About 10 years ago, Pekin Public School District 108 implemented a district-wide program designed to improve the quality of the education its students received. With 11 facilities serving students from preschool through eighth grade, it was important to transform random acts of quality improvement into a unified system that would fit the entire district. After using quality assurance tools and systems for nearly a decade, District 108 consistently performs above state averages on tests for reading, science and math.
A Lens for Quality
While some teachers, administrators and individual schools within District 108 had implemented their own quality initiatives, there was no larger program that tied them all together. Seeing this need, the administration began conducting research and searching for a program or programs that would work best. “One of the first things we did was attend a meeting in Chicago focused around the Baldrige model,” said Linda Harris, director of human resources for the district.
At the time, the Malcolm Baldrige National Award for Performance Excellence was used primarily in business settings and contained language that didn’t easily lend itself to the educational system. Schools that wanted to implement formal quality initiatives had to work with what was available, but because there was so much interest in the Baldrige model, it was later adapted for use in educational settings.
While the federal government has not mandated quality initiatives in public schools, “there is an expectation by the Illinois Department of Education that schools have some sort of internal review process in which they consistently monitor their performance and make adjustments based on what the data’s telling them,” according to District 108 Superintendent Bill Link.
Schools can choose to use criteria set forth by the Illinois State Board of Education or the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence. According to the Baldrige National Quality Program website, the latter “provides a systems perspective for understanding performance management. [The criteria] reflect validated, leading-edge management practices against which an organization can measure itself.”
“The Baldrige criteria is a framework, or lens, we use to measure the effectiveness of our organization,” added Link. “It is focused on the assessment and evaluation of key systems.” District 108 selected the Baldrige criteria in part so they could apply for the Lincoln Award for Excellence, which is based on Baldrige. For organizations eligible for at least a bronze award, examiners perform on-site observations and interviews, culminating in a written, in-depth analysis of the organizational operation. “We wanted the detailed feedback to help us with our next steps moving forward,” explained Link.
PLAN. The system is defined. The current situation is assessed through the collection of data and analyzed to look for causes and possible solutions. An improvement theory and new action plan are created.
DO. Data is collected again to test the improvement theory and new improvement plan.
STUDY. The results of the improvement plan are studied.
ACT. Action is taken based on the new knowledge. Should the proposed plan be implemented, modified or abandoned? Next steps are then taken to continuously improve the system.
Data: A Crucial Tool
Pekin School District 108 has learned that data is an important tool to determine needs and evaluate what programs are most effective. “In the past, we did a lot of going out and looking for a new reading series or program just because it was a new program,” admitted Harris. “We didn’t necessarily tie it to our needs, nor did we evaluate the effectiveness of it with our students.” Learning, you might say, “the hard way,” District 108 is now much better at monitoring the effectiveness of newly implemented programs.
One of its main data sources is the Illinois Standard Achievement Test (ISAT), which the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) mandates be taken by every student in third through eighth grade. Testing about 2,400 District 108 students each year, Link noted that the ISAT shows continuous progress for the last eight years, with scores consistently above the state average.
In 2007, the state average of students meeting or exceeding state standards was 78.8 percent, with 82.2 percent of Pekin students in that category. In 2008, District 108’s average was 85.4 percent, 6.3 percent above the state average of 79.1 percent. Another important piece of data by which Pekin measures itself is operating expenditure. According to Link, the district’s operating expenditure last year was $7,697 per student, 22.3 percent less than the state average of $9,907, proving that these performance gains were not tied to increased funding.
Even more impressive is the fact that more than half of the student population in District 108 are considered low-income. Research suggests that being categorized as low-income is an indicator of students who are at risk of lower academic achievement. Yet the district still manages to outperform the state average each year.
“What we try to do is to remove that barrier to the extent we can,” said Link. “In fact, some of the work we’ve done alongside this quality work has been a significant study on understanding the characteristics of students who come from impoverished backgrounds.” Such research has become standard practice for District 108.
Leadership. District/school leaders and leadership teams set direction, communicate and reinforce values and commitments, create and sustain a climate conducive to learning, and constantly improve the leadership system.
Improvement Planning looks at the process used to develop district/school/classroom plans, how the daily work aligns to those plans, and how the plans are translated into actions and deployed throughout the district/school/classroom.
Student & Parent Focus is most important to understand the needs of students, parents and the school community in order to meet requirements and improve student performance.
Information & Analysis addresses the maintenance and use of all basic and comparative information and how this information is analyzed and used to drive performance.
Faculty & Staff Focus looks at all key human resource issues and practices within the district. High performers understand the relationship between people, the work environment and the work that needs to be done through individual involvement and collaborative work systems.
Process Management looks at how the district/school/classroom designs, introduces, delivers and improves its educational programs, offerings and support processes.
Performance Results provide real-time information for evaluating and improving the effectiveness and efficiency of district services aligned with the mission and goals. This is the district/school/classroom “report card.”
Models for Improvement
While the Baldrige model is excellent for evaluating organizations, it does not contain specific tools to improve the quality of teaching and learning. For this, District 108 uses a process created by W. Edwards Deming, a leader in the quality movement, called Plan, Do, Study, Act (PDSA), which Link described as “a cyclical method used for improvement that is driven by data and information. Within the PDSA process, the data and information is organized, tracked and analyzed through the use of various quality tools.” Not only does PDSA help determine which areas need the most improvement, but the model also uses information gathering, analysis and management tools (see sidebar).
“Essentially when we talk about tools, we’re talking about thinking tools,” explained Link, “like ways to organize information.” Many of the same quality tools used by large organizations in business and industry—such as affinity and Pareto diagrams—are utilized by District 108. By providing a systematic approach to collecting, documenting and analyzing performance information, dramatic improvements can be made.
The seven components of Pekin’s quality assurance program—leadership, improvement planning, student and parent focus, information and analysis, faculty and staff focus, process management, and performance results—correlate directly to the Baldrige criteria used by the school when applying for the Lincoln Award in 2003. One of the programs that initially helped District 108 apply the Baldrige model was the American Society for Quality’s Koalaty Kids.
District 108 latched on to Koalaty Kids because it broke down the highly complex nature of Baldrige into an educational context. “We thought Baldrige was a really good model, but we were having trouble looking at how to implement that kind of framework for improvement based on a business model,” reported Link. Because schools work with human capital, as opposed to products or services, Koalaty Kids presented exactly what Pekin needed to make the Baldrige model work for them.
A Team Effort
Harris reported that the district trains teachers and principals to use PDSA and its quality tools through professional development sessions. “Over these last few years,” she said, “by bringing a district-level team together around quality, we’re getting more consistency around the district. Our students move from different sites, and we need that consistency and type of improvement that we’re looking for district-wide, not just within one site at one building.”
Certain quality elements are now consistent in each of the 11 buildings that make up District 108, while the details of initiatives are unique to each. “They have to look at their own individual data to determine what it is they need to improve,” explained Harris. “So there are common expectations, but it’s also individualized.”
Because the PDSA model uses actual data formulated in the classroom, it gets students involved in the process. Teachers have a data folder for each of their students, and students are responsible for collecting data about their progress and setting goals for themselves. “It starts at the district level, but it’s definitely in all of the classrooms…Even a kindergarten classroom will have data folders, and students begin to set their goals,” said Harris.
Parents are involved in these quality initiatives as well. A traditional parent-teacher conference would consist of a teacher telling parents how their child is doing in class. But in District 108, said Link, conferences are “more about the student taking responsibility for articulating to their parents about their performance—their areas of strength…and the areas in which they need improvement.” By collecting data on their own academic performance, students develop a more vested interest in their education. Link noted that there has been a lot of positive feedback from parents who feel more informed and engaged in their children’s education.
Quality is a Journey
By implementing a centralized, district-wide system, District 108 has been better able to address individual student needs. Realigning staff positions and roles and responsibilities, and providing technical and instructional support that wasn’t there before has made a huge impact. But that doesn’t mean there’s not still room to grow.
When asked about the future, Link said he would prefer to use “some sort of growth model assessment instead of looking at how students perform on one test at one point in time.” He believes that looking at how academic performance has improved over time is a better way to evaluate students, teachers and schools. That is the current method for evaluating students with disabilities, who have individualized education plans (IEPs). By looking at students’ IEPs, educators know how much progress is made from year to year—a much better model for charting any student’s growth, according to Link. “I think in general terms, that kind of outlook on assessment and accountability makes more sense because kids come from so many different backgrounds.”
Education deals with human capital, and because people are so different, judging quality improvement must be done differently—by looking at longitudinal information. “It takes more time [to assess] people as our main resource, and it’s a little more costly, but the sustainability that’s involved—there’s no way to quantify it, to put a number on the value of what we’ve been able to do as we move forward.”
The quality of District 108 schools is testament to its search for continuous improvement. Right now, that improvement is coming at the district level, where they’re hoping to implement a balance scorecard as a way to monitor the health of the district as a whole. They are also looking at more efficient ways to manage the data needed to make instructional decisions. “Quality work for us has been a journey, and there’s never an end point,” noted Link. With an attitude like that, the challenges faced by District 108 will never become roadblocks. iBi