S2 E30: Why School Boards Fail & How Yours Can Be Effective with A.J. Crabill

April 10, 2023 Olivia Wahl Season 2 Episode 30
S2 E30: Why School Boards Fail & How Yours Can Be Effective with A.J. Crabill
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S2 E30: Why School Boards Fail & How Yours Can Be Effective with A.J. Crabill
Apr 10, 2023 Season 2 Episode 30
Olivia Wahl

A.J. Crabill lives by his mantra: "Student outcomes don't change until adult behaviors change." In this episode, A.J. explains why changing adult behaviors (especially regarding school boards) requires new mindsets, knowledge, and skills. His latest book, Great on Their Behalf: Why School Boards Fail, How Yours Can Be Effective, provides a step-by-step guide to transforming student outcomes through the transformation of adult mindsets, knowledge, and skills -- starting with our own.

Episode Mentions:

A.J.'s Recommendations:

Get in touch and learn with A.J.:

Get solutions from Schoolutions!
#solutionsfromschoolutions #schoolutionsinspires #schoolutionspodcast

Show Notes Transcript

A.J. Crabill lives by his mantra: "Student outcomes don't change until adult behaviors change." In this episode, A.J. explains why changing adult behaviors (especially regarding school boards) requires new mindsets, knowledge, and skills. His latest book, Great on Their Behalf: Why School Boards Fail, How Yours Can Be Effective, provides a step-by-step guide to transforming student outcomes through the transformation of adult mindsets, knowledge, and skills -- starting with our own.

Episode Mentions:

A.J.'s Recommendations:

Get in touch and learn with A.J.:

Get solutions from Schoolutions!
#solutionsfromschoolutions #schoolutionsinspires #schoolutionspodcast

Schoolutions - S2 E30: Why School Boards Fail & How Yours Can Be Effective with A.J. Crabill

[00:00:00] Olivia: I am Olivia Wahl, and I am honored to welcome my guest today, A.J. Crabill.  Improving student outcomes is A.J.'s focus. He serves as Conservator at DeSoto, Texas Independent School District. During his guidance, DeSoto improved from “F” ratings in academics, finance, and governance to “B” ratings. A.J. is also on Faculty at Leadership Institute of Nevada and Director of Governance at the Council of the Great City Schools.

[00:00:42] Olivia: He served as Deputy Commissioner at the Texas Education Agency and spearheaded reforms as board chair of Kansas City (MO) Public Schools, that doubled the percentage of students who are literate and numerate. Crabill is a recipient of the Education Commission of the State's James Bryant Conant Award.

[00:01:03] Olivia: Our conversation today will focus on A.J.'s journey and his newly released book. Great on Their Behalf: Why School Boards Fail, How Yours Can Become Effective (sample).  Welcome, A.J. I am so happy to have you as a guest. 

[00:01:18] A.J.: Thank you for having me, Olivia.

[00:01:19] Olivia: Absolutely. I love to kick off every episode by asking guests who an inspiring educator is from their life.

[00:01:27] Olivia: Would you share with listeners? 

[00:01:29] A.J.: Well, uh, I'm gonna cheat a little bit cuz I've got two. 

[00:01:33] A.J.: Uh, the first one I wanna mention is Pamela Dawson. She is our choir director at DeSoto High School, and she just won a Grammy. 

[00:01:43] Olivia: Get out! That's magnificent! Oh, yay. 

[00:01:46] A.J.: Yeah.  It’s next-level stuff. I mean, it's, it's absolutely amazing. 

[00:01:49] Olivia: That's fabulous.

[00:01:50] A.J.: Um, and so we are ridiculously proud. Uh, she has poured so much into our students of the district and, um, deserves all the praise and all the accolades that she's been receiving as of late.

[00:02:01] A.J.: You know, these flowers are long overdue. She's earned every single one of 'em.  And so, definitely a big up to Mama Dawson and the great work she does with our high schoolers. 

[00:02:12] Olivia: Fabulous. 

[00:02:13] A.J.: Yeah. Yeah, that's, that's pretty awesome. Um, yeah, it just happened, and, you know, we're still all a buzz about it.

[00:02:20] Olivia: Of course. 

[00:02:20] A.J.: On a more personal note, one of the teachers who really stepped in and, in a lot of ways, saved me for myself, was my senior year. And Ms. Murphy, who was the, uh, economics teacher, and she, uh, pulled me into junior achievement program. And, and in her class, I had an opportunity to just really flex my entrepreneurship muscles.

[00:02:52] A.J.: And the company that I started as part of that program wound up winning the regional competition. Uh, we just made money hand over fist, but it was at the exact same time that I was experiencing homelessness and challenged with a few other issues. And so, there were also teachers in the exact same building who, um, were not willing to push through, uh, all of the drama and all the headaches and problems that I caused in their class to figure out how to reach me.

[00:03:31] A.J.: Um, but she did, and it made all the difference in my life. Uh, a few months ago, I happened to be in the city she lives in and had an opportunity to sit down with her for the first time since high school. 

[00:03:46] A.J.: And I. Uh, didn't assume that she would know who I am because I'm sure she had hundreds and hundreds of students.

[00:03:56] A.J.: She's like, oh no, I know exactly who you are. I followed your entire career. I followed you when you were in Kansas City. I followed you when you went to Texas.

[00:04:02] Olivia: Come on!

[00:04:03] A.J.: And I've just been so proud of what you've done. And. What you've made of your life. And I know that there were struggles and that there were administrators who seemed like they were out to get you. But there were some of us teachers who we had your back. And, and I was just like, she was telling me stories of stuff that was happening behind the scenes that I had never had any clue of. Of ways that she and some of the other teachers were conspiring to keep me at school and conspiring to protect me from other administrative forces.

[00:04:35] Olivia: Wow!

