By Christine Schaefer
Nancy Timmons has served as a Baldrige examiner for two years. She has served as an educational leader and reformer over three decades (and counting!). An enthusiastic advocate of the Baldrige Excellence Framework for education, Timmons recently shared with me how she’s been using her training and experience as a Baldrige examiner to continue guiding school improvements in recent years.
From Fort Worth to Philadelphia and Beyond
Timmons began her career in education as a teacher in a small school district near Austin, Texas. She later worked in the Temple Independent School District in Temple, Texas. She joined the Fort Worth (TX) Independent School District in 1987, ascending through a series of administrative positions. Finally, she served as associate superintendent, which she described as the equivalent of a chief academic officer, a position from which she officially retired in 2001.
Shortly afterwards, Timmons was approached by the School District of Philadelphia, PA, requesting her assistance with a project to improve student achievement throughout the system. She was recommended for the work by the Council of the Great City Schools, in Washington, D.C., for which she had volunteered for a number of years on instructional reviews.
Timmons worked with the Philadelphia district for approximately four years, serving as a consultant under an initially “brand-new” superintendent. “We rewrote the curriculum and aligned it to the Pennsylvania [education] standards,” she recalled. The district continued the school improvements for several years, she noted, until the next superintendent discontinued the efforts.
In the early 2000s, Timmons landed what she considered a dream job: supporting a collaborative effort by the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and Darden School of Business to support school district improvements in multiple states. Again, she had been recommended by the Council of the Great City Schools for the position. Timmons led a team of school “experts” to conduct instructional reviews in school districts in six states.
For the past few years, Timmons has been serving the Fort Worth Independent School District (FWISD) once again. As an executive consultant, she helps guide improvements based on a comprehensive, district-wide audit that produced a 400-plus-page report in the fall of 2012. “Having been an auditor, I know the boilerplate [of such reports],” said Timmons, “but it took at least 80 hours to review it and wrap my arms around it.”
The superintendent asked her to “point us in the right direction,” she said. But after perusing the report, she said she wondered, “How will I manage such a huge task?” “Can I be successful?” Yet she felt that “I owed it to her former district to give it my best shot,” so she took the assignment.
Today Timmons works out of the office of the district’s chief academic officer. She started the improvement work by guiding district staff members through “a series of Plan–Do–Study–Act” cycles. She also set up five teams, composed of central-office administrators, to lead action plans to carry out improvements based on the audit findings. Timmons’ role now is to provide ongoing guidance. “I believe if you don’t monitor and support people through something this big, it doesn’t happen,” she said.
Baldrige as a Backdrop and Basis for Improvements
While Timmons’ team members have not been trained as Baldrige examiners, she said they “are learning [the Baldrige Criteria] by using it.”
“I use the Baldrige Criteria as a backdrop,” she explained. “For example, if we have a leadership issue, I think about the questions [asked in the “Leadership” category of the Criteria] … to help me pose a question [to help the school system improve].”
Timmons also uses the Baldrige Criteria’s scoring system as a basis for approaches and tools that promote and track district improvements. For example, she created scorecards based on the Baldrige Criteria Scoring System that link the district’s audit findings with strategic goals and action plans (the template is shown in the graphic below). The scorecards thus connect the four major goals of the district’s strategic plan to the improvements related to the audit findings.
“Throughout the school year,” Timmons said, “we use the Baldrige scoring criteria to help the teams become more mature in their processes.” In addition, she said she uses the Baldrige evaluation factors as she and district staff members review results, looking at levels, trends, comparisons, and integration (known to Baldrige examiners as LeTCI).
In late spring—which Timmons said is the “evaluative stage” for the school district every year—the focus of her district-level teams and school-based leaders becomes the evaluation of results (through the Baldrige review lens of levels, trends, comparisons, and integration) as well as planning improvements for the next school year. “That’s continuous improvement,” she said, again noting a Baldrige concept.
The district has had a new superintendent for about six months now, and Timmons said she’s been pleased by his commitment to continuing the improvement work. “We have not yet arrived,” she said, but she also indicated that she’s pleased with the “results that we’ve shown so far.”
Reflecting on the progress made since 2012, Timmons said, “I don’t think something this large could have been accomplished … had I not had the Baldrige [framework] to guide me through it.”
“The [Baldrige Criteria] scoring criteria force you to not get stuck at one stage,” she added. “I think [Baldrige] is the secret to whatever success we’ve had in responding to this audit.”