Feature                                                       Pages 22-26


Data as the Driver     

A superintendent begins his district’s improvement by attending first to organizational health


In the book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, author Michael Lewis describes how the Oakland Athletics, one of the poorest teams in Major League Baseball, became one of the most successful teams by using simple analytical methods that had existed for years but had been largely ignored by the baseball executives.

Moneyball illustrates that the traditional benchmarks of success for players and teams are imperfect at best, which is why successful teams look for a competitive advantage by conducting business in new ways. Just as the Oakland Athletics continue to produce winning teams using a Moneyball approach, the Corona-Norco Unified School District in Riverside County, Calif., uses nontraditional data-driven strategies that led not only to a winning season, but in 2012 also earned the district a spot in what might be considered public education’s World Series — the Broad Prize for Urban Education.

Kent Bechler
Kent Bechler with a student

Each district selected as a Broad finalist has demonstrated success in closing the achievement gap among poor and minority students as evidenced by traditional data analysis, state test scores and district assessments. These are measurements of what Patrick Lencioni, author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable and most recently The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business, would refer to as the smart side of the organization.

In Corona-Norco, we are measuring the smart side of the organization, but we also are measuring what Lencioni refers to as the healthy side — the district’s culture, collaboration, leadership and values. Our goal: to improve student achievement and reduce the achievement gap for poor and minority students. Our emphasis on developing both the smart and healthy sides of the organization brought the district into this “best in the league” conversation.

Entry Plan
When I accepted the position as superintendent in Corona-Norco in 2007, I wanted to learn as much as possible about the district and the communities we served in a short period of time. I was particularly interested in the district’s culture and values, student expectations, adult behaviors, organization systems, and district goals and objectives. I immediately implemented a listening campaign, soliciting input from community members, business leaders, parents, teachers, staff, administrators and students.

For three months, I met individually with more than 100 stakeholders and spoke to countless community, business and parent groups. Within six months, I visited all 49 schools, with each visit including an open meeting for all faculty and staff members. I asked about the district culture and how departments and school sites worked together. I probed for the district focus, listened for key strategies being implemented and examined characteristics of our support systems. I observed students in their classrooms and asked adults about their beliefs regarding our students and their potential for success.

I examined student achievement data and reviewed the work of the district’s curriculum and instruction department in developing and implementing pacing guides, benchmark assessments and support for teachers.

Clarity and Purpose
Overall, I concluded that educators’ expectations for students were inconsistent; students needed to boost advanced skills such as comprehension, analysis, synthesis and problem solving; teachers needed to increase student engagement and rigorous instruction; and many teachers and administrators feared collaboration.

I shared these findings with key district leaders, recognizing that the absence of trust, the fear of collaboration, a lack of communication and inconsistent expectations would be difficult to overcome. The district’s leadership team was skeptical. The school district had enjoyed previous success but was entrenched in old patterns and behaviors.

Our mission was to create organizational clarity and a purposeful direction as we sought to challenge the status quo and create a sense of urgency to move the district toward higher expectations and increased rigor for students. The leadership team developed clear and measurable district goals and objectives focused on key areas where gaps existed. People got excited about the possibilities and, as a result, integrated district plans into school and individual plans.

The atmosphere in the district shifted. We could feel the leadership team’s energy. The flywheel, as Jim Collins highlights in Good to Great, began to pick up speed. We launched a concerted focus on leadership development and enforced a kids-first culture. Teachers and staff at several schools began implementing a professional learning community model to discuss student performance and review student data. These conversations proved invaluable as educators tailored student intervention programs to meet the individual needs of students and adjusted classroom instruction based on students’ patterns of success.

Based on these results, the negotiating teams met and agreed to implement a district model for professional teacher time, or PTT — designated time during the day for teachers at all district schools to review data and discuss student performance. Simultaneously, the district implemented a leadership program to train teacher-leaders to facilitate the PTT meetings.

Extended Evaluation
As we took a close look at our school district, we identified four critical needs — leadership, student engagement, data analysis and collaboration. We focused first on the quality of district- and building-level leadership. Great schools need great leaders who are involved directly in instructional affairs and who work collaboratively with teachers. The leadership development program provided ongoing training for all administrators and teacher-leaders.

At monthly meetings, we emphasized leading in four directions — leading yourself, leading your peers, leading your subordinates and leading your boss. We asked our leaders to make good decisions that put students first, and we authorized them to remove obstacles to learning. For example, at several of the schools, the traditional student bell schedule was a barrier to providing necessary student intervention instruction, particularly for our English language learners. Under a new contract, schools could apply for a waiver and implement a special schedule or program, as long as it was based on the best interests of the students as based on research.

With our new focus, we knew a new evaluation system was in order, as well, one that focused on each school’s leadership effectiveness, building culture, student assessment, staff accountability, teaching and learning, and managerial competencies. We devised a school evaluation system for principals and assistant principals that they used to focus on leadership development, school culture, collaboration and communication, student achievement, closing the achievement gap and personal wellness. The evaluation cycle was extended to 22 months to include the most current student data.

At the end of the evaluation period, we closely analyzed the school data, grade-level data and individual student data. We looked for evidence of high student expectations, student engagement in rigorous course work and an emphasis on college and career readiness. Principals and teachers identified the students who failed to make the expected progress and focused the intervention programs on these students’ specific needs.