[00:04:35] A.J.: …who saw that the best solution was probably just to get rid of me entirely. Um, it was just this amazing. And so I was, yeah, it was just a reminder of. This is what teachers do like, and so much of it is unsung. So much of it is stories untold behind the scenes work to not only be great instructionally in their classrooms but just to be amazing humans that are fighting for what's possible for children, even when the kids don't know it or appreciate it.

[00:05:00] A.J.: And so, you know, my heart, my gratitude, goes out to not only Mama Dawson this morning but also, uh, uh, Ms. Murphy.

[00:05:07] Olivia: It's amazing, and I was actually working with teachers yesterday, and we were having a conversation around altruism and what it means to be a helper.  And we talked about there's something innate when it comes to educators that you get outta bed in the morning, and you're like, you know, I'm, I'm gonna get that student.

[00:05:29] Olivia: I've gotta scoop that, that kid up. What is the mask they're wearing? What's going on behind the scenes?

[00:05:35] A.J.: Yes, yes.

[00:05:36] Olivia: I love that notion of, you know, teachers conspiring in amazing ways. Um, to make sure that we're engaging every student. And the reason I am honored to have you as a guest. Your book is phenomenal.

[00:05:51] Olivia: It was just released. And it's a really interesting slant that I've never had the conversation around school boards. And I know school boards have insane amounts of power when it comes to decision-making, and I don't think as many people out there in the world understand the power that school boards have.

[00:06:14] Olivia: So, I want to read a quote directly from your book to kick us off as the issue. But then the solutions and processes you have for readers to gain access to the journey that you've been on it's just incredible. So here we go. 

[00:06:33] Olivia: These are your words, “When school boards center adult wants, and adult preferences above all else, children suffer. When school boards refuse to make the hard choices that improvements in student outcomes require, children don't experience educational justice.”

[00:06:51] Olivia: Period. That's it. We have to shift, right? 

[00:06:55] Olivia: And then here's your solution. “The moral is that public education is vital. Our nation will not long survive if our public school systems are not supported and uplifted on behalf of our nation's children. In service of that, education leaders must be prepared to engage in whatever adult behavior change is necessary to improve student outcomes. Even if it's difficult or unpopular. My stance is that student outcomes don't change until adult behaviors change. And that suggests that adult behavior change is a powerful lever for improving student outcomes.” 

[00:07:34] Olivia: Yes, indeed! A.J., thank you for that. So, let's kick off our conversation. Um, I do think it's critical that listeners understand your journey and what's inspired you to focus on your time in public school governance and changing adult behaviors. 

[00:07:54] A.J.: Part of it was, what I shared is that I've had the blessing of being supported and protected by just amazing educators throughout my life. And that benefit is what gives me the opportunity to have the story that I have today and to be able to turn around and be a part of public education in the way that I get to be a part today.

[00:08:19] A.J.: And so that, that certainly is a foundational inspiration. Some of it comes from the students that I've worked with. Uh, students who have certainly inspired me to continue to push through and persevere when their little A.J.-like behavior might have suggested otherwise. [ reel 1] But that who through continuing to engage with them, I've had the privilege of seeing what all they can do and what they are capable of.

[00:08:48] A.J.: Once you push through some of that resistance and the types of frustrations that I experienced as an angry teenager. And so, both the experience of having been served by amazing teachers and the just unending stories, uh, I have of students who I've had the privilege of working with who’ve just gone on to live choice-filled lives that are an inspiration to themselves and to all of us who have the opportunity to watch them.

[00:09:19] A.J.: That’s, that's what, you know, keeps me fired up in the work. And even today, the groups of students that I still work with, uh, now on student-led restorative practices, the getting to like, while I certainly enjoy working with school boards and lovely humans that they are, the fire comes honestly, so much more so from getting to spend time with students and helping support them as they are stepping into a more powerful and more agent-full role in their own schools.

[00:09:54] A.J.: And so, it's those things that kind of keep me going.

[00:09:57] Olivia: Yeah.

[00:09:57] Olivia: I couldn't agree more. One of my favorite interviews I've done was in season one. I interviewed the Ithaca student board reps that attend every board meeting.  And, I was so filled with hope and a sense of agency to make sure as an adult, I am supporting these students to have their voices heard, and they made so many changes in a short amount of time.

[00:10:23] Olivia: What fascinated me is your concept around three key levers that can help and inspire change in adult behavior. I think that the parallel practice is vital, that conversation - but I would love for listeners to learn more about those three key levers and how they can inspire change. 

[00:10:42] A.J.: Yeah, this idea that student outcomes don't change until adult behaviors change is worthy of a more fulsome theory around how do you inspire adult behavior change. And so, as my team and I have interrogated this issue, what we've arrived at is that there are these three key drivers. Uh, the first one is knowledge.

[00:11:01] A.J.: There is; I know more. I can do more. That knowledge allows me to change my adult behaviors because I have an understanding of things that I didn't before. The next one is skill; whereas knowledge is about what I know, skill’s about how do I use what I know. How can I deploy my knowledge in novel and intentional ways in the face of whatever my current circumstances are?

[00:11:23] A.J.: That skill is a driver of adult behavior change. But as powerful as knowledge and skill are, by far, our focus is on the third lever. The lever that we say is the longest lever for moving, for inspiring changes in adult behavior. Uh, and that lever is mindset. It's how the world occurs for me, how I view things that are taking place around me.

[00:11:47] A.J.: If, as a board member, my view of the world is that when we have more resources, then we'll be able to educate children. That gives rise to one set of behaviors. Inside of this belief that we can't educate more children until we have more resources. Then what there is to do is wait around for the state legislature to make things right, or to pass a next bond or whatever. And, and educational justice will occur contingent upon this externality that, honestly, I have relatively little control over. And, and that's a mindset that, that's a way of viewing the world. It's a way of interpreting and making sense of the things around us.

[00:12:23] A.J.: But there is an alternative mindset in each moment. Um, and maybe as a board member, instead, I adopt the mindset that, that I am the genesis of transformation. That if there's gonna be something powerful that emerges for students, that it will emerge from me changing my adult behavior. That I don't have to wait for us to get the right resource allocation from the state.

