Friday, April 10, 2009

Accountability- San Diego Conference

So, you paid for me (through your taxes) to attend the NSBA Conference in San Diego. Was it money well spent? What did I learn and what did I bring back to help improve education at Edmonton Public?

These are questions, I believe, deserve an answer...so here's my report to you:

After studying the program, I had to focus my attention. I was interested in sessions on community engagement and student leadership in board work... but in the end, I decided on two key areas, which I felt deserve the most attention: governance and closing the achievement gap.

I attended three sessions on governance and came away with these key points:
- Policy Governance focuses the work of the Board on policy-making, policy evaluation, monitoring and accountability. Change happens through policy and trustees must have a clear understanding of their role as policymakers, to avoid being pulled into operational management (which is the jurisdiction of the Superintendent.). This may sound elementary and obvious to you, but the day-to-day application of this idea can be challenging, believe me. When a constituent, or group of constituents want change or advocate for new direction... the response of concerned and connected trustees (like me!) can be to immediately drop into "fix it" mode rather than referring back to policy and checking for alignment, accountability, etc.

- What is Accountability Anyway? What does it look like??
This is something I've been mulling over and the sessions on governance gave me some clear examples. Within clear governance structures, accountability shows up in a board calendar that is set by the Board and the Superintendent jointly, which identifies when which policies will be evaluated. The calendar is made public, so that interested citizens can see well in advance when an area of interest will be reviewed. Clear consequences are articulated showing what will happen or change if targets are not achieved. This doesn't need to be ominous or punishment-based (as in, "you're fired!")... it can be a realignment of resources, additional PD, or some other form of support. But everyone needs to know that something WILL happen if we don't hit our goal, not that it will be business as usual. Progress may be incremental, but it must occur, because truly our children only have one opportunity to go through school. The need for excellence is now, not 5 years from now.

- The Difference between OWNERS and CUSTOMERS.
This was another area that became clear to me. Owners are the public, i.e. everyone. Customers are the parents and students, those who use the system. Owners are the Board's responsibility. Customers are the Superintendent's. Of course, it's usually customers that call trustees and indeed, customers are also owners... but the clarity was helpful for me. We as trustees need to be engaging owners more, listening to owners and making sure that we are closely aligned in our policies to owners expectations and values. The work of the Discrete Choice Survey- done by Chapman Strategies- which will be discussed at the next board meeting... is very much in keeping with this idea. We polled owners for that survey. Good thinking, EPSB!!

-Policies are based on values; values change over time and with each new board these values must be re-affirmed or adjusted (FYI- any time a new board member arrives, it's a new board). This can be challenging work, because it requires consensus of nine...but if the policies are broad enough, it can be achieved. In reality, it must be achieved as this will help Boards start from common ground. Debate is still important, but the policies must be agreed upon.

-The policies should be few in number, so that the Board can actually keep track of them. The suggestion at NSBA was to have 30 or fewer policies. The Board's job is to monitor these 30 policies effectively. The rest is the Superintendent's job.

- Boards must think long term. (10, 20, 30 years out). Superintendents must deal with the day-to-day operations. Boards need to delegate authority to the Superintendent to make day-to-day decisions, without needing to come back to the Board so they he/she can get on with the business of managing the District. Boards need their agendas cleared of "operational" stuff, in order to allow them the time to properly monitor policy and keep on top of the steering of the District. I find, on a personal note, that it can be hard to keep things in the right place, because of the endless stream of operational information. The distractions are endless.

- Boards are responsible to inform the public of their role and how/why they delegate authority to the Superintendent. Without correct and clear communication, the delegation may appear to be abdication of authority. Boards cannot be rubber-stampers. They must show what they do and be transparent in their work. Without on-going communication, Boards will lose public understanding and support of their role. Their relevancy will be challenged.

- Clear governance makes a difference to student achievement. A board that is focused on end results has a better chance of getting them. A Superintendent who is free to work is more productive. Staff who know who does what and why are more confident. Boards who work strenuously to build understanding with "owners" build more public support for education and create more alliances and in turn opportunities for collaboration and partnerships for their Districts. Public support can pull Districts ahead, helping low achieving schools out of their negative cycles, ensuring that every student can create a future of hope.

I'm a bit tired... suffering from an ear infection...so I'll leave it there for now. I'll post on closing the achievement gap, race/poverty, etc. later.

FYI- The agenda for the next meeting (Tues, April 14) is up already. Click on the link to the right.

HAPPY EASTER/ PASSOVER/ CHOCOLATE HOLIDAY! The sun is shining. Enjoy your day.

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