Driving Improvement With a Balanced Scorecard

How a school district’s use of a transparent tool coalesced support for systemic improvement by SCOTT K. COWART
As I stared at the latest set of student test scores received from our state education agency, I wished there were a way to let the data tell the story to our community. I knew I was walking a fine line between informing the board of education about an underperforming school and falling prey to school district politics.

Most superintendents want to avoid this scenario at all costs, yet this was the situation confronting our school district in 2002. At the time, I was looking for a way to drive school improvement in Monroe County, a 4,000-student school system in central Georgia where I was superintendent.
Scott CowartScott Cowart

Then I discovered the balanced scorecard, a strategic tool for performance management that would allow us to show the school board and our public whether our operational activities aligned with the district’s larger-scale vision and goals. The Georgia Leadership Institute for School Improvement introduced us to the balanced scorecard work of Harvard Business School’s Robert Kaplan and David Norton as a way to monitor and manage improvement initiatives and to present data to stakeholders in meaningful ways.

Over the next six years, the balanced scorecard became an essential component of districtwide improvement. The district scorecard process set clear expectations for schools, departments and the district through a transparent process for tracking and reporting performance. In addition, each school and department also was responsible for creating its own balanced scorecard to track and report their individual performance against district goals.

Color Coding
Our balanced scorecards in Monroe County used a simple color-coded chart to indicate precisely which school or department met expectations and which ones did not. Green coding indicated the targets had been reached; yellow indicated targets had not been met but improvement had been made; and red indicated targets were not reached. (Sample) This new transparency of data enabled board members to quickly and accurately form conclusions and reduce misunderstandings between themselves and the superintendent on all areas targeted for improvement.

Like all strategic management tools, a balanced scorecard is simply a tool and does no good if not used appropriately. In Monroe County, we maximized the balanced scorecard’s impact by integrating it with three other tools to develop and support a systemic approach to school improvement: (1) aligned and nested school and district improvement plans; (2) annual reports of progress to the board; and (3) a system for visual reporting of data. Together these four tools provided a strong framework for improving performance.

Having developed this systemic framework for improvement, we set about ensuring that improvements were consistent and pervasive throughout the district. The balanced scorecard was the right tool for leveraging the implementation because it generated transparency that increased trust among all stakeholder groups. The ability to see clear patterns of performance amidst higher expectations raised the sense of urgency and reduced the time needed for change to take place.

Transparent Practices
Developing trust internally and externally is one of the first orders of business for superintendents looking to drive improvement. The balanced scorecard enabled us to communicate current performance levels to all stakeholders objectively, clearly, and continually.

We posted the scorecard on the district’s website. We also used it in presentations to the school board, parent groups and community audiences. We posted data from the scorecards in prominent locations in schools, such as teacher work rooms and “data rooms” across the district that were used for meetings and training sessions. The frequent visits of community and civic leaders to these data rooms served as opportunities to discuss the strategic goals and connect them with the strategies for moving the schools forward.

The intentional transparency engendered confidence in the new improvement practices in our historically conservative community. The new openness of the district was appreciated and the district’s efforts to improve student performance led to overwhelming support for the passage of two local-option, sales tax referendums for public education during an eight-year period.

An Unmet Need
While the balanced scorecard implementation went well and community leaders responded positively, a test of internal trust came at the end of the first year when principals and district leaders had to present their annual reports to the board of education. Their charge was to review their school or department’s balanced scorecard, explain what went well and describe their plans to reach the unmet targets as well as new targets for the upcoming year.

Preparing to stand in front of the seven school board members to talk about what had not gone well produced considerable anxiety for most of us. I unwittingly increased principals’ confidence by reinforcing that their jobs were not on the line if their schools had failed to reach every target.

The assistant superintendent and I had committed to developing a formal business partnership program, which consistently had been pushed to the backburner and never materialized. This demonstrated that even senior district leaders could have unmet targets — marked in bright red — on their scorecard. It also made clear that balanced scorecards were not a “gotcha” instrument but a tool for monitoring progress toward agreed-upon targets.

Despite the apprehensions about how the board would respond, each of the five building principals along with the district leaders who presented did a good job sharing their measures and results. The board listened attentively, but asked no questions and made no comments. As their silent review continued, anxiety rose. I quietly wondered whether this new approach would backfire. The silence was causing more anxiety than our presentations.

