Helping school districts set & reach their goals

This column originally was published by ECM/Sun newspapers, 12-2-15

Helping school districts set, reach their goals

by Joe Nathan

More than 20 people, an unusually large number, responded to a recent column listing five questions for school board members. (Found here:

Most agreed with the questions suggested in the column. Several asked for examples of measurable goals that school boards have adopted. One person wisely urged listening to staff, as well as other groups, and another advocated for clear communication from boards.

Alan Muller wrote in an online comment: “May I put in a plug for the importance of plain language? All too often school managers, at least the ‘public’ flavor, seem to respond in a specialized lingo such that few really understand what, if anything, is being said.”

That’s wise advice as boards establish district goals.

I contacted Miami-Dade County Public Schools in Florida because it has improved high school graduation rates by 15 percentage points over the last five years, and in 2012, it won one of the nation’s top awards for school districts awarded by the Broad Foundation. John Schuster, administrative director of public relations, responded that the district has five pillars supporting its “Vision 20/20 Strategic Blueprint.” Each has measurable goals, found here: For example, under Pillar 1, called Relevant, Rigorous and Innovative Academics, objectives include:

–“At least 90 percent of students will graduate with a standard high school diploma by 2020.

–“The percentage of students enrolled in remedial courses at the college level will decrease by at least 5 percent by 2020.

–“The percentage of students attaining industry certification in one or more areas of study will increase by at least 5 percent by 2020.”

Other examples come from 2014 Broad Award winner Orange County Public Schools, Florida, found here:

The board and administration identified four overall focus areas, adopted measurable goals and developed strategies for each goal. I’m not suggesting that these are the only ones to adopt, although I am heartened that two involve increased enrollment of 10 percent by 2020 in dual-credit courses (high school and college) and increasing the percentage of students who are successful in such courses by 10 percent by 2020.

Some of Orange County’s goals include:

–“Increase the percent of students enrolled in an extended postsecondary preparation experience prior to graduation by 10 percentage points by the year 2020.

–“Increase the percent of students demonstrating success in an extended postsecondary preparation experience prior to graduation by 10 percentage points by the year 2020.

–“Increase (percent) of students in grades 3-10 scoring proficient on statewide assessments … by 10 percentage points by the year 2020.”

Adopting goals is not enough. Several people described what boards should do to increase the likelihood that their goals are accomplished.

Former Minnesota Commissioner of Education Bob Wedl wrote, “Boards ought to ask the district administration and teachers to identify ways to do things differently so that better results can be achieved with the same or even less resources.” He offered examples such as new research-based approaches to serve students with special needs and redesigning high schools so that all students complete a significant amount of postsecondary coursework or even their “career certifications” while in high school, saving families hundreds of millions of dollars.

Steve Miltich, a 20-year public schools employee who is on the board of Minnesota school employees union SEIU 284, agreed that it’s important to listen to families, educators, current students, graduates and community members.

However, he wrote via email: “I am troubled by the fact that nowhere in your column did you make a single mention of support staff. You see, I am a school custodian. We work hand in hand every day with educators, administration, parents and students. As the winter weather sets in, we are the ones who keep our buildings warm and dry. Our food service workers feed hundreds of students every day. The paraprofessionals train and protect and clean special needs kids from the moment they exit their buses, while clerical staff move information, store records and refer visitors and callers.” He rightly recommended that board members also consider staff suggestions.

I hope, thanks to readers’ recommendations, wise boards will set and share clear, measurable goals, and then, after listening to various voices, they’ll develop plans to accomplish those goals and share results.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, is a former director and now senior fellow at the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at