The Second in a Series: Why Alternative Teacher Certification Programs are Uniquely Designed to Meet the Needs of at-Risk Students

Three Words that Shield a District from Sham:
People, People, People
Vicky Dill and Delia Stafford

Introduction. In the first of the series, “Historical Leadership in Wobbly Times . . .,” the authors discuss using a data management system to encourage transparent operations within a school district. Such a system, exemplified best perhaps by The Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence, facilitates alignment of district initiatives while accurately measuring progress on every aspect of the organization’s mission and goals. Where web-based data is readily available to the public, questions are more likely to be raised and dilemmas solved before a district becomes embroiled in controversy or embarrassed by fraudulent records.

Organizations can be enormous, sprawling bureaucracies but, nevertheless, have readily available to the public appropriate data on student achievement, attendance, discipline referrals, graduation rates, and much more. In brief, every component of an organization can be tracked with data. From the systems perspective, there are seven components that ensure integrity and are part of every organization’s profile:

1) Leadership;

2) Strategic planning;

3) Stakeholder – in this case student – focus;

4) Measurement, Analysis, and Knowledge Management;

5) Faculty and Staff Focus;

6) Process Management; and

7) Organizational Performance – Results. (See www.nist.gov. for more detail).

Leadership. An organization that bases its hiring and personnel practices on research ensures the integrity of the “doers” within the framework described above. Finding and keeping excellent leaders is not good luck any more than it is a result of a board of trustees spending oodles of money on the most prestigious headhunters available. Leadership is not identified by passing a mantle from a higher up to the next in line, and it is not necessarily the result of years of experience, although all of these characteristics might be present in a leader. For certain, “obedience” to a dogmatic agenda, a charismatic figurehead, or the whims of market forces does not define school district leadership. On the other hand, where there is the political will to focus on the primary stakeholder in the organization – the students – research is available to guide identification of leaders who will keep a school district from sham.

Identifying leaders is not difficult for most CEO’s. With a little reflection, superintendents can quickly tick off a list of the principals in their districts who have lead their own particular schools, and a rising flotilla of sister ships, to improved performance. Researchers would suggest that these top performers have a “secret sauce” which consists of their “mental models, subtle cueing mechanisms, action plans, risk management strategies, and other capabilities” that make a pivotal difference in the organizations they lead (www.cerebyte.com. “Harvesting the Experts’ ‘Secret Sauce’ and Closing the Performance Gap” by Seidman, William & Michael McCauley, 2002). Areas of expertise top performers share include reductions in planning time, reductions in training time, and reduction in task performance times (ibid). Top performers expeditiously create “ecological surveys” of the environment which frame the situation and give cues to next moves to leaders; leaders respond with patterned behaviors which are highly effective actions which are required to facilitate success.

Evidence-Based Leader Selection. Designing a system to select leaders for any organization follows the same pattern. The experts – successful CEO’s, superintendents, presidents, or CFO’s – identify the outstanding leaders in their organization and in-depth investigation occurs based on their knowledge. Experts reflecting on the nature of this leadership aver that analysis shows primarily two elements: 1) an “ecological survey” that points them to a limited number of core behaviors;” and 2) “patterned behaviors based on the survey results” (ibid., p. 3). Regarding the first element, categorization is a key. Very expeditiously, effective leaders can categorize workers’ behaviors or patterns or problems into consistent patterns. They see the whole picture; there is remarkably little time spent on exceptions. Regarding the second element, “Patterned behaviors” include mental models about the outcomes of a process such as student products or evidence of achievement, a strong focus on action; the ability to monitor threats to the success of the project; and an extensive and highly focused set of supporting materials and resources (ibid., p. 5). All leaders share these behaviors and to a remarkable degree.

Public school leader selection using evidence-based research and interview tools is a relatively new science. A 2002 analysis identified three particular instruments designed to help school leaders identify individuals with expert knowledge. “Life themes” emerge from an instrument known as the SRI Gallup poll; Praxis III examines essential teaching skills categorized into four domains; the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) is a six-part portfolio examination refereed by individuals who have already accomplished the process and trained to become examiners; and the Haberman Star Principal/Teacher Interviews access the candidates’ both ecological survey skills and pattern behaviors based on the survey results through future-oriented surveys (Ryan, Patricia M. and Martha A. Alcock, “The case for teacher education.” Journal of the Association of Teacher Education. Vol. XXIV, No. 1, Spring 2002, pp. 58ff). Perhaps, of all the instruments available, the Haberman most closely follows the science of identifying expert knowledge. By examining the candidate’s mental models regarding outcomes, the extent to which the candidate will risk to accomplish the stakeholders’ good, the interview’s genius in accessing the candidate’s ability to monitor and withstand threats to a project, the interview is a powerful tool in leadership selection.

The Fault, Dear Brutus, Is Not In the Test. Accountability and the structures which are currently being raised (or razed) to meet high expectations for increased accountability, is not the culprit. A district wrapped in open data and which knows how to hire personnel based on evidence will go a long way in accomplishing its goals. Continuing evidence points to people as the prize. Says researcher Richard Elmore in “The Price of Accountability: Want to improve schools? Invest in the people who work in them,”

With increased accountability, American schools and those who work in them are being asked to do something new – to engage in systematic, continuous improvement in the quality of the educational experience of students and to subject themselves to the discipline of measure their success by the metric of students’ academic performance. Most people who currently work in public schools weren’t hired to do this work, nor have they been adequately prepared to do it either by their professional education or by their prior experience in schools. . .” (Results. Elmore, Richard. “The Price of Accountability.” November 2002, p. 1).

The focus on social relationships, student culture, and trust emerge as primary items on the agenda of successful leaders for districts with many at-risk students. To rise to high levels of accountability, Dennis Sparks, Executive Director of the National Staff Development Council says, “Employ a ‘people strategy’ for school improvement” (ibid., p. 2).

People, people, people. Effective districts take responsibility for their own behavior. If what they’re doing now in terms of personnel isn’t working, they change it and change it based on research. If poor or fraudulent practices, low student achievement, high leader turnover, or broken trust pervade the system, that system must turn to effective practices and do whatever it takes to regain the public trust. This is not a facile challenge. It’s easier to grovel in the muck of “mea culpa” than to build, brick by brick, a new system based on credible content and data feedback. What will be at the heart of any new system – plodding as its construction may be – is a renewed passion and optimism. That hope will be based on finding and keeping any organization’s cornerstone of success: the right people to do the job.

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