Strength in Numbers
What do you get when you take seven strong school district leaders, add insight, wisdom and hard work?
Find out how these superintendents created a consortium, what they accomplish together and how you can follow suit.
When Monte Moses, the superintendent of the Cherry Creek School District in Englewood, Col., checks his PDA, he finds a calendar full of education conventions, from the American Association of School Administrators to the Colorado Association of School Executives and the Denver Area School Superintendents' Council.
But three times a year, Moses heads to a different kind of gathering. Those are the meetings of the Western States Benchmarking Consortium, a group of seven high-performing school districts that have been crossing state lines in order to stay that way. Moses, whose district joined in 1997, recalls that the consortium got its start a year earlier, with the unlikely meeting of two superintendents from Lake Washington and Vancouver in Washington state, and another from Poway, Calif.
"The three of them began talking about trying to get together some like-minded superintendents who had school districts with comparable characteristics," says Moses," And then through their networks, they began to identify districts that they thought were worth connecting with, working with and emulating."
Besides Cherry Creek, the Plano (Texas) Independent School District soon joined the group, followed by the Blue Valley Unified School District in Overland Park, Kansas, and, most recently, the Peoria (Ariz.) Unified School District. And while the original three superintendents have moved on, their successors are pursuing an ambitious plan--from increasing student learning and staff development to expanding data-driven decision-making and involvement with the local community--designed to improve districts that already enjoy high test scores and winning reputations.
Rejecting the Status Quo
"One of the mantras here at Blue Valley is that the status quo is unacceptable," explains Superintendent Tom Trigg." You can't become a great district without pushing the envelope. And it helps to meet and account to a group that asks the hard questions three times a year."
The consortium's schools share other characteristics: high academic achievement; similar student populations (between 20,000 and 40,000) and demographics (suburban, but becoming progressively diverse); committed and stable school boards; and a strong bent towards innovation. And in the present day, adds Moses, it's not surprising that consortium members have found common ground even though they are geographically far apart.
"Several things have happened in recent years that have made districts more likely to be facing the same kind of issues than not," he observes. "All states, with the advent of standards and assessments and the accompanying state laws around those issues, have found themselves in relatively the same position--more state testing, more rankings of schools, more accountability issues so that we are all in the same place, even though the mechanisms may be different from state to state."
The most recent joint ventures of the seven districts--featured at their recent meeting in Englewood--include a literacy initiative stretching from grades K-16. "We're trying to design it backwards based on the requirements of college success all the way down to 'What does that mean to a youngster in a kindergarten classroom on the first day of school?' " says Moses.
On a similar scale, the consortium is working on a college readiness program for all students in grades pre-K-12. "If they choose a different path such as technical or vocational schools, that's fine," says Blue Valley's Trigg. "But we want to know the shortfalls when kids are not ready."
Part of that readiness depends on revolutionizing the use of assessment data, and in this area, Moses points out, the consortium is re-engineering the curve, not just getting ahead of it. "So often state assessments--while they're good--become a one-time thing instead of something you can do in smaller increments," he notes. "So we're talking a great deal about how to have interim assessments and real-time feedback to teachers, so they can make adjustments as they go.
"This is a critical breakthrough that we must have in public education if we are going to get all students at a proficient level and then ultimately college ready. It's the only way you can reshape the bell curve to one that's a success model for all kids. That's quite a lot of intellectual work, I guess would be the way to put it, and one that I think would be impossible to do alone."
Creating a High-powered Team
Thinking big and operating as a high-powered team represents two of the consortium's standard approaches. "We try to define the horizon or the goal and then work backwards," says Plano Superintendent Doug Otto. That work consists of sharing best practices and then blazing new ground through task forces that can spend months working in advance of the formal gatherings.
"It's been a great symbiotic relationship. We're able to pool good things from one another and build strategies and concepts and documents to help us advance our quests," says Moses, whose Cherry Creek district has benefited directly from its partners' strengths in data analysis.
"We learned that in order to use student performance data effectively, we were going to have to create a data warehouse to be able to manipulate the data in real time, right down to the principal and ultimately to the teacher desktop. We saw that Plano and some of the other consortium schools had already made very strong steps in that direction, and we were able to mimic some of that."
Moses returned the favor recently when his fellow superintendents visited Cherry Creek. (The consortium's meetings rotate through the sites of its member districts.) On display was Cherry Creek's cutting-edge Advancement Via Individual Determination program--which helps students get on a college track, improve study and classroom behaviors, and grade-point averages and had plenty to offer the consortium's college readiness initiative.
Moses and his colleagues emphasize that the group is no secret society and that the strength-in-numbers strategy extends to other administrators throughout their districts. "One of the neat things we do is bring people with us," offers Trigg. "In the past, high school principals have come for two or three meetings in a row to discuss similar issues at the high school level. There's an impact to having the principals there themselves. The same is true when personnel directors come to talk about hiring and recruiting. The synergy is just amazing."