[00:12:40] A.J.: That I don't have to wait for us to have the right superintendent, the right board member, the right teachers. I don't have to wait for the right parents, and well, when we get the right students, then we'll be able to really make something happen in the school system, you know? But the reality hasn't changed in that moment.

[00:12:59] A.J.:  The circumstances that are unfolding around me are no different from one moment to the next. The only thing that's changed is how I see them, how they occur for me. And inside of that occurring gives rise to the behaviors, uh, that, that flow from it. That what we're suggesting is that inside of an empowering mindset, no matter how big the issues are, that we constantly are challenged to look for a way to overcome them on behalf of the students we serve.

[00:13:16] A.J.: Inside of a disempowering mindset, it doesn't matter how small the issues are; we will find a way to have those be an excuse for why our children are not getting the things that they deserve. And so, this is the power that mindset has. This is the extent to which it's absolutely decisive in shifts in adult behavior. 

[00:13:46] A.J.: If we can reach board members at a level of mindset and really inspire a mindset that aspires to be student-outcomes focused rather than adult-inputs focused, that shift in mindset alone, as tends in our experience, tends to be more powerful than all of the knowledge and skills about effective governance practices that we have to offer. That inside of an empowering mindset, those knowledge and skills about effective governance practices get put to transformative use. 

[00:14:08] A.J.: Inside of a disempowering mindset, even with all of the additional knowledge and skills, there's always an excuse for why we don't deploy them yet.

[00:14:25] Olivia: And so, I think often of teachers that I have the gift of working with and the idea of being able to take risks safely, and it's really hard when you're a teacher to feel like you're always fighting or advocating for yourself, and that's why it is critical that boards start to shift and get in school buildings, get in classrooms, see the phenomenal work.

[00:14:55] Olivia: Way too many decisions are made based on assumptions of what is or what is not. And we need to be on the ground. We need to talk to students talk to caregivers in the community around needs and around compliance versus proficiency.

[00:15:14] Olivia: You know, compliance is easy. I hate to say it, but it's, you know, everyone following the rules, but who are these rules serving? Right? And what does it mean to have a proficient system? 

[00:15:28] Olivia: So, I wanna have you define the idea between professional and effective school board behavior and why it matters. Let’s go there!

[00:15:40] A.J.: It's this challenge in that often when my phone rings, it's because people are experiencing unprofessional school board behavior. You know, why are people yelling at each other? Why are people throwing things at each other? Why are they having people dragged out of school board meetings?

[00:15:53] Olivia: Yeah. 

[00:15:53] A.J.: You know, why are people cussing each other out of the dais and all of these fairly wild disruptive behaviors? That's often what makes my phone ring the most. 

[00:16:03] Olivia: Mm-hmm. 

[00:16:04] A.J.: That's not what I care about the most, though. I'm not particularly bothered by unprofessional behavior in the boardroom. It's not optimal. It's not in service of children, but that's not actually what's destroying what's possible for children in the boardroom nearly as much as the ineffective behavior is.

[00:16:23] A.J.: And so, these are two different continuums. On one continuum, you have ineffective to effective behavior. On the other, you have unprofessional to professional behavior. Professional behavior really only speaks to are we behaving a way that allows us to conduct the business of the institution. So, are we having votes?

[00:16:40] A.J.: Are we having debate on issues, uh, that people raise their hand? Yes, there are four ayes. The ayes have it. It passes. Um, okay, well, what is the next item on the agenda? This is what I refer to as professional behavior. And professional behavior is useful that it allows us to conduct the business of the organization.

[00:16:59] A.J.: But professionalism does not confer effectiveness. The school systems exist for one reason and one reason only. That's to improve student outcomes, and so anything that is moving us in the direction of why the school system exists, anything that's moving us in the direction of improving student outcomes.

[00:17:15] A.J.: I describe that as effective behavior. Anything that's moving us away from a focus on improving student outcomes, I would describe as ineffective behavior. So, you could be very professional and very ineffective simultaneously.

[00:17:27] Olivia: Yes!

[00:17:27] A.J.: Or, or as I frequently describe, professionally, ineffective boards. And unfortunately, this is a lot of school boards across the Nation that are doing the right things from a professional perspective but aren't actually focused on student outcomes are entirely focused on adult inputs. And so there's this constant discussion about all the buses and the books and the bagels and, uh, all of these other things that are necessary, but that aren't the reasons school systems exist. [reel 2] And so that's the distinction that I draw is that the thing that I'm most concerned about is are school boards being effective.

[00:18:04] A.J.: And, and to be honest, I'd rather have an unprofessional-effective board than a professional-ineffective board. Now, obviously, what we'd all like is a professionally-effective board. But if I had to choose, I would take people yelling at each other about whether or not children are learning rather than politely talking about what color we should paint the fence post to around the middle school.

[00:18:29] Olivia: I'm with you. I'm with you. I'm with you. And that's where that notion of compliance. That notion of professionalism, it gets us nowhere if it's not meeting every single student's needs.  

[00:18:42] A.J.: But, but it’s so safe. But it, it is so very safe. That I'm not taking risks, that I'm not gonna be criticized. I'm probably not gonna piss anybody off. And, so there's a safety in it. Well, part of what the challenge is and the workshops that we lead, uh, my team and I, is that we invite people to reflect on what's, what's the benefit?

[00:19:00] A.J.: And in the moment that I've chosen this behavior that may have made it harder for students to be successful, what was the benefit to me in that moment? This is a challenging conversation, but a necessary one for board members to really get clear about what is happening underneath the behaviors that I'm exhibiting, the behaviors I'm seeing around the school board dais.

[00:19:19] A.J.: And only as we unearth those and really confront them, and see them for what they are, uh, human behavior, humans just out here being human, uh, behaving in protective ways, but ways that may unintentionally be making it harder for students to be successful. Only in being clear and direct in our conversation about ineffective behavior.

