Teamwork and Role Delineation – The Ultimate Challenges

Jack Dale, Superintendent, Fairfax County Public Schools

Jack Dale, Superintendent, Fairfax County Public Schools 

 Jack Dale

Much research is emerging on the criticality of aligned leadership between School Board, Superintendent and the Leadership Team. This alignment of mission, vision goals and resource allocations are critical for exceptional student achievement results. Unfortunately, some still view the role of the school board as that of a watchdog. That critically diminishes the more powerful board role as the Governance Team working with the Strategy Team and Instructional Team to advance the district to excellence.

The Aspen Group has laid out an interesting, and potentially powerful, school district team structure that must work synergistically to steer the school district in a consistent, positive direction over time. Let me describe an example of how we have used these three teams in striving to achieve one of several very ambitious student achievement goals.

As our school board adopted its Mission, Vision, Core Beliefs and three Student Achievement Goals, I led the leadership team through a process to create reasonable interpretations of those goals and methods to measure progress toward attainment. There was an ambitious goal to which finding an interpretation was vexing. But the results showed the power of using these three teams – Governance, Strategy and Instructional – in a manner that fully engaged all levels of the organization. The elusive interpretation came about as the Leadership Team (Strategy Team) wrestled with how to make operational a belief statement that wanted all students to have “opportunity to realize his or her fullest potential” and a goal that included the expectation that we “empower students.” Putting these aspirations in place clearly pushed us to move beyond the NCLB environment of setting standards and assessing progress. We were challenged with creating an environment of intrinsic motivation where students could begin to explore their full potential.

So, our first step was for the Strategy Team to create the necessary framework for implementation, and large scale, roll out for all students. After much brainstorming, out of the box thinking and discussion, we decided that we should create a student, parent and staff driven, individual learning plan designed to explore and exploit student strengths. We then designed a project where pilot schools (of all levels) would help us create this intrinsically driven learning plan. We shared this plan with the School Board (Governance Team) and received feedback that reinforced our work and encouraged us to ensure that “full potential” was not lost in a mired accountability system. At this stage, the Governance Team gave us the go ahead to implement the project plan, and approved resources to do so (one of the key team alignment responsibilities).

The next step in the process was for the Strategy Team to work with the Instructional Team to implement the project plan. A key component of this arrangement is to ensure each team is empowered to do what they do best. In this case, the Instructional Team is best at determining how to best achieve an ambitious goal in schools. We formed a team of instructional leaders – principals, counselors, school based team leaders, central office instructional and guidance staff – to embark on researching models, best practices, and generating new ideas for us to consider. The Instructional Team added substance to the Strategy Team’s vision and project outline. One of the key additions brought to the table by the Instructional Team was to use a new private sector instrument to help students assess their strengths across many dimensions and to create an individualized set of information for middle and high school students to build on as they advanced through school and beyond.

As the Instructional Team progressed in their thinking and planning, they would periodically report back to the Strategy Team. With each report, there was extensive dialogue to ensure both teams – Strategy and Instructional – continued to create a shared vision and implementation plan. The planning progressed sufficiently so that only annual monitoring reports where necessary for the Governance Team.

I will conclude by noting that recent severe budget cuts have put the pricey project on hold, but I will also note that the Governance Team sees the power of what they have delineated as part of their role and are committed to restoring funds to the project as soon as possible. I fully expect this funding to be restored in the next budget cycle so the Governance Team can achieve their commitment to the stakeholders in the community. The Strategy Team is likewise committed to this project as it moves the district beyond the stifling NCLB environment and gets us to supporting individual student aspirations. The Instructional Team is also committed because they see the power of students more fully engaged in learning goals they deem aspirational. All around, a win-win-win for the three teams.