At the consortium meeting in Colorado, assessment directors and lead literacy administrators joined the usual crowd of superintendents and deputy superintendents. "I feel that my staff is extended into six other administrative centers around the country," says Plano's Otto.
Harry Bull, the principal of Cherry Creek's Grandview High School, remembers a meeting of consortium principals to share experiences in starting Professional Learning Communities, a project on which Grandview had just embarked. "The coolest thing was that there were two schools about a year ahead of us," Bull says, "and we were able to get validation from their experiences about what we were encountering, and it also let me look ahead" to what the Grandview program might look like down the line.
In setting up their own Western union, the consortium's member districts have chosen 16 benchmarks as their common currency. These benchmarks, which took more than three years to formulate, range from Ensuring Learning for All Students and Developing a Coherent Curriculum to Promoting Innovation, Using Data to Affect Student Performance and Providing Community-Based Learning Opportunities.
And while these may sound like the objectives for any school improvement program, the consortium runs them through its own distinctive ringer. Each benchmark is introduced by an "impact question." For Ensuring Learning for All Students, that question is, "To what degree are all students, groups and subgroups demonstrating continuous progress?" followed by "guiding questions" on how instructional strategies are personalized and how student progress is reported and used.
The consortium measures progress along a four-step continuum, beginning with "emergent" (where instruction is still teacher-centered in the Ensuring Learning benchmark), moving through "islands" and "integrated" stages (where some teachers are shifting instruction to meet students' needs and eventually offer differentiated instruction to students according to their performance level), and culminating with "exemplary" status (in which "instructional practice meets the diversified needs of all students, and each student has a flexible learning plan based on rigorous standards and real-time assessments.)
There's also a checklist of "possible evidence" to indicate progress, including aggregated and disaggregated achievement over time, individual learning plans for all students, and the observation and documentation of personalized instructional practices.
Outside Help Sought
"We've written benchmarks with very specific indicators around key areas that we know are critical to high performing schools and school districts," Moses explains. "And then we try to rate ourselves on those elements, identify the districts that have had the most success with those different elements, and--where we can--go back and replicate them in our own systems."
John Erickson, Vancouver, Wash.'s superintendent, adds that benchmarking has worked well for neighboring high tech companies, and the consortium has consulted Boeing and Hewlett Packard along the way. "It helps just to see how you stack up to other successful organizations," Erickson says. "If you work in an isolated place, there's a tendency to say, 'We're the best,' just to be declaring it. Sometimes it's healthy to get into a situation where you can look at your performance against a higher standard."
The consortium's members also agree that when it comes to goals and benchmarks, one size does not fit all. "We have a huge respect for each other, but we also respect our differences," Erickson continues. "There are some things that my colleagues do that we wouldn't do. We don't need a football stadium that holds 20,000 people, but I understand why Doug Otto in Plano, Texas, needs to do it. And while Blue Valley in Colorado may have some of the highest test scores in the country, that performance level is not realistic for us."
Besides benchmarks, the superintendents in the consortium measure their collaboration in less tangible ways, starting with the advantage that they are not rivals. "When you bring a group like this together, it's cooperative," explains Tom Trigg. "You know that your test scores aren't going to show up side-by-side with the other districts in the consortium. We have a great sister school here in Kansas, but the media tend to sort and rank us, and we end up competing for the same tax dollars."
"We're very open with each other because we're not all working in the same backyard," agrees Don Saul, Lake Washington's superintendent. "So we can benefit from each others' advances and mistakes alike."
According to Moses, the familiarity also breeds productivity. "We're close colleagues and we keep up with each other, and when we sit down to go to work, we can really go to work. It's kind of like having a staff meeting right here in Cherry Creek. You can dispense with a lot of the formalities."
"It's also a network that's had some unintended benefits," says Trigg. "I'd never been a superintendent before and to have superintendents of this caliber to call on any time for advice is a tremendous comfort."
"There's a camaraderie of real, genuine support among these folks. They pull for each other," says AASA Executive Director Paul Houston, who has been attending consortium meetings for almost six years. The participating districts also turn their words to deeds, he adds. "One of the differences in this group is that this is talk leading to action and not talk leading to talk. By the next meeting, they have something to show."
"We talk about how are we going to use these products so we can get data about their effectiveness," says Elliott Asp, Cherry Creek's assistant superintendent for performance and improvement. "We're not here doing a dog-and-pony show. We're saying, 'Here's a work in progress. What do you think?' "
The finished products have been showing up across the member districts. Moses credits the consortium with helping Cherry Creek increase test scores, even as the student population has grown by 10,000 and become increasingly diverse. "We've become more cognizant of how to use every facet of our organization--from school finance and transportation issues to how you work through crises and work with your school board. I know that we are much more integrated because of what we've seen modeled in the other districts and of what we've talked about in our group."
Doug Otto tells a similar story from Plano, Texas. "We use the benchmarks as a structure to write the annual goals for our district's strategic plan. The principals in our schools can use the benchmarks to formulate their goals for the year and assess themselves. It keeps us all on the same page."