Engagement and Rigor
How do we make a difference for our students? What actions can we take as leaders that will produce positive student learning results? We posed these questions to principals during our professional development training focused on student engagement, reminding them that their decisions about instruction can minimize or maximize the learning gaps between groups of students.

The district held four full-day training workshops for principals. These workshops were developed around:

  • Defining a rigorous learning environment;
  • Examining the research about high-performing leaders;
  • Describing the high-leverage leadership actions that lead to improved student learning; and
  • Adding to our culture of continuous improvement via achievement results.

Judi Gutierrez, an executive coach with Pivot Learning Partners, a nonprofit school leadership development firm, worked with Corona-Norco principals on student engagement, rigor and relevance. As a result of this focused professional development, principals began to implement the walk-through tools they learned and shifted their conversations to highlight classroom practices, including ways to increase student achievement and develop a more rigorous learning environment for students.

The school district also established a professional development program for teachers that concentrated on student engagement, rigor and relevance, and high-yield best practices. Teachers reviewed and discussed the research of Robert Marzano and the foundation of Bloom’s taxonomy, and they integrated those concepts into the curriculum and their instructional programs. Consultant John Antonetti, former curriculum director in Sheridan, Ark., shared the elements of the Learning Cube, which focuses on student engagement.

Owing to their professional development experiences, teachers became more invested in the district’s mission, and teacher-leaders emerged. Teachers implemented best practices in academic engagement, intensified rigor and engaged students in meaningful work.

A Data Dashboard
In today’s data-obsessed education environment, educators must analyze an overwhelming abundance of information. To ensure we approached data analysis effectively and efficiently, we worked with at least three years of data, considered only those data that were important to our goals and identified and analyzed patterns within the data to provide a blueprint for the next five years.

In 2010, we developed a data dashboard in Corona-Norco to track student data points for assessment and accountability. The dashboard included growth targets and progress in 14 critical areas, including measurements of district and school results and progress on the state’s Academic Performance Index system, plus adequate yearly progress results in English/ language arts and mathematics, graduation rates, exit exam scores, Advanced Placement exams, college-prep course completion rates, Early Assessment Program exam results and SAT results.

Our assessment department disaggregated the data for our principals and met with them individually to review and explain the results. Principals pored over the data and created presentations and discussion points to help staff make meaning of the information. Teachers used the data to inform their instruction and created targeted interventions for students in need. We adjusted school schedules to best meet the needs of students and to align the strengths of our teaching staff with the needs of the students.

The data from our assessments guided the curriculum and determined which key standards we taught. As a result, our instructional program and state standards were consistent and aligned. Teachers learned to collaborate with and trust each other on curriculum, instruction and assessment decisions. Without that trust, our students would not be as successful as they are.

A Kinetic Boost
One of the unique characteristics of Corona-Norco is the emphasis on culture and values. All school districts say they “put kids first,” but the validity of that statement is reflected in how decisions are made during difficult times. Together, we worked across the district to build trust and establish relationships that helped promote positive outcomes for students. Treating all stakeholders with care and respect, involving all staff in the decision-making process, working together on teams to accomplish our goals, and living by student-centered philosophy became non-negotiables in our district.

The results of our emphasis on collaboration and teamwork were never so apparent as when 97 percent of the Corona-Norco faculty and staff members voted to accept a 4.97 percent pay cut in order to maintain the instructional program for students and to protect their fellow staff members from layoffs.

This decision immediately boosted the pride and performance in the district — similar to the kinetic energy recovery systems that racecar drivers use for an immediate boost in acceleration. Our kinetic boost in Corona-Norco was collaboration and relationships. These two elements provided the boost the district needed to increase student learning and better prepare our young people for college and careers.

All students have made progress, but our most at-risk student groups have progressed the most and at a faster rate. In language arts and math, the greatest increases in student achievement during the past five years have been made by African Americans, English language learners, Latinos, special-needs learners and socioeconomically disadvantaged students. In fact, in 2011, the Education Trust recognized Corona-Norco as one of the top three large districts in California based on gains in achievement among African American and Latino students between 2003 and 2010.

Sustainability Efforts
Everyone I talk to today contends that our nation’s public schools need dramatic improvement so our students can compete globally. There is no clear road map as to accomplishing this goal. There are no guiding principles and no magic bullet.
Several years ago while playing golf in Hong Kong, my foursome began discussing global competition and what it meant for those who lived in the United States compared to those who lived in Hong Kong. I was struck by the emphasis on the role of education and the determination that the Chinese system must be superior to the American system, providing Chinese students with a distinct advantage globally.

Yes, there are many challenges ahead, but as Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s first chief of staff, said in a New York Times interview: “You don’t ever want a crisis to go to waste.” Many public school systems in the United States are excelling and providing students with a competitive advantage. Corona-Norco is one of those systems.

Strong district leadership shapes the culture, values and purpose of an organization. These components build trust and give staff members permission to enhance teaching and learning through creativity and exploration. These efforts are supported by an organizational structure and climate helmed by strong leaders. It is indeed a cycle that, once developed, keeps the flywheel turning. We just need to be smart and healthy.

Kent Bechler, who retired in 2012 as superintendent of Corona-Norco Unified Schools in Norco, Calif., is an executive coach with Pivot Learning Partners and a partner with Leadership Associates in Mission Viejo, Calif. E-mail: kent.bechler@gmail.com


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