By Christine Schaefer
A woman who’s spent 45 years working to improve public schools in three states recently told me an inspirational story. It’s about educators accomplishing things that defy the odds and the usual expectations. Ultimately, it’s about the value of the Baldrige Excellence Framework for the nation’s school systems in rural as well as suburban and urban areas.
I know many people get bored reading about a systems perspective, process alignment and integration, continuous improvement, and other Baldrige terminology. But there is an exciting arc to the story I’m going to share. And the Baldrige framework is instrumental.
In this story, leaders of a poor, rural school district that once ranked dead last in its state for student achievement adopted a completely different perspective and set of approaches on how to improve. The new way of managing their entire organization has helped them overcome socioeconomic and geographic disadvantages for their students’ learning. What’s more, their successes can be replicated—because they’ve been guided by the ever-evolving framework for organizational excellence that has benefited every sector of the U.S. economy since it was introduced in the late 1980s.
Baldrige Roots in North Carolina
The story truly begins in South Carolina. There, in 1990, a rising school leader named Susan Allred first met and started working with Dr. Terry Holliday. By 2003, Holliday had become the superintendent that would lead North Carolina’s Iredell-Statesville Schools (PDF file) through a radical improvement journey over five years. To turn around a district seen by some as being in crisis at the time (Allred says it was “unaligned”), Holliday implemented comprehensive reforms using as a foundation the Baldrige Excellence Framework (which includes the Education Criteria for Performance Excellence).
From 2003 to 2008, when Iredell-Statesville Schools (I-SS) won the Baldrige Award under Holliday’s leadership, Allred served as the district’s chief academic officer. She was also the district’s lead for category 6 (the “Operations” section of the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence). Allred helped lead the district as it progressed through the state-level Baldrige award process and then the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award process. The district applied three times for the prestigious national award, she said, adding, “I was in the war room in 2008 during the site visit.”
Although Allred retired from I-SS in 2008, she responded to a call from Holliday to come back to work two years later. He had become the Kentucky state commissioner of education. And he asked Allred in 2010 to work in Kentucky with two of the lowest-performing schools in the state as part of a larger, statewide school-improvement effort called “District 180.” Although the districts were in impoverished areas in eastern Kentucky, the improvement work would be funded by federal school-improvement grants.
Turning Around the “Worst of the Worst”
When Allred arrived to work with district staff members in the Lawrence County Schools in eastern Kentucky, “They had been told in essence ‘you’re the worst of the worst,’” she said. “They had nowhere to go but up.”
Sunrise over the high school field in Lawrence County, Kentucky
Dr. Cassandra Webb is the chief academic officer of Lawrence County Schools. Allred calls Webb “the catalyst for [the district’s] five-year turn-around through a systems approach.” For her part, Webb said the turn-around that began in 2010 owes a lot to the new superintendent at that time, Michael Armstrong, who restructured the district office and stayed in the position until 2014.
“We received a letter that our high school was named among ten lowest-performing schools in the state of Kentucky,” Webb recalled. After receiving that official notification, the district was the first to apply for and receive a federal school-improvement grant.
Mandated changes included the removal of the principal of the district’s high school and the implementation of training for improvement, Webb said. The training introduced Webb to Allred as well as to Carolyn Spangler from the Kentucky Department of Education’s Division of School Success. Webb was impressed by the way Allred and Spangler introduced the Baldrige Criteria through “one-on-one coaching, rather than a top-down approach” with the district’s senior leadership team.
Allred started her work by introducing the seven categories of the Baldrige Criteria to district staff members using a graphic that showed the linkages among the categories. “It became clear [the Baldrige framework] was the answer,” she said.
For example, she described how the district applied the Baldrige Criteria to address “some broken processes at the high school to serve students with disabilities.” Allred guided educators there to develop a systematic approach, using Plan–Do–Study–Act (PDSA) methodology to improve the processes.
Coaching and Teamwork for Improvement
According to Allred, while her role initially focused on teaching and promoting “Systems 101” learning, Webb and Spangler focused on the school district’s systems. “They began fixing broken systems one at a time,” Allred said, so that the district became “results- and process-oriented.”
Spangler served as the state-designated “education recovery leader” for the district’s improvements for five years, including two as a monitor of progress. A former principal herself, Spangler served as a coach for Lawrence County’s high school principal, and together they focused on aligning the school’s instructional delivery and other systems to increase student achievement. Along with Spangler, the state also sent grant-funded literacy and math coaches to support the district for three years. All three members of the state team were on site on a daily basis in Lawrence County during the three-year period.
Using the Baldrige framework helped Spangler work with the Lawrence County district and school leaders as a team, she said. “The linkage of the seven categories [of the Baldrige Criteria] taught us to get at the same goals and results.” In addition, Spangler said the focus on systems “helped us look at data and keep personal feelings out of the picture.”
Economic and Geographic Challenges
Dr. Robbie Fletcher has been superintendent of Lawrence County School District since July 2014. He previously was principal of a high school in a neighboring Kentucky county. There, according to Allred, Fletcher “helped turn that school around and was introduced to quality systems there through an education recovery team” [funded by a federal school-improvement grant].”
Fletcher described how the decline in the coal industry and closing down of a local power plant ended two major industries in the region and caused his school district to lose “a lot of good families.”
Students express their school pride in the Lawrence County High School gymnasium.
He also explained that as a result of the county’s economic and geographic conditions, “winters are tough for us.” For example, his district’s school buses travel 450 miles on gravel roads to transport students. This means “we have to call off school a lot during harsh weather due to transportation challenges.” In the 2014-2015 school year, 31 school days were thus impacted, he said; as of early March 2016, 19 days had been impacted in the 2015-2016 school year.
