing by Richard Dufour, Rebecca Dufour, Robert Eaker, and Thomas Many. This book focuses on the deployment of professional learning communities. The book study lasted an entire school year and required each building administrator to actually apply the components of a professional learning community through the school-level leadership team.

Also, we worked with principals to develop a product matrix, which is a timeline of products such as essential curricula, team norms and common formative assessments that teachers must complete through their professional learning communities. This matrix would eventually become the requirements for each collaborative planning team within the school system’s PLCs. After three years of deployment, we now have every teacher engaged in a professional learning community that works on one common subject with common curricula, goals, team norms, formative assessments, weekly meetings and analyses of classroom walkthrough data for their subject or grade level. By modeling expectations for creating a learning-centered school system and a learning-centered school, we enabled school leaders to help teachers create learning-centered classrooms.

Application of high-quality staff development with fidelity is one key to change management leadership. It was important we not simply provide training to teachers and administrators but that we ensured the professional development was actually applied in the work setting. It started with developing skills among our school leaders in conducting classroom walkthroughs. Our school system had customized the walkthrough instrument so we were looking for the key components of high-yield instructional strategies, differentiation and our Plan Do Study Act expectations. We trained principals, assistant principals and our instructional facilitators together.

Members of our team made a wise decision at the outset — to conduct an inter-rater reliability study by pairing central-office and building administrators with our instructional facilitators during each walk. The conversations between administrators and facilitators after each classroom visit for the six weeks of the inter-rater reliability study were the key to enabling building administrators to improve their instructional leadership skills.

In the process, we discovered many gaps in the instructional leadership skills of building administrators and central-office administrators. We then provided training by actually having models of classroom products that were excellent, average and poor studied during professional development sessions. Each administrator and instructional facilitator rated each component of the classroom walkthrough independently and then we provided ample time for small-group conversations for follow-up coaching on expectations.

We have continued this focus on coaching and support by having regular meetings with our building administrators, central-office administrators and instructional facilitators. These meetings are intended to improve instruction through the analysis of classroom walk-through data. Our principals have become stronger instructional leaders, as a result.

Previous National Quality Recipients

Four other school districts have received a Baldrige National Quality Award since the inception of the program by the U.S. Department of Commerce.

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Telling Asides
The final leverage came from our development of requirements that drive strategic leadership. I remember well the day a high school principal said, “I don’t have time to work on revising the school improvement plan, I am too busy running my school.” He was unaware of how failure to focus on strategic planning for his school was actually making the job of running his school much more difficult.

Another comment was also very telling. An assistant principal said: “I don’t have time to work on a PDSA to improve classroom discipline because I’m too busy dealing with classroom discipline!” He was equally unaware of how conducting a Plan Do Study Act process on improving discipline would result in far less time spent on discipline!

These responses certainly indicated that building leaders were focused on managerial issues rather than strategic issues. Of course, part of the job of the principal is to manage the school. However, if principals never take the time to identify root causes to improve processes, they will never eliminate the very management issues that are consuming their time. Instead, they will continue to do little more than put out fires all day long. If assistant principals do not take the time to deal with root causes of classroom discipline that escalate into office referrals, they will continue to exhaust their time on office referrals.

Our journey, from the beginning, focused on strategic alignment of the district strategic plan, school improvement plans and classroom improvement plans. The change from a yearly school improvement plan to quarterly plans was perhaps the most important change that enabled us to move our leaders into strategic leadership. Of course, building leaders needed continuous coaching and support to make this happen. We changed our principal evaluation process to a quarterly coaching and support process. The principal brings his/her school leadership team to the first- and third-quarter coaching sessions. Prior to the coaching sessions, the principal submits the school-improvement-plan draft and receives written feedback from the curriculum, operations and quality-assurance departments.

School improvement plans have from three to five goals and deployment plans with clear fidelity measures emphasized. We constantly address school capacity and capability concerns. Resources are addressed through the deployment plan and drive the district’s budget revisions throughout the school year. If an improvement strategy is found not to work after a thorough review, the strategy is abandoned. Principals do not have to wait until the end of the year to change their improvement strategies.

Optimal Timing
They say fools get lucky, but more than luck, I believe what happened next in our story was opportunity coming at a time when we were prepared to act. The North Carolina General Assembly, governor’s office and the North Carolina State Board of Education all came together in support of the research on improving school leaders. Everyone finally agreed that school leaders can affect student learning.

The state developed standards for 21st-century school executives based on the research we had followed. These standards and the subsequent evaluation rubric placed significant emphasis on school leaders becoming strategic, instructional and change-management leaders. I asked to serve on a state committee to devise the evaluation rubric, and I volunteered our school system to be one of the pilot districts for the rollout of the instrument. I also volunteered several of our central-office staff to become state-certified trainers for these new school executive standards.

As a result, we have developed a school executive coaching and evaluation cycle that has contributed to significant improvements in student learning and faculty/staff satisfaction levels, all of which were cited in our Baldrige feedback report as being national best practices. Most of our focus-group and survey results show more than 90 percent of our school leaders strongly support our model for continuous improvement and more than 80 percent of our faculty and staff strongly support it. I do not expect to reach 100 percent.

We’ve made a transformation from a teaching system to a learning system by “igniting a passion for learning.” Deming said all children come to school with this passion for learning and our job as educators is to increase the successes and decrease the failures students experience so they retain their natural passion.

That is also our job as superintendents. We must increase the successes and decrease the failures the adults in our schools experience, so they, too, do not lose their passion for learning. The fuel for the flame is in believing we really can make a difference in the lives of the children and the adults with whom we work every day. That belief is the reason I am more passionate today than at any point in my 37-year career as an educator. How bright is your flame?

Terry Holliday is superintendent of the Iredell-Statesville Schools in Statesville, N.C. E-mail: tholliday@iss.k12.nc.us