[00:19:39] A.J.: Can we then, uh, free school board members up to really pursue their passion, which is to see great things happen for children? And this is what school board members want. People don't run for the school board because they hope children don't learn how to read. Um, it's just that most of them are like me. We get on the school board; we have absolutely no idea what we're doing.

[00:19:57] A.J.: We have to learn it in process. There are better ways than that. But unfortunately, so many of us get on our school board for the first time, and like I said, just like me, are completely, uh, unclear about what it would look like to be effective. It's on my heart. I want to, I want great things for children, but all I know how to bring to the table is professionalism.

[00:20:19] A.J.: I don't yet know how to bring to the table effectiveness, and so I work really hard, but it’s being professionally-ineffective, and it's not transformative for children.

[00:20:29] Olivia: And so, here's the thing. We are not able to clone you, unfortunately, and I know you have a team. I know you support different school districts, but I think my favorite thing about your book is you offer an explicit five-step process for engaging in not just a one-and-done but a continuous improvement process.

[00:20:54] Olivia: We know this work will never go anywhere if it's reliant on A.J. if it's reliant on one person, right?

[00:21:01] Olivia: It's got to be sustainable. Effective organizations are because we build capacity and collective efficacy. Okay? So, talk to us; what is the five-step process that you have developed based on going from; I've joined a board, I've got no clue what it's about, but I wanna do right by kids to where you are now. 

[00:21:24] A.J.: Yeah, and I appreciate your focus and your narrowing it on that reality; is that what we want for our children is really gonna be contingent on have we built systems where greatness for children is a natural effect of it. Like if, the only way the system works is if we have Superman in it, then we've got problems - or, or more accurately, our children have problems. And even more specific than that, our most academically vulnerable children have problems. Because anytime school systems are conducting themselves in a suboptimal way, we immediately branch children in two directions.

[00:21:58] A.J.: The children who have other protective measures in place and other privileges in place that will allow them to still get the benefits of education they need. And then all the little A.J.s of the world who, if we don't have public education working effectively, that this may be the last safety net. And if this one fails, that there may not be a recovery.

[00:22:20] A.J.: So, I say that just to heighten the point that you make, that the stakes in this thing are, are actually quite serious. 

[00:22:27] Olivia: Yeah.

[00:22:27] A.J.: That it's, it's not just, are we doing things that are good things to do? It's, are we creating a system that protects children day in, day out by intention, not by accident, and not by good fortune?

[00:22:42] A.J.: And so, to get there, it's in the same way that you need continuous improvement practices in the classroom. You need continuous improvement practices in the boardroom. Uh, in, in the book, you know, based on years of just trial and error and a whole lot of research, our team's identified five key steps in that continuous improvement process.

[00:23:02] A.J.: That is, boards move in this direction, that we actually have evidence to suggest that will help them create the context for rapid improvements in student outcomes. And I visit some of the data about the improvements that school boards can make in the book. The first of the five steps is one we've really already talked about, which is a focused mindset. As long as the board's mindset is focused around adult inputs rather than focused around student outcomes, there is no victory for children.

[00:23:37] A.J.: And if we spend all of our time talking about did we get the budget right, but we never talk about, did little Olivia learn. We're failing children. If we spend all of our time talking about, did we get the buses right, the books right, uh, did we hire the right person? Did we contract with my cousin or not?

[00:23:45] A.J.: As long as those are the conversations, you know, little A.J. is not as likely to get the education he deserves as if we actually focused on whether or not he's getting the things that he deserves educationally. The first step is always a transformation internally before we do anything externally in the world around us.

[00:24:03] A.J.: It's, are we having a focused mindset? Uh, the second step, once my mindset is focused around student outcomes, my intentions, and our collective intentions have to be focused around that as well. And so the second step is clarifying the priorities. If we are not crystal clear about what exactly winning for children looks like in our school system, then we're unlikely to generate winning for children in our school system.

[00:24:26] Olivia: Yes.

[00:24:26] A.J.: Unfortunately, this is the way we find a lot of school boards. Is, they have adopted no goals. They've made no declaration about this is what our children deserve. And then we're surprised at the end of the year when significant chunks of our students haven't actually met a defined threshold cuz we haven't defined it.

[00:24:42] A.J.: You know, and in that moment, we're left with everybody determining whether victory has been accomplished for children based on their opinion about things, rather than having some way of actually measuring did we get results for children? The second step has to be, you know, identifying these priorities.

[00:25:01] Olivia: So, can you give an example? I’m gonna pause you at step two. What are some examples of priorities that school districts have set? 

[00:25:08] A.J.: Yeah, well, so it's important to know that they come in two different flavors cuz the job of the board is to represent the vision and the values of the community. That that is the sole job of the school board. That is, the job of the school board isn't to show up and tell teachers how to teach in the classroom.

[00:25:20] A.J.: The job of the school board isn't to show up at central office and tell HR who to hire and who to fire. The job of the board is to represent the vision and the values of the community, but these are two different things. The vision of the community is always about what do we want our students to know and be able to do.

[00:25:35] A.J.: The values of the community are around what are the non-negotiables that have to be honored because they're a reflection of what is vital to this particular community. And so, the board has to listen for the vision of the community, and then it codifies those on what we refer to as goals.  These are SMART statements, specific, measurable, attainable, results, focused time-bound.

[00:25:55] A.J.: These are SMART statements that describe what we expect students to know and be able to do over the next three to five years. So, the board listens for the vision of the community and then codifies it into a set of goals. The board listens to the values of the community, what are the non-negotiables that have to be honored, and then codifies those in what we refer to as guardrails. 

[00:26:14] A.J.: Uh, that these are the things that must happen. These cannot be violated because they're violation would be so harmful to the sense of things that the community values. The way that I most commonly describe this is I was leaving my office one day to go to the airport, and uh, so I called a ride share. And so the ride share shows up, um, and I hop in back, and I happen to know that on this particular day, the most obvious path to the airport has been shut down for construction.