After all the reports were completed and a long pause ensued, a board member finally spoke up. “I heard a disturbing pattern throughout each presentation: All of our schools seem to have a problem with attendance,” he said, noting that the percentage of students missing 15 days or more of school was in the high teens for each school. One primary school reported 18.3 percent of students missing at least 15 days that year. The other board members agreed on the problem and told the principals and the district leaders they expected the attendance rate to improve by the following year.

That simple comment from the board about the attendance rate exemplifies a primary benefit of a balanced scorecard as a tool to improve performance. The color-coding allowed the board to see patterns, set clear expectations, increase a sense of urgency and decrease the time needed to implement change. Student attendance became an area of focus for all schools. Principals involved their faculty, parents and communities in developing strategies and within days all schools had plans in place to improve attendance.

Additionally, this process helped the district coordinate resources to support the schools’ efforts. The board’s clear expectation led to a significant improvement in student attendance in every school except one the next school year. The principal of the school that failed to meet expectations was held accountable and had to explain why the goal had not been met.
A Powerful Mixture
Monroe County school leaders were especially appreciative of how the balanced scorecard enabled them to consolidate the unaligned parts of the improvement planning process into one continuous improvement structure that supported operational and strategic improvement. Each school developed an improvement plan that nested under the district’s improvement plan, sharing identical strategic goal areas and performance objectives. Many of the old plans sitting on shelves and in filing cabinets became redundant because the operational school improvement plans now connected directly with the strategic improvement planning associated with the balanced scorecards.

Aligned and Nested: School Plans to Support a Balanced Scorecard by MAGGIE C. GLENNON

If you ever get frustrated because school improvement plans do not align with district improvement plans, you are not alone. The number of separate plans schools and districts must create to meet state and federal mandates can be overwhelming, so it is not surprising that superintendents and principals sometimes lose focus.

read more

One outcome of the consolidated improvement planning approach was Monroe County’s recognition as the third district in Georgia to achieve district accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

The balanced scorecards’ alignment with school improvement plans proved to be powerful. For the first time, district functions such as the school nutrition and transportation departments had concrete and visible metrics (e.g,. the percentage of on-time delivery for buses and of students paying for lunch) and were able to link their improvement strategies to the district improvement plan.

An additional tool to support the balanced scorecard was our formative process for strategically reviewing performance. We instituted quarterly strategic performance reviews, based on the school, department and district’s balanced scorecards and the connecting improvement plans. These discussions provided sustained focus on improvement progress and needs while providing time for midcourse adjustments.

The performance reviews helped by connecting the dots between different school activities and their relationship to the district’s strategic direction. In fact, performance reviews often led to the recognition that an action was not aligned to the strategic direction.

One of the best examples of this misalignment came when schools realized that their professional learning plans were not aligned with the district’s plan. Because of this, we were able to introduce consistent and pervasive professional learning initiatives that fostered a common vocabulary and sense of purpose.

This systemic approach reduced the time, energy and effort needed by school and district leaders to align performance improvement approaches at all levels. Stakeholders now saw the seamless system connecting all aspects of performance: planning, measuring, monitoring, managing and communication.

Consistent Application
The balanced scorecard helped principals and district leaders monitor and report progress using data while providing the board with a way to interact with the schools and support the superintendent in setting clear expectations. Clear expectations, monitoring and follow-up yielded results. All but one school in the district had been labeled in need of improvement under No Child Left Behind at one time or another during the last 10 years.

Currently, the district is one of only 15 districts in Georgia to have 100 percent of its schools make adequate yearly progress for each of the past four years. Two of the schools are listed as Title I Schools of Distinction and one is a Title I National School of Distinction. The school system has garnered numerous accolades for gains in overall student achievement and for leading the state in closing the achievement gaps involving students with disabilities.

As I reflect on my tenure as superintendent of Monroe County Schools, I believe, without a doubt, the marked improvement in student performance was due largely to the consistent and pervasive application of the balanced scorecard and our focus on a systemic approach. Improvement was supported and sustained by a critical mass of stakeholders who had accurate knowledge of past and present performance and who accepted responsibility for helping the district achieve its desired results.

Through our use of the balanced scorecard, in conjunction with aligned and nested improvement plans, visual reporting, and annual reports to our board of education, I finally was able to let our data tell the Monroe County success story to all stakeholders. Our team had the tools to drive school improvement.

Scott Cowart is a senior performance consultant with the Georgia Leadership Institute for School Improvement in Atlanta, Ga. E-mail: scott.cowart@glisi.org. Maggie Glennon, a consultant with GLISI, assisted in preparing this article.