Cover Story: SchoolBiz
9/15/2007 By: Michael Simkins
from Technology & Learning
10 business practices to help your district maximize resources and run smoothly.
Education is not a business! That's a typical response when anyone suggests that public schools should behave more like businesses. Educators provide a service, they don't produce widgets.
True, but not so fast. One indisputable fact about businesses is that inefficiency equals failure. Education stands to benefit from the same survival tactics as its private sector counterparts. Read on for 10 that can come to your rescue.
1. Asset Management
The average school district sustains $80,000 a year in lost IT assets, according to a study by Follett Software and Quality Education Data. Beyond that, additional at-risk resources include everything from textbooks, furniture, and classroom supplies to projectors, copy machines, busses, and even people. Keeping track of such an inventory and making sure resources are deployed most efficiently and effectively can be a challenge. Asset management can help.
With 25 schools and 18,000 students, Kyrene School District, in the Greater Phoenix area, has plenty of assets to manage. Follett Destiny is one tool the district uses. Enabled with barcode scanning and wireless technology, the system gives staff access to real-time library, patron, and textbook information.
"Even though our overall population is stable," says District Technology Specialist Dan Neville, "we do have a lot of movement in terms of where the population is within the district. Destiny helps us keep an eye on the overall inventory."
Districts can also benefit from tools that target a specific slice of their assets. For instance, Neoware's Device Manager allows a technician to stay on top of thousands of thinclient devices from a single location. Other companies that offer specialized asset management include NetSupport, SchoolDude, Absolute, and Truistic Solutions.
2. Business Plan
There is never enough money, so how districts spend their money is critical. "Schools are very silo-driven," says Intel K–12 Education Strategist Eileen Lento. "This is our textbook fund, this is our capital fund, and so on. When you buy a laptop, it can come loaded with content, so now you have something that's historically been thought about as a capital expenditure mixed in with curriculum."
Lento encourages districts to develop a new perspective on financing technology that supports the key concepts of scale and sustainability. "Traditionally," says Lento, "you must have a textbook for seven years. Well, you're not going to have a laptop for seven years and, really, a great deal of content is stale in seven years, so scale and sustainability can be two big points of failure."
Alabama's Auburn City Schools is a good example. In developing its one-to-one laptop initiative, it painstakingly created a 10-year funding plan. "Sustainability was so important to us," says Debbie Rice, the district's director of technology. "We needed a plan, and a way to pay for it. One of the funding models we used was a spreadsheet that looked at everything. We spread costs over a 10-year period based on what we know today."
Auburn's 10-year plan emphasizes scaling up in the first years, and then transitions to sustainability in later years. "Our board actually wants the vision enlarged," says Rice, "so we're already working with our city on a tax initiative to help fund it."
For districts interested in taking a business plan approach, both hardware vendors and ed tech funding companies like RedRock Reports, Quarter Source, Funds For Learning, Thompson, and Education TURNKEY Systems can help manage financing and create customized tech plans around solid business models.
3. Digital Age Performance Assessment
"What gets measured gets taught" is a maxim in education, and it helps explain why 21st-century skills receive more lip service than systematic instruction. This applies to classroom instruction and to assessing the performance of students and educators.
One company that's taken a pioneering approach to solving this problem is the international certification giant Certiport. Says CEO David Saedi, "There is a gaping hole in our educational system for measuring those things that lend themselves less to immediate and direct measurement."
Two years ago, the company instituted a monthly feedback form. Each month employees complete a simple selfrating form that covers 19 criteria grouped under the rubrics of productivity and effectiveness, communication, coordination, and collaboration. Then employees meet with their manager to compare their perspectives and set goals.
"Frequently, we find a huge tie between where people feel they're at and where managers feel they're at," Saedi says. "This gives us the opportunity 12 times a year, for guidance, mentorship, and a proactive learning environment."
Additional digital assessment tools have been crafted by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, the nonprofit WestEd, the Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium, and Pearson's National Evaluation Systems.
4. Security Assessment
When it comes to security, schools have the same needs as any business. They need to filter content and e-mail. They need to monitor secure files, and certainly ensure the physical safety of students and staff. The main difference is resources.
"Within the private sector you typically have a dedicated staff of people who can evaluate your security needs, your security vulnerabilities, and have the expertise to implement solutions," says Bob Kirby, senior director for Kâ€“12 education at CDW-G. "The needs are the same, but schools often do not have the budget or resources."
To help schools in this area, CDW-G developed the School Security Index. Schools rate themselves on 14 different elements such as data monitoring, network access, student online protection, IT breaches, building access, and physical barriers. These self-ratings yield two scores—one for cybersecurity and one for physical security—that can be compared to norms established in a nationwide study of 381 schools. This comparison helps schools identify priorities for improving their own security.
Other tools on the market that address security include 8e6 Technologies' Threat Analysis Reporter, Nevis's LANenforcer, and Security-Assessment.com's risk assessment application.