[00:26:43] A.J.: So I lean up to the driver and say, don't take I-35. Now in that moment, I have given the driver my vision, my goal, which is get me to the airport. And I've given my driver my values, my guardrail, which is don't take I-35. Now, this is critical because at this point, they're 4, 5, 6 other routes that one could take to get to the airport from my office.

[00:27:12] A.J.: But at that point, Olivia, whose job is it to choose which of those routes?

[00:27:15] Olivia: Right…the driver. 

[00:27:18] A.J.: Yeah, it's a driver's job. It's not my job. 

[00:27:19] Olivia: Nope. 

[00:27:19] A.J.: It's a driver's job. Um, and at some point, we're gonna have to slow down and speed up or take a left and turn a right. And whose job is it to make those decisions? 

[00:27:23] Olivia: It's the driver’s.

[00:27:28] A.J.: It's a driver's job. The, the reason, this is a critical distinction, that the board gets clear about the priorities, the vision, and values of the community, and then they hand it off to the driver, the superintendent, the principal, the teachers, the staff of the district.

[00:27:40] A.J.: The reason this is a critical distinction about leadership at the board level is because, organizationally, no one in the organization is further away from direct interaction with the children that the district serves than the school board. 

[00:28:01] Olivia: Yep. 

[00:28:01] A.J.: It's not possible to be further away organizationally, hierarchically. It's not possible to be further away from the classroom than the boardroom. And so, by doing it this way, by saying, here's the community's vision and here's the community's values, but then we delegate to our professional educators the job of making critical on-the-ground decisions. What we're saying is we are pushing authority away from being held by the board to being held by professional educators. 

[00:28:22] A.J.: Because the core belief that we hold is that as much as possible, we wanna see decisions made as close to the student as possible. And that our belief is that if we've created a system that has clarity around what the vision is, we've got goals in place. We've created a system that has clarity about what the values are; we’ve got guardrails in place. That inside of that framework that students will be better served, the more authority is pushed down to the people who are closer and closer and closer to them to be responsive to the unique challenges that children face.

[00:28:55] A.J.: This is why the board has to set goals and guardrails as part of its job of clarifying the priorities.

[00:29:01] Olivia: Well, and you're using the word pushing authority down. I'm going to change to autonomy. Right? 

[00:29:08] A.J.: Yeah.


[00:29:08] Olivia: The board is saying we trust that the people closest to our children can make decisions and follow through with the plan. Um, that…right - the vision and the values. And, so that's… 

[00:29:23] A.J.: And including our students!

[00:29:25] Olivia: Absolutely! They’re vital. Yeah.

[00:29:27] A.J.: That that autonomy is pushed as close to the student as possible, and it's not possible for it to get any closer to the student than the student actually having the autonomy held to their own heads. 

[00:29:35] Olivia: Indeed, indeed. 

[00:29:37] A.J.: This is a different vision for governing.

[00:29:39] Olivia: Yeah.

[00:29:39] A.J.: Um, it's important to note that the classical view of school board governance is we will make all of the decisions, and if anybody anywhere in the school system has an idea, come to us, and we'll tell you whether or not you can do it. This idea of having goals and guardrails in place is we're giving you a framework for decision making, and we're gonna trust that you have the wisdom to make those decisions on behalf of students and with students.

[00:30:04] A.J.: Uh, but that is a very different view of governing. And so this is a radical shift away from the status quo of governance that would hold all of the authority and pass on really none of the autonomy. And that is a way of governing; it’s just not a way of governing that we believe is intentionally focused on improving student outcomes.

[00:30:26] Olivia: Right. And so, let's shift to step three, monitoring progress. Talk to listeners. What do you mean by that?

[00:30:32] A.J.: Well, it's not enough to set some goals and guardrails and then set 'em on the shelf and hope that it all works out. 

[00:30:38] Olivia: Yeah. Yep. 

[00:30:41] A.J.: Uh, no. You know, if the things that we want, we have to pay attention to. Um, and this is true in any area of life. If there's things that we want to have happen, then we invest some more of our time, talent, treasure; some more of our personal energy into those things.

[00:30:58] A.J.: And this is the same thing for the school board. That whatever the school board focuses its energy on, that is more likely to happen. So, if the school board focuses all of its energy on, uh, did we, you know, get the colors on the football field, right? Well, then, guess what? We're probably gonna have great colors on the football field.

[00:31:14] A.J.: I won't be able to tell you if Olivia can read. Uh, but, but we will indeed have great colors, you know, on the football field. What the board focuses on matters. And so, the invitation that we make to school boards: if you wanna be intentionally focused on improving student outcomes, the next step in the process...

[00:31:30] A.J.: First, you have a focus mindset, then you clarify the priorities. And the third is you monitor progress. Is that you spend 50% of your time in board meetings every single month, monitoring progress and having a, essentially a governance level PLC. Uh, where we're looking at what have our children learned?

[00:31:48] A.J.: How do we know if they've learned or not? What's our response to whether or not they've learned it, and what have we learned about what has worked and hasn't worked for their learning, and how are we pivoting in response to the things that we've learned? This is the monitoring conversation. And our coaching is that boards should spend 50% of their minutes every month without fail, monitoring progress relative to the goals they've set for student outcomes.

[00:32:11] A.J.: And so, if the board is meeting for two hours a month, we'd say, great. Is at least one hour of that being focused on monitoring progress? If the board's meeting five hours a month, great. Are you spitting at least two and a half hours? For the boards out there who are spitting 20 hours about the board meetings?

[00:32:27] A.J.: God bless you. Um, but if that's what you're gonna do, are you spending at least 10 hours a month dialed into are children learning? Cuz the problem is whatever the board spends the bulk of its time on, they're signaling to the rest of the organization this is what matters most. And so go spend your time on, you know, get the budgets right, uh, get the books right, get the fences right, uh, you know, repair the buildings, have the right color paint, have the right food on the right day.