The consortium has not limited its focus to its members' backyards. Two years ago, the superintendents issued a position paper on the reauthorization of IDEA that included a wide range of suggestions, from simplifying paperwork to enforcing appropriate student discipline.
"A lot of the language in the new IDEA law came out of the Western States Consortium," AASA's Houston points out.
"Congress seemed to like the first-hand presentation of the issues and the practical, real examples we gave," Trigg adds.
Last year, the consortium took aim in an Education Week commentary at the No Child Left Behind Law, and in particular at the inflexibility it saw in the Adequate Yearly Progress requirement. "There were too many ways for a school to fail," opines Otto. So he and his consortium colleagues recommended tracking student progress over time and making special provisions for ESL and special education students.
In Colorado, meanwhile, the lessons that Cherry Creek learned about data management have made their way to the state legislature. "We were able to come back to our state and say, 'Long range in Colorado, for us to be a first-class school system statewide, we're going to have to have a data management system that has better tools to measure the longitudinal growth of students and so on,'" Moses reports. "And those activities are going on in earnest now in our state, and I'm certain that we have contributed."
Setting the Stage for Others
And the AASA--at whose convention the consortium holds one of its three yearly meetings--regularly showcases a Western States Benchmarking Consortium session with an eye to having other districts start their own consortia.
"These are people who think about education from a very progressive point of view," says Houston. "They understand systems thinking and change strategies. They're practitioners doing the work but with high-level thinking, and they are a model of what progressive leadership should be."
"I think what we do is very replicable simply because when well-intentioned districts with similarities get together, they'll come up with a good agenda of what they want to accomplish," Otto says, though he cautions that the district superintendents need to be involved first-hand and from the get-go. "It gives the message to the district back home that you're seriously committed," he says.
Cherry Creek's Moses also stresses the importance of connecting with districts sufficiently far away. "You need to branch out and get some different perspectives. Sometimes if you're just talking to people in your immediate neighborhood, you're going to become a little bit parochial and maybe only talk about he nuisances of the day, instead of, 'What are the real high-leverage activities that--if we could accomplish them--would profoundly change things for the better?'"
But Vancouver's John Erickson says that it's well worth the effort, expense, and personnel required to keep the Western States Benchmarking Consortium humming. "I value the time I spend with really smart administrators from good school districts," he concludes. "If you're going to be doing serious woodcutting, it's a good idea to sharpen the ax."
Ron Schachter is a contributing editor.
The Western States
Benchmarking Consortium has developed 16 benchmarks covering four strategic areas:
Ensuring learning for all students
Incorporating innovative practice
Developing a coherent curriculum
Expanding organizational effectiveness
Improving professional/organizational development
Developing a strong community
Understanding and using assessment results
Providing community-based learning opportunities
Building community partnerships
Using a variety of data effectively
Using information to improve instructional practice
Using data to affect student performance
Relating investments, outcomes, and improvement strategies
How to Get Started
It may sound daunting to form a group of far-flung districts on the model of the Western States Benchmarking Consortium, but the consortium's superintendents offer some good advice for getting started.
Take small steps at the beginning, even starting an informal of network of districts with which you share some common needs and goals. "Look for districts that are enjoying success already and have successive administrative teams," suggests Vancouver, Wash., Superintendent John Erickson. "Through your professional associations, pay attention to leaders who are embracing change in a wide variety of ways."
Early joiners should be prepared to lead the way.
Each participating district needs to commit time and resources, included the continued presence of the superintendent. The time can be considerable because of the developmental work leading up to meetings, and the expenses of travel can add up.
Work with only a few ideas at a time. "There might be a temptation to do everything that everyone else is doing well," advises Erickson. "Keep a pretty narrow focus and over time build in other dynamics that you would like to emulate."
Once your consortium gets off the ground, it will help to have a facilitator to work with the group in planning the agenda and to managing the details. You'll have more continuity and consistency as the meetings shift from district to district.
Stay focused between meetings. "You have to be really committed to keeping up with the work," Moses says, "because when you go home, it's easy to get re-immersed in the issues of your local school district and lose sight of that broader agenda unless you are really dedicated to it."
Keep it fairly small. "We still wanted to get everybody in one room," says Plano Superintendent Doug Otto.
Consortium members and district Web sites
Western States Consortium, www.wsbenchmark.org/home.htm
Blue Valley Unified School District, Overland Park, Kansas
Tom Trigg, superintendent www.bluevalleyk12.org
Cherry Creek School District, Englewood, Colorado
Monte Moses, superintendent www.ccsd.k12.co.us/index.htm
Lake Washington School District, Redmond, Washington
Don Saul, superintendent www.lkwash.wednet.edu
Peoria Unified School District, Peoria, Arizona
Jack Erb, superintendent portal.peoriaud.k12.az.us
Plano Independent School District, Plano, Texas
Doug Otto, superintendent www.pisd.edu
Poway Unified School District, Poway, California
Don Phillips, superintendent powayusd.sdcoe.k12.ca.us
Vancouver School District, Vancouver, Washington
John Erickson, superintendent www.vansd.org