Used by many Fortune 500 companies, benchmarking involves identifying the specific process you want to improve, finding an organization (or unit in your own organization) that excels at doing the same thing, arranging a visit, and studying how it accomplishes the process. Then, you make a plan for how to use what you learned to improve your own results.
California's San Jose Unified School District benchmarks at both the school and the district level. For example, last year all underperforming schools in the district used Just for the Kids, a nonprofit that provides tools and resources to help schools increase achievement. The process began with a self-audit. Then, each school identified one school inside the district and one school outside the district to benchmark against. The district encouraged its staff to visit the benchmark schools to observe and to talk with staff there and to learn as much as possible about how it achieved their outstanding results.
Numerous commercial benchmarking tools, such as Micrograms' Easy Track, the Northwest Evaluation Association's Measures of Academic Progress, and STIAssessment are also available.
6. A Clear Mission
Business consultant and former Stanford professor Jim Collins's 2001 book, Good to Great, describes five hallmark practices of "great" companies. One he calls the hedgehog concept, a synthesis of: what a company does best, what drives its "economic engine," and what it is passionate about. The hedgehog concept provides the focus for all of its efforts.
In California's Ceres Unified School District, Superintendent Walt Hanline is a fervent advocate of Collins's work and cites the hedgehog concept as perhaps the most important of the Good to Great practices. "The fundamentals revolve around that concept," states Hanline. "What is our hedgehog? At first, we thought reading. We were most passionate about responding to every student. Then the whole aspect of producing results. In the social sector, money is not an output, it's an input. The output is performance indicators."
Ultimately, the district determined professional development was its hedgehog, and now budgets accordingly. "The year we had to cut $5 million from the overall budget," says Hanline, "we put in $1 million for professional development!"
Additional resources for helping to clarify values and goals are the Baldrige process with its seven core values and concepts and IBM's Reinventing Education Change Toolkit, a Web-based collection of more than 175 change management tools based on the work of Harvard professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter.
7. Highly Competent Hires
Another of Jim Collins's good-to-great practices is "getting the right people on the bus"—that is, if you're going to be a great organization, you need the right people working for you. Microsoft's Competency Wheel is one tool that can help you select the right people for your bus.
Based on the process that Microsoft uses internally, the Competency Wheel has two primary purposes: to support organizational development and to create a strong selection of candidates.
The education version of the Competency Wheel was developed as Microsoft worked with the School District of Philadelphia to create the High School of the Future.
"Particular attention was paid to the hiring process of the chief learner and educators at the school," says Stacey Rainey, academic program manager for Microsoft's U.S. Partners in Learning. "It is crucial that all assets are aligned to a critical success factor."
Sustained high-quality training also means that ongoing professional development and online resources are valuable for the flexibility they offer. The PBS TeacherLine Peer Connection service builds a customized professional development program; Annenberg Media's Learner.org offers comprehensive resources by course subject; Teachscape provides onsite and online teacher coaching services; and OnlineLearning.net offers courses geared toward integration.
8. Business Ethics
In an era where unlimited digital access makes it increasingly important for students to behave responsibly, a focus on ethics, citizenship, and integrity is more important than ever.
In the business world, ethics and "green" behavior have become emerging emphases, as concerns about global warming and natural resource conservation have created a serious customer demand for eco-responsibility. Companies concerned with reducing a "carbon footprint" include Apple, with its computer-recycling program, and IBM, with its Project Green Initiative that aims for a more environmentally friendly IT service.
Sun Microsystems, with its Project Open Doors campaign, has made elimination of the digital divide a companywide priority. "We believe that for an ethical society and ethical economies, access has to be universal," says Mary Smaragdis, executive director of Sun Microsystems Foundation. Employees are encouraged to engage with and give back to their communities. A flexible work-at-home policy is designed to facilitate this, while also cutting down on commute pollution and promoting a life-work balance. Sun has also reached out to high schools, inviting student leaders to its campus in Menlo Park, CA, for an open forum on the company's business strategies and commitment to community responsibility.
"Global citizenship is the focus," says Smaragdis. "Students can take back and apply these same ethical behaviors to their communities and schools."
Companies offering training in this field include Integrity Interactive and ELT. For assistance with copyright and intellectual property laws, visit techlearning.com and download "Copyright Guidelines for Administrators."
9. Estimating Investment Value
A sound business approach to a new purchase should involve estimating "Return on Investment" (ROI). Conceptually, it's a simple process. Add up the costs involved. Estimate the benefits in terms of cost savings and/or costs avoided. If benefit dollars exceed cost dollars, make the purchase.
In education, ROI is useful when you're looking at noninstructional uses of technology such as a new student information system. For instructional uses of technology, though, ROI falls short because it doesn't take into account intangible, nonmonetary benefits such as higher test scores, expanded learning opportunities, or parent, student, and staff satisfaction.
There