[00:32:54] A.J.: Get all the buses perfect, do all of these things. And that's success for children. Like that is the message that boards send when those are the issues that when the board focuses on the adult inputs. And it's not to suggest that the adult inputs aren't perfect or aren't important. Notice I said the boards just spend half of its time monitoring progress.

[00:32:59] A.J.: Like the board is gonna have to deal with other things. But what we witnessed most often is we code board meetings across the country. The boards are spending 95 to 99% of their time on the adult inputs and never really getting around to monitoring progress relative to the student outcomes.

[00:33:31] Olivia: Something I wanna just put out there in the universe is a conversation I was having yesterday with high school teachers. In New York State, we have the Regents Exam; at this point, it's handcuffing teachers. Preventing teachers from doing the work that they know is best for students because they have to fear is the potato famine going to be mentioned, and do I need to spend two days on that instead of going in-depth with enduring understandings in the way I want to? And really focusing on a particular topic that the students are captivated or interested in.

[00:34:06] Olivia: So I think we have to be careful when we're talking about monitoring progress. You know, what research, what data is the district looking at, or is the board looking at that will truly inform us as to whether students are growing or not, um, and what they know and what they need next. Because if we're gonna spin our wheels looking at state test scores or Regents exams in New York State, I think it's going to be insanely short-cited.

[00:34:33] Olivia: I know those are beacons of measurement, but what are they measuring these days? Not whether children are engaged or not, and that's what I care about. I think that's what you care about too, so… 

[00:34:44] A.J.: So, there are two things that are important here in this conversation. The first is around quantity. 

[00:34:50] Olivia: Mm-hmm. 

[00:34:50] A.J.: If we encourage boards to have one to five goals. Uh, we recommend three or fewer. Um, and I can tell you the story of one board that adopted one goal. Uh, and so quantity matters here.

[00:35:01] A.J.: If we are asking teachers to do 50 new things, like that's just not realistic. And even our most conscientious, our most effective teachers, like we're setting them up to fail. But not because they did anything wrong, because we just led ineffectively. 

[00:35:15] Olivia: Yeah. 

[00:35:15] A.J.: And, and so when we talk about monitoring progress, we can't say we're gonna monitor progress on every single thing that happens in the school system.

[00:35:23] A.J.: We have to say, what is a narrow set of things that these absolutely have to be a priority? These absolutely have to occur because the vision of the community is so inextricably caught up in these few areas. For all of the other areas, we trust our professional educators and our students and staff to figure it out.

[00:35:39] A.J.: And so that's the first thing to be clear about is that, you know, we can't monitor everything, and we have to let go the illusion that we can. That, that the board has to say there are few things, you know, one, two, maybe three things that we're gonna focus on for the next three to five years. 

[00:35:55] Olivia: Yes. 

[00:35:55] A.J.: That's the other thing; even with this small quantity, that's not enough. We have to look at this same small set of things over time. 

[00:36:01] Olivia: Yes. Yes!

[00:36:01] A.J.: And we have to give our educators three to five years to really hone their craft, to modify their adult behaviors in ways that are aligned with this. This isn't something you expect overnight, and you definitely don't change it every year and have educators running to the left, and then running to the right, and then running back, and we get this flavor of the year thing.

[00:36:17] A.J.: But so much of that emanates from ineffective leadership in the boardroom. And so, before we even get into what are we measuring and how are we measuring it. It's important to know, what is some of, the scoping, uh, that we're putting in place for that. That there have to be just a few things (we recommend three or fewer), and they have to be set that this is gonna be a focus over time. We're gonna get our staff time to really level up their abilities in these few areas. So that's the first thing to be clear about. Once we've got that clear, then we can travel onto the issues that you bring up, which is how would we know if children have grown in a particular area? 

[00:36:52] A.J.: How do we authentically measure that? And so, imagine the board adopts two goals; one goal around early literacy and one goal around middle school empathy. Uh, both of these particularly tough goals, I suspect. 

[00:37:07] Olivia: Yes.

[00:37:07] A.J.: But the board is listened to the vision of the community and the vision the community has. It wants its children to be very literate at a very early age, and it wants its middle schoolers to be able to demonstrate empathy. So, then we've got the challenge of what does that look like as a goal? 

[00:37:20] A.J.: So, as a goal, maybe it looks like the percentage of third graders who are literate on grade level, according to an A-B-C assessment, will increase from, you know, 60% in June of 2022 to 80% by June of 2026. And so, we've got a goal for our literacy. Then we also need a goal for empathy. The percentage of middle schoolers who can, uh, demonstrate proficiency with empathy, um, on X-Y-Z portfolio rubric will increase from 15% in June of 2022 to 90% by June of 2026. And so now that we've identified what are the goals that and seek to capture the vision of the community, then it's on the educators to figure out how are we gonna measure that.

[00:38:16] Olivia: Yes.

[00:38:16] A.J.: How will we know? And there are multiple types of measurement. And so one of the things I do in the book is describe that you have diagnostic uh, measurement, you have formative measurement, you have interim measurement, and you have summative measurement. And these are all used for different purposes. 

[00:38:31] A.J.: When the board is setting goals. we want the board to set goals on summative measurements. Um, now it's up to the district which summative measurements they're using. Some use state data; some use state data entirely. But that is, each community makes their decisions around what is the summative data. But when we're monitoring progress, when we're looking day by day, that data is largely useless because that's only available once per year.

[00:38:55] A.J.: So the, the administration, our professional educators need to figure out what is the data that we can look at throughout the year that gives us some authentic snapshot and insight into is little A.J. growing in literacy, is little Olivia growing in empathy, uh, throughout the year? And that's the data that you would then monitor. That interim data in some cases, uh, kind of common formative data.

[00:39:19] A.J.: Uh, but that's data that our educators are using to make decisions throughout the year. That our administration is using to make decisions throughout the year. That's the type of data. Because, again, the summative data just isn't useful for mid-year course corrections. It's just not what it's designed for.