However, Fletcher explained that his district has been using technology to provide home-based instruction during severe weather. On days identified by the district as “Nontraditional Instruction Days,” he said, every student is required to participate in schooling via one of three options: (1) a student can participate in schoolwork via the Internet on the actual day (Fletcher said 70% have been electing to participate this way); (2) a student’s parent can come to school to get hard-copy schoolwork materials (28% are participating this way); or (3) a student can make up missed work after returning to school. Given that managing for innovation is a core value of the Baldrige framework, finding such solutions to old and new challenges alike is becoming systematic in the district today.
Becoming a Data-Driven District
Webb credits Allred’s training on data-driven decision making with leading the district to create a dashboard of student performance data that now publicly display student academic data every nine weeks. That system involves schools at all levels and has evolved since 2010.
Fletcher has “taken the system to a whole other level,” said Webb, with processes and protocols now extending to the classroom level and encompassing planning as well as data use to measure and monitor student learning. She said goals are set and communicated by all stakeholders, and that every teacher receives those data via a Google drive. The data also are published via an electronic board-meeting system. And all principals in the district make quarterly presentations to the school board on their school’s results data.
Further, the district expects that all school administrators (principals) communicate to their school’s advisory or site-based councils their building’s 45-day, short-term action plans for school improvement, said Webb. And those action plans feed into annual school improvement plans.
Each Lawrence County school has a quarterly dashboard, which may vary from seven to ten measures. For example, the high school’s dashboard includes college- and career-readiness measures. School dashboards also include Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) data. In addition, Webb said, longitudinal MAP data are made available to parents to see how their student has progressed throughout their elementary and secondary school education.
Improvements Achieved, Improvements Planned
According to Fletcher, when he joined the district, it had a goal of being a “proficient district” (as defined by the state) within two years. “We accomplished that in one year,” he said, “Next we have a goal of being [identified by the state as] a distinguished district by the fall of 2017, have all five schools be proficient, have all students be on grade level in math and reading, and improve in career- and college-readiness measures. Those are our four major strategic goals.”
Dr. Robbie Fletcher, superintendent of Lawrence County Schools
“We know that we’ve very blessed,” said Fletcher. “To be where we are doesn’t mean we’re happy with where we are. Improvements we’re planning include [staff] training with the business sector on customer service and communication.”
Webb affirmed that the district is now rated by the state of Kentucky as “proficient” based on its achieving at the level of at least the 70th percentile in statewide assessments of students’ academic performance. The district now has a long-term aim to become a Baldrige Award recipient, and this is written in its strategic plan.
Among favorable results trends, Lawrence County students have improved significantly on the state’s Index for Career and College Readiness since 2010, said Webb. Other results improvements she shared include the following:
- Overall School Accountability Index (a Kentucky state measure of school quality): Improving from 29th percentile in the 2013-2014 school year to 80th percentile in 2014-2015
- Elementary School Accountability Index: Improving from a ranking of 54.9 in the 2013-2014 school year to 66.6 in 2014-2015, with one elementary school being named a “High Progress/Proficient School”
Third graders relax while reading in a Lawrence County school classroom.
- Middle School Accountability Index: Improving from 58.9 in the 2013-2014 school year to 60.8 in 2014-2015
- High School Accountability Index: Improving from 66.3 in the 2013-2014 school year to 75.7 in 2014-2015, with the high school being named a “Distinguished High School”
“Lawrence County has truly made [Baldrige] their system,” said Spangler. “They no longer need coaching.” She’s now working in another district that’s under state supervision and has taken its superintendent to visit Lawrence County because it is “a model of systems.”
“I’ve been fortunate to see [Fletcher and Webb] take these systems and keep reaching higher with their goals. So I don’t have a doubt that they will reach their goal of 100 percent college- and career-readiness.”
Why the Baldrige Framework Works
Allred is passionate about the benefits of using the Baldrige framework to help school districts improve.
“[The Baldrige framework] is the perfect [foundation] because you have to go deeper than [the process improvement tools] that get [educators] talking but are on the surface,” she said.
She illustrated the importance of education organizations’ defining their processes “to make them clear to other public agencies” with an example of a severe truancy problem that one of the eastern Kentucky districts faced. She said the district blamed the local court’s process (involving juvenile detention), but when Allred asked about the district’s process to address the problem, it wasn’t well defined. In the end, the school district discovered that other public agencies better cooperate with schools when they have conversations about aligning their processes, she said.
She also spoke of a benefit that stems from the fact that the Baldrige framework is not a partisan or commercial product. “[Educators] realize it’s not a political thing. This is management theory,” she said. For example, she said, “Most will agree when there’s a deployment issue [a Baldrige process evaluation factor] or “not monitoring what we have in place. So [Baldrige] is about giving educators the tools to solve problems.”
Of key importance to her work, Allred pointed out that the nonprescriptive nature of the framework and Criteria questions enables her to assist school districts with “leading [improvements] with them as opposed to me telling them how to do it.” The framework thus fits her job of “coaching for improvement,” she said.
“Educators find hope when they … are not upended by politically driven or trendy educational theory changes” and when they can embrace the solution they’ve helped develop, she added. “I believe in [educators’] ability to solve their schools’ problems. The Baldrige process helped us solve problems in eastern Kentucky … and continues to do so.”
Because of the improvements she’s helped support, “there are people in eastern Kentucky who think I’m brilliant,” Allred said, laughing. “So I wrote everything I know on two pages of paper. I give it to them and tell them, ‘I got this from studying the Baldrige Criteria.’”