His Big Goal: Better-Managed School Districts

September 17, 2012

If only school districts could be led like a well-run company.  Hey, wait, why shouldn’t they be?

That’s the lament of Chandler Unified School board member Bob Rice.  His lament . . . and his mission.

Rice knows of which he speaks, on both sides of the fence.  He is a nine-year veteran of the Chandler Unified School District Board and a past president of the Arizona School Boards Association.  He brings to those posts the experiences of 23 years as a manager for the widely respected Intel Corporation, plus the numerous insights he’s collected from his intense study of the management literature.

A company is not exactly a school district.  Obviously the best practices of business don’t directly apply to educating a child.  But Rice argues those practices are all but imperative to any organization – including school districts – seeking to improve results.

In other words, he is not suggesting better educational techniques. He’s suggesting better management.

Two themes run through Rice’s comments.  One is the importance of senior leadership.  The other is the necessity of setting goals.

The role of senior leadership – by which Rice means the superintendent and the school board – begins with setting high expectations for the district.  If they don’t, he says, “they’ll get average results or worse.”  One district shows how it’s done.

But their responsibilities don’t stop there. “The leadership challenge,” he says, “is getting all the people in the organization moving in the same direction. The leadership team has to have clear goals, hire the best people they can to achieve those goals, and hold them accountable to those goals.”

There’s the “goal” word, several times over.  Rice says he doesn’t know of any successful organization that gets on without them.

The devil though is in the execution.  There’s a ton of difference between goals done well and done clumsily. As he talks, Rice touches on a slew of pointers:

Goals have to be distilled down to the  most important few, have to be focused on outcomes (not “this is what we’ll spend” but rather “this is what we’ll accomplish”), have to be measurable, have to be communicated over and over, have to be the every-day focus of the organization, have to be hammered away at sometimes for years, the list probably goes on.

There’s nothing sexy in chipping away at the goals, nothing that will grab headlines, nothing those outside the organization probably would notice.  It’s basic blocking and tackling that occurs down in the trenches. It’s mammoth attention to the little things.

But subtle messages are being sent all the time.  Rice cites school board agendas as an example.

“If at board meetings we talk about student achievement once a year, that’s not going to cut it.  If we talk about it at every single meeting, the staff will get the idea, ‘Hey, this is important.’”

“If you don’t constantly keep [the goals] in front of people and keep working toward [them], you’re just paying lip service,” he says.

Maybe the demands of all of the above are why there’s a shortage of it. Rice did a little count.  He found that only four of the 15 largest districts in the state posted goals on their websites.

It doesn’t begin or end there.  He believes leadership could start with more direction from the governor’s office or the state Department of Education.

Rice paraphrases automaker Henry Ford, who once famously said: “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”

“We get the results we get because we designed the system the way we have,” Rice says.  “It’s not sufficient for people to work hard; they’re doing that.  We need to make clear to them where we’re going.”

– Richard Gilman

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