[00:39:36] Olivia: No, it's not. That's a beautiful explanation. And so, how in the world do we get to step four and align resources to support this work?

[00:39:44] A.J.: This is where. This is where it's so challenging because this is where a lot of boards feel like they live. This is where that professional behavior lives. Well, we voted on a budget. At the board meeting, we voted on all of these items. But the real question isn't, did we spend the money according to all the rules?

[00:39:56] A.J.: The real question is, did we spend the money in a way that actually is aligned with accomplishing the community's vision? 

[00:40:07] Olivia: Yes.

[00:40:07] A.J.: And so, if the community has a vision around literacy, for early literacy and middle school empathy, then part of the question has to be, when we set a budget, what evidence did the superintendent provide that that budget, made as its first priority, Improvements in early literacy and middle school empathy?

[00:40:26] A.J.: And then as we adopt whatever spending items we are throughout the year, what evidence is the superintendent and staff bringing forth that those items are aligned to or necessary for creating the conditions of improving early literacy, improving middle school empathy? And so that's the challenge. 

[00:40:45] A.J.: If we're gonna talk about aligning the resources, the fourth step in this continuous improvement process. If you don't have clarity about what your goals and guardrails are, there's nothing to align them to. {aligning resources - reel 3] And so, this is the problem with purely professional behavior, is we're saying that we have complied with generally acceptable accounting practices, but nowhere does that actually give us insight into are we fighting for the right things on behalf of children or are we doing things that are actually aligned with accomplishing the community's vision, which students should know on be able to do.

[00:41:16] A.J.: Uh, alignment is also inclusive of other less obvious things; how are we setting policies? Are we spending all of our time focused on policy setting that has nothing to do with the goals and guardrails, or are we dialed into that? How are we evaluating the board? How are we evaluating the superintendent?

[00:41:34] A.J.: Is that evaluation focused in on have we actually accomplished the goals in the guardrails, or is that evaluation about adult opinions based on what Twitter and Facebook had to say this month? 

[00:41:46] Olivia: It’s dangerous. Yeah.

[00:41:46] A.J.: And so, if we're going to align, uh, the resources, that means we have to at all times have in our hands, in our mind's eye, what are the vision, what are the values, what are goals, what are the guardrails and how does each decision we make directly connect to that? And if we don't know, then we probably shouldn't be making a decision yet. We should stop, interrogate that. And then once we have clarity around that, then have a go/no-go decision based on the priorities that we've set.

[00:42:14] A.J.: That's step number four in the continuous improvement process. And then, finally, step number five; you gotta communicate it. Schools don't work for schools. Schools work for the community. And so, since the community are the owners of the schools. It’s the community’s schools, the community's children, the community's money, the community's buildings; we have an ethical, moral, legal obligation to be in communication with the community about what's working, what's not working, and what's gonna happen next, to constantly bring community into not only a place of ownership but a place of partnership with what's going on in the school system.

[00:42:48] A.J.: But to do that, you have to communicate the results back to community. And that has to be the good, the bad or ugly. This can't be the sugar-coated version. Um, this can't be the trying to make us as adults look good. It has to be; here’s what's true right now. And even if it's not the truth that we want it to be, we still have to talk about it and not to beat people up, but to say what are we gonna do about it?

[00:43:11] A.J.: That's why, that's the critical final step in the process before you start the cycle all over again, is cuz that informs, okay, what are we gonna do in the next cycle that's gonna be different? What is the adult behavior change going to be that's going to better set students up for improvement?

[00:43:26] Olivia: So, I want to just throw something out there again, that there were horrible things that resulted from COVID. And there were also some ways of communicating and making life much more inclusive when it comes to school boards and education and meetings, and offering opportunities for people to be part of the conversation because we were isolated in a way; it seems ironic, I guess.

[00:43:58] Olivia: Um, but something that was crazy to me was when places and boards suddenly said, all right. you know, we're past COVID.  We have to all meet in person again. We're not going to offer Zoom recordings of board meetings. It was. Some of the first times I've really been tuned in completely - while I'm cooking dinner, while I'm juggling - to hear and be privy to conversations.

[00:44:23] Olivia: Because school boards happen at night when many folks…

[00:44:27] A.J.: Have to take care of their family.

[00:44:27] Olivia: …are tucking their kids into bed, right? It's family and God love teachers that show up to these meetings to get their voices heard, cuz they've worked a whole day; they're advocating for their colleagues, and it drives me nuts, that, you know, we're not making these meetings more accessible to the community and recording them and allowing people to zoom in, and there's just so many dumb obstacles that we put in the way of people's voices being heard.

[00:44:57] Olivia: So, I want to note that a huge change in adult behavior is also adopting, um, practices that make accessibility to the conversation more viable, based on work, based on family, based on scheduling, and exhaustion in general. So, I think that's important to put out there.

[00:45:15] A.J.: Well, and we certainly encourage the boards that we work with to take advantage of the technology. If there is one blessing that the pandemic brought, is that basically every school system now had to come up with some way of making these things available online so that families could still be at home and still watch and participate.

[00:45:34] A.J.: And so, our coaching to school boards across the nation, regardless of their size, keep using that technology, keep making the work of the school system as transparent and available and accessible to families and communities as possible; that only goodness for students will emanate from that practice.

[00:45:51] A.J.: That going back to a more obfuscated way of operating that used to be the norm but is now doesn't have to be the norm because we have technology that we didn't have ten years ago. And so, it made sense that that was the norm 10 years ago. It doesn't make sense that that would be the norm today. In many states, there are laws that require a recording, but often those laws will vary based on school system size.

[00:46:16] A.J.: So really large districts often have legal obligation, whereas really small districts don't. We would say for all school systems everywhere; the technology is not prohibitively expensive. There are ways to, uh, easily and affordably do so. There's value in making the communication and participation with school systems as accessible and transparent to families as we can.

[00:46:43] Olivia: Yeah, and so let's wrap our conversation around call to action. What is our call to action when it comes to school governance and changing adult behaviors? Now that you've outlined such a beautiful process for us to follow, what should we do? 

[00:46:59] A.J.: Well, the first thing I would invite folks to do is just take a moment and get clear about what's happening currently. And so a way of doing that is folks can go to their board meeting or watch it online, hopefully, and actually code the meeting. 

[00:47:13] A.J.: Really take a moment and watch minute-by-minute. What exactly is the board spending its time on in each minute? This is a critical first step cuz often, in school boards, we don't even realize how we spent the time. We get to the end of the meeting, and we go home, and we often aren't taking the time to reflect. But you really wanna think of it like, like the coach does, the football teams.

[00:47:32] A.J.: It's like we're gonna replay the game video, and we're gonna see where did we call a play that wasn't the optimal play, so we wanna call this play next time. Or, you know, where did somebody run a route, but that's not the route they're supposed to run, they were supposed to run that way instead. And replaying the video, uh, is a powerful way of growing. [call to action - Reel 4]

[00:47:48] A.J.: I, I would honestly, I would encourage this to the teachers as well. Record your video, and you and your coach watch the video. And so, in the same way, that that is a growth tool in the classroom, it's certainly a growth tool in the boardroom, but this is something anybody in the community can do.

[00:48:01] A.J.: You don't have to be a board member. Any concerned community member, parent, staff member can watch the board meeting, and they can code it watching minute-by-minute-by-minute how time it's spent. And you can go to my website, and there are tools my team and I, we use to code board meetings so you can use the exact same things we've got.

[00:48:16] A.J.: They're available in spreadsheets. You can just grab the spreadsheet, you can make a copy of it, and you can watch a board meeting and, and track minute-by-minute how is time used? That's the first thing that I would encourage folks to do is just to get clear about how is our board currently spending its time, how much of it is focused on student outcomes?

[00:48:32] A.J.: In our coding over the last six years, our observation is that for the vast majority of school boards nationwide, that they're spending somewhere between 0 and 5% of their time actually attending to and monitoring progress toward the goals for student outcomes. 

[00:48:46] Olivia: It’s crazy.

[00:48:46] A.J.: And for most of that, that's less than 1%. But boards need to know that. And boards aren't behaving that way because they're malicious; they’re behaving that way cuz they often just don't know. And so... 

[00:48:57] Olivia: They don't have your book!

[00:48:58] A.J.: Yeah, but it's so easy to know! 

[00:49:01] Olivia: They haven't met you yet, A.J.

[00:49:02] A.J.: But it's so easy to know! And, and as family members and community members, we can be the genesis of transformation for the boards in our community, and it's step one is just noticing what's happening and then communicating with boards.

[00:49:14] A.J.: Hey, I watched your last board meeting, and I noticed you never once talked about, are my kids actually learning? Uh, what would it look like? Have you all had opportunity to already clarify the priorities of the community? Have you adopted some goals? Have you adopted some guardrails? 

[00:49:28] A.J.: Um, and if so, uh, what to support do you all need to monitor progress toward those? And what support do you need to align resource to those? And then once you've done those things, with what frequency are you coming back to the community to communicate results, uh, relative to those? And so, just taking a minute to watch the meeting and track how boards are spending time opens up a lot of conversation that otherwise isn't open.

[00:49:52] A.J.: The second and final call to action I invite, consider running for the school board. A lot of people think that you have to have some type of technical knowledge or expertise, but the board is not an educational expert. Board members don't need to know anything about teaching and learning in order to be effective because that's actually not the board's job.


[00:50:09] A.J.: The job of the board is to represent the vision and values of the community. That's the whole job. So, if you are a person of goodwill, you love children, you're already deeply invested in the welfare of children in your community. Maybe you're already a big brother or big sister, or you're a CASA volunteer. Like if you were already invested in supporting and protecting and lifting up children in your community, if you were already of a mindset that you were prepared to listen to your community and hear what their vision for what students should know and be able to do, uh, hear their values, their non-negotiables.

[00:50:41] A.J.: If that is within you to do, you have all of the skillset necessary to be an effective school board member. It's not about, uh, do I have a legal expertise or financial expertise or academic expertise. It's about am I willing to listen to the community, hear the community's vision of values, and use that to drive action in the boardroom that can set up the condition for improved student outcomes in the classroom.

[00:51:05] Olivia: Yeah. Well, A.J., I am going to end with your words, quoting from your book. Before I do though, I want to make sure listeners know how to get in touch with you, how you prefer to be reached. I will include a link to your website, to your book, which the website is an invaluable resource. You're very generous.

[00:51:26] Olivia: What is the best way listeners can get in touch with you?

[00:51:28] A.J.: Uh, just feel free to reach out to me on my personal website, That's just, or email me if folks really wanna have a conversation about, um, what you can do to get started and making a difference in your community. I'm always happy to visit with folks, or members of my team can visit with folks, say, hey, here are two or three things you can do next, uh, that you don't need us for, that you can do on your own to really get the conversation started about becoming intentionally focused on improving student outcomes in your community.

[00:51:57] A.J.: And so just shoot me an email. It's just 

[00:52:03] Olivia: Fabulous. So I'm gonna wrap with your words: “Collectively, these five elements: focus mindset, clarify priorities, monitor progress, align resources and communicate results describe a basic continuous improvement cycle for a governance team. But basic is not synonymous with effortless. It's for this reason that school boards must often need a tremendous amount of support to migrate from being ineffective for the students they serve to becoming great on their behalf.”

[00:52:40] Olivia: A.J., Thank you for your time, for your brilliant book. I am so jazzed to have our conversation captured and to share your knowledge, and hopefully, school boards shift and really focus on making everything great on our students’ behalf. Thank you, A.J.

[00:52:58] A.J.: Thank you so much, Olivia.

[00:53:00] Olivia: Take care.