Systems Thinking

A Balanced Scorecard To Plot Our Progress

by Roy D. Nichols Jr.

Mobile County has the largest public school system in Alabama, and it leads the state in closing the achievement gap between minority and nonminority students. The school system’s demographic data point to a county that has wealth but also large pockets of poverty. Two-thirds of the students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches. Fifty percent of the student body is African American, and 5 percent represent other ethnic groups speaking about 50 different languages.

RoyNicholsRoy D. Nichols Jr.

Still, 90 percent of Mobile County’s schools meet or exceed adequate yearly progress standards. The school system’s educators have justly earned state and national recognition for this accomplishment.

Sustaining Momentum
The system’s challenge is to figure out how to keep the momentum going in an environment of decreasing revenue and increasing expectations from our stakeholders. Mobile County is one of the few places where the industrial base is continuing to grow. The business community is demanding a more talented and dependable pool of workers to fill the jobs that new industry is bringing to the area.

The Mobile County school system has agreed to accept its responsibility in this regional effort by contributing a new crop of capable young graduates each year.

A daunting task faces the school system’s senior staff. All future goals must include moving elementary and middle schools to a level where each becomes truly exceptional and then addressing the issues common to most high schools: Too many students are dropping out and not enough students are challenging themselves academically.

We’ve constructed a comprehensive strategy for addressing the challenges. We started out by re-examining our system’s mission. In June 2008, the board of school commissioners adopted a new mission statement: “The mission of the Mobile County Public School System is to graduate citizens who are literate, responsible and committed to learning over a lifetime.”

We also developed a vision statement for the future and concomitant value statements. A committee of more than 200 employees and citizens, with participation by board members, devised a three-year strategic plan for the school system. Last August, the board officially endorsed the resulting plan.

A Borrowed Concept
Senior administrators have been using a sophisticated school improvement planning process to help achieve the gains made. We enhanced this process last fall by incorporating a new instrument and philosophy. A balanced scorecard was added to the mix.

We borrowed the concept of a balanced scorecard, a means of linking an organization’s current actions to its long-term goals, from David Norton and Robert Kaplan, two business management scholars who first wrote about it in their 1992 Harvard Business Review article “The Balanced Scorecard: Measures That Drive Performance.”

The instrument contains a group of measures that clearly flow from the mission statement and aligns with the goals in the strategic plan. Those measures generally are agreed to be indicators of progress for the most important processes in the school system that affect student learning. Naturally, they include summative meas-ures like student end-of-year test results, but they also include formative information such as quarterly benchmark test outcomes, stakeholder perceptions, employee attendance, student dropout rates, time spent on buses, and turnaround time for work orders.

The purpose of the scorecard is to create alignment of efforts and to intensify the organization’s focus on the most important improvement goals. The scorecard instrument serves as a communication tool that informs everyone about these measures and keeps people focused on those processes most likely to move the system closer to its goals.

The process that’s associated with the scorecard requires regular meetings to assess progress, regain focus and facilitate communication among members of the leadership team. Every week the senior staff and I discuss specific metrics and our strategies for moving the measures in a favorable direction. Such meetings keep dragging us back from the distractions of the day to those things that are most important for making systemwide progress. Principals and their site-based leadership teams also are expected to hold regular meetings on their scorecard metrics.

The balanced scorecard also serves as a management tool since each central-office division and each school is required to develop goals and strategies aligned with system targets and the balanced scorecard serves as the centerpiece for supervisory discussions about school or departmental progress.

A New Attitude
In Mobile County, the introduction of the scorecard requires us to publicly acknowledge our current performance on each measure. This transparency is matched with a new attitude about the cause of most system problems and a new strategy for solving such problems.

Most problems are due to process flaws rather than people problems. This doesn’t mean we no longer experience disappointing personnel situations. It simply means we realize it would be nearly impossible to fill every position in the system with a truly extraordinary individual. Therefore, we must implement processes that will permit ordinary people to perform extraordinarily well.

The work has just begun and probably never will be complete, but I believe the comprehensive improvement process we have implemented holds great promise for yielding the results that we expect and the community needs.

Roy Nichols is superintendent of the Mobile County Public Schools in Mobile, Ala. E-mail: