In 2007, a group of examiners visited Pewaukee School District, the Wisconsin district that JoAnn Sternke oversees. They closely watched the goings on, took notes, and then left the superintendent with a list of things to work on.
Under Sternke’s supervision, Pewaukee School District has been in a state of transition. The district has implemented skills-based report cards for high schoolers, along with mastery and district-wide technology initiatives, and teachers are working on new forms of assessments based on 21st century skills. And Sternke has advocated for even bigger changes. In a recent essay for ASQ, she called for schools to move toward more personalized, tech-driven learning models.
So why the examiners? In the midst of that change, Sternke has brought in one of the nation’s toughest quality control programs. The examiners were from the Baldridge Program, a public-private partnership created by Congress in 1987 and managed by the National Institute on Standards and Technology. It has made crafting high functioning institutions its primary mission. Its examiners evaluate companies in a variety of sectors, offering resources to overhaul their systems.
Though it has introduced an altogether new set of changes for the district, Sternke says that process has been key to the district’s innovative approach and to the success of its programs, thanks to increased efficiency in district offices and an all-in approach to decision making.
For districts looking to implement major changes, Sternke said the Baldridge criteria resulted in a slower but more methodical approach to new strategies.
“What we do in education too much is the implementation trap,” Sternke said. “We do, do, do, do. We do so much, we never listen and reflect.”
That’s no longer Pewaukee’s approach. Take, for example, the district’s teacher compensation overhaul in 2011. It was a touchy time for teachers in Wisconsin with the recent passaged of Gov. Scott Walker’s Act 10, which gutted much of the state’s labor laws.
“It changed the education landscape in a way [teachers] felt they had no control over,” said Sternke.
In the case of the compensation system, Sternke and district administrators spent months sitting in meetings listening to teachers talk about how they wanted to be paid.
The result, Sternke said, was a sense for teachers that they were still valued within the borders of her district and a compensation system built around collaboration, leadership, and teacher-led innovation. “The bigger part of my job is holding an umbrella up over our teachers to protect them so they can do the great work they are able to do in their classroom, amidst an environment that’s incredibly destabilizing,” she said.
While Pewaukee’s case is particularly extreme, similar and even more moderate compensation overhauls elsewhere have led to strikes, protests, and turnover. For administrators looking to make big changes, Sternke says it’s worthwhile considering quality systems like Baldridge’s to make sure the overhauls happen well. She points to the program’s “plan, do, study, act approach” as a way to make sure that districts evaluate and learn from programs they’ve already implemented, as well as to engage and talk to everyone who would be affected.
For systems making big innovative shifts, Sternke said a quality system can hold administrators accountable for making sure everyone’s on board. “Our job as leaders is increasingly to connect the dots for people, and a systems approach lets you do that,” she says. Her position, in particular, has shifted towards examining all the district’s systems, understanding how they fit together, and streamlining the work down outside of classrooms.
Since the first visit in 2007, Sternke has had Baldridge’s examiners return to the district five times. “Each time, they’ve given us nuggets to chew on how to get better as an organizations,” she says.
Some of the shifts Pewaukee has made as a result have been very concrete: For example, the district’s human resources department now makes sure that every new teacher hire is observed in a classroom, before they’re hired.
But much of the work for administrators has been about the way they think about their work. Stern says other districts making similar shifts should make sure they always know why they’re making a change, to communicate clearly and often with staff, and to look outside of the education sector for new ways to do things, from data to management.
Would you like to see more education news like this in your inbox on a daily basis? Subscribe to our Education Dive email newsletter! You may also want to read Education Dive's look at 3 tips for training teachers in innovation.