Board-Savvy Superintendent                            Page 11


Challenging Assumptions

Through Productivity



Board-Savvy McAdams

Few can doubt that significant improvements in public education productivity are needed. Performance standards and accountability requirements are rising, yet resources continue to be scarce.

What is productivity? Simply, productivity is output divided by input. For school districts, the desired output is an on-time graduate who is college or workplace ready. The inputs include the student and all resources used to educate the student. Indeed, schools have no control over their inputs — educators must teach all children regardless of ability, interest or economic background. But other labor-intensive services with similar limitations have made significant improvements in productivity. And school districts must do the same.

Applying Metrics
On the business side, all school districts need to do is apply the experience of other business sectors. Metrics can be established by clearly identifying outputs for every business function and dividing these outputs by inputs, usually costs. After metrics come targets, then process improvements to achieve those targets. With the guidance and support of the Council of the Great City Schools, this already has been done by the nation’s best-managed urban districts.

Productivity management of education’s core functions, teaching and learning, is more difficult, but the foundational requirements are the same: clear goals and performance metrics; performance accountability; comprehensive and transparent financial information linking costs to outputs; deregulation; and innovation.

With these foundational requirements in mind, productivity management can begin. The focus always is on process. The key insight of productivity management is that all work is a process with inputs and outputs, and that productivity improvement is process control to reduce variability and process innovation to reduce the cost of inputs, all the while increasing output quality and quantity.

Key Questions
Five key and interrelated leverage points improve productivity in education’s core business, teaching and learning. The questions for educators are:

  • How should students be grouped for instructional purposes, and how frequently should groups be reconfigured?
  • How much time should be scheduled for instruction, and how often should time requirements change?
  • How much work should be assigned to individual students, and what specific work should be done in class, outside of class and online?
  • How should technology be used?
  • How should teachers be chosen, trained, grouped and deployed?

Board at the Helm
Today, the century-old factory model for organizing schools still prevails. The current system is built on the assumption that time is the constant, quality is the variable, and grade levels, classes and teachers assigned to classes are the only ways schools can be organized.

Strong superintendents working collaboratively with informed and courageous boards can challenge these assumptions. Together they can establish clear goals and performance metrics, create a strong culture of district accountability and put into place comprehensive and transparent financial systems that link costs to outputs. Then small teams of educators can begin the work of innovation by functional units and programs, using the standard productivity management tools of outcome measures, data gathering, process analysis and process redesign.

Board-savvy superintendents know this work would be impossible without their board leading the way with resolutions and enabling policies and accepting responsibility for parent and public education. Accordingly, they begin by educating their boards and proceed by thoroughly explaining the risks and rewards at every step of the way. And they never forget that big changes require supermajorities.

Don McAdams is founder and board chair of the Center for Reform of School Systems in Houston, Texas. E-mail: mcadams@crss.org


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