Empowerment & Accountability: The Rochester Schools Strategic Plan

Posted by & filed under CGR Staff, Rochester Business Journal.

Kent GardnerThe Center for Governmental Research has begun a partnership with the Rochester City School District. We’ve been invited to support implementation of Superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard’s Five Year Strategic Plan.

I’m a planning skeptic. Often the process of planning is so exhausting that we declare, “It’s done!” when the ink is dry. We forget that the plan serves only to lay out the course and load the starter pistol. The plan is too-often ignored. We continue going about our tasks as though nothing had changed. To the Superintendent’s credit, many of plan’s strategies codify activities already underway. In fact, the first of the five years was 2008-09. Like all good leaders, Brizard is impatient about his plan.

The threads of empowerment and accountability are woven through the fabric of the plan. We know that the demanding standards of the 21st century workplace can only be met by students who are empowered by a good education. District and school leaders, teachers, and staff must also be empowered and held accountable to demanding standards.

Goal 1. Brizard’s first goal is to “ensure that each of our students is academically prepared to succeed in college, life, and work in the global economy.” Plans tend to repeat the obvious and aspire to the impossible. No school has the power or the resources to make such an outcome certain—yet if this isn’t our aspiration, what would replace it?

Under Goal 1, the plan seeks to create a district-wide framework that “aligns standards, curriculum and benchmark assessments.” Accountability can only be achieved if it is first defined. But creating the framework isn’t enough—the plan asserts that the framework has to be adopted by schools. Just like the plan itself, the framework is useless if it isn’t adopted.

Goal 2. Students are not empowered to learn without a social environment that nurtures achievement. Goal 2 articulates the need for reliable security and consistent discipline. Moreover, the school must confront the social context that often impedes student success and recognize the need for comprehensive coordination with social services.

Goal 3. Schools cannot succeed without effective school leaders and leaders cannot be effective without qualified and engaged teachers. Goal 3 articulates steps to recruit, develop and empower gifted leaders; and equip and nurture outstanding teachers. Support and training is critical to the empowerment side of the equation.

Goal 4 addresses the physical environment. Great buildings cannot overcome disengaged teachers and an uncoordinated curriculum. Nor does a deficient physical infrastructure make learning impossible. Nonetheless, efficient and responsive management of buildings, transportation, and food services removes obstacles to achievement, empowering students, teachers and school leaders to focus their attention on teaching and learning.

Goal 5 articulates a strategy to create a culture of accountability. The District must be accountable to all of its “customers”—students, schools, parents, employees, taxpayers, and citizens.

Under Goal 5, Objective II, the district intends to “build [a] District dashboard to capture formative data, including benchmark assessment results, to monitor student learning in real time.” Teachers and administrators can only be held accountable if they are empowered through access to accurate and timely information. They rightly complain about assessments that are either unconnected to the curriculum or scored months too late. I’m not sure how “real time” will be defined, but it is “unreal” when the results of state assessments are available only at the end of the school year.

Accountability at the school level will be built on a budgeting system that empowers school leaders. Significant effort is going into creating a system that will allocate money according to the needs of the students attending each school. This “weighted student funding” system is a critical prerequisite to establishing the “Autonomous” schools, schools that are empowered to use funds creatively, adapting staffing and resource use to the particular needs of the school. Without a clear and fair funding formula, money is allocated directly from Central Office, not always in response to need and opportunity.

Goal 5, Objective IV addresses “Performance Management.” When expectations are clear and timely information on achievement is available, then leaders and teachers—at the district and school levels—can manage for performance. Empowerment appears again, however—the plan notes that the District must invest in building the capacity of managers, particularly principals, to manage for performance.

The plan also recognizes that the community can help. We can empower the District leadership and staff to make what may be unpopular decisions. And we can hold them accountable. We are all stakeholders in the future of Rochester’s children. Dramatic improvement will not come easily or quickly. I urge you to read the plan (see http://bit.ly/6VHeIp) to understand the scale of the work. Both the devil—and the angels—are in the details, the specific actions and initiatives laid out under each goal and objective. Improved student outcomes can only be achieved through many small, sometimes mundane, achievements.

The goal is not to plan but to do. Our role at CGR will be to support the creation of benchmarks and metrics for individual elements of the Strategic Plan, to help identify bottlenecks in the rollout, and to report to the District’s leadership and the larger community on what we see and hear. We are honored by Superintendent Brizard’s trust and openness, and we are challenged by the responsibility.

Kent Gardner, Ph.D. President & Chief Economist
Published in the Rochester (NY) Business Journal January 8, 2010