An ambitious program aims to transform K-12 education outcomes, such as student achievement and smart spending, by focusing on the processes through which schools strive to achieve those outcomes–and it already has led to positive results (and millions of dollars in savings) among participating schools.
The North Star Project, spearheaded by the nonprofit American Productivity and Quality Center (APQC), focuses on process and performance management (PPM) as the driver of improvement.
APQC Chairman C. Jackson Grayson Jr. said he has a “simple but difficult mission–I want to transform the entire education system,” including state and federal governments, higher education, and private schools.
Grayson said there are two fundamental reasons for the “decades-long” stagnation in public K-12 education: There exists an almost total focus on inputs and outcomes, and no focus on processes; and there is a failure to link accountability with improvement through processes.
“Most of the focus of the entire education system has been on … inputs and outcomes–the what and the why,” a recent APQC report states. “The how–the processes–have been almost entirely overlooked.”
“Process is the most fundamental way to go about improvement,” Grayson said, adding that process management is not used in K-12 education today. Outcomes themselves cannot be managed, but the processes use to achieve those outcomes can, he said.
The North Star Project holds that when performance management and process management are not linked, education cannot improve and undergo transformative change.
Grayson likened public education’s predicament to an Achilles heel and said that “education’s singular focus on outcomes, rather than the processes that bring them about” is a critical flaw that has blocked reform.
He attributes this flaw to external pressure and lack of internal capacity. Schools are under constant pressure to deliver improved test scores, higher graduation rates, and better teaching–but unless school leaders pay as much attention to the processes as well as the outcomes, there will be little room for improvement, he said. Additionally, teachers often don’t have enough time or support to bring about this kind of change.
The project describes the processes that participating districts have used, and the success they have realized, for replication and implementation in other districts. It relies on the development and maintenance of a process-outcomes database that will let districts compare their performance against that of other schools and identify areas for improvement.
The North Star Project includes seven components:
• Hubs and Spokes: An implementation model that relies on existing North Star schools to inform, train, and coach other schools.
• Process and Outcome Measurement Database: A database of education processes and outcomes collected from districts, searchable for linkages of processes and outcomes, gaps, and best practices.
• Public Training: Face-to-face and virtual courses relating to all aspects of PPM.
• Benchmarking: Identifying and comparing data and best practices within a district and with other schools.
• Communities of Practice: A virtual networking tool that lets districts collaborate on ideas and support.
• Process Maturity Model: A framework that allows for assessment of the participant’s own PPM system.
• PPM Knowledge Base: An online education database that acts as a repository but also is a vehicle for collaboration and learning.
School leaders should identify who can influence a process positively and negatively, and Grayson said strong leadership is essential from the very beginning. “We don’t let any district [participate] in which the superintendent is not involved enough to know what’s happening,” he said.
The North Star Project includes face-to-face coaching, but Grayson hopes to move to virtual coaching in the future. APQC is a nonprofit organization, but it does require varying financial assistance from participating districts. However, schools will receive a refund if they fail to identify cost savings during process evaluations.
Everything in a school district, including bus schedules and cafeteria service, is somehow related to student achievement, Grayson said.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said he wants to move the focus from only outcomes to include work on the process by which schools achieve those outcomes.
Districts pilot the process–and realize substantial cost savings
From January to March 2009, APQC launched a year-long North Star pilot project in 11 districts across nine states. Each district assembled project teams, received PPM training, and selected projects that the district wanted to implement. Teams received face-to-face and virtual coaching while they outlined and put plans into action. Projects included new construction, common math assessments, reducing textbook order errors, and creating a teacher evaluation system.
In November 2009, all participating districts met in Houston to share lessons learned and results of their projects.
While still ongoing, the projects showed promising results. A project to reduce textbook order errors has saved one district an estimated $150,000 up to now, and a transportation project to improve accident prevention has saved its district $264,000 so far.
The Iredell-Statesville Schools in North Carolina implemented a dropout prevention program and immediately saw a 3-percent reduction in its dropout rate. The district forecasted a 20-percent decline over the next six years. It also freed up $4 million in energy savings for other programs.
Montgomery County, Md., schools realized that purchasing energy via a wholesale model would save about $2 million a year. A cooperative inter-agency bidding process for employee health-care services is expected to save about $4 million over three years.
“We are facing a $140 million budget deficit in Montgomery County Public Schools,” said Jerry Weast, the district’s superintendent. “Our work with APQC … has helped us know where and how to make intelligent budget cuts that minimize the negative impact on college and work readiness for our students.”
On average, participating districts have saved about $1.6 million and 39,000 labor hours apiece.
Jan Borman, executive director of student achievement and professional development in Colorado’s Poudre School District Online Academy, turned to APQC to help the district manage its online course system.
Borman said she and her colleagues had reservations upon entering the North Star Project, but soon saw relief.
“Now we’re seeing some huge gains. It’s really broken down the silos, and people feel empowered,” she said.
Borman said the district was losing students to other online academies and knew it would see those losses reflected in its budget. Within 10 years, 50 percent of K-12 courses are projected to be taken online in Colorado, she said.
Students enrolled in the district’s online academy can take home-based or hybrid classes, and K-12 students from multiple districts are enrolled.
“It wasn’t, ‘Learn the process and apply it,’ it was, ‘Pick a process, and we’ll teach you the process as you’re going through it,'” Borman said.
Schools that want to become involved should examine their current practices.
“Map the process–that’s the simplest and best way to start,” Grayson said. “I want this to spread to every part of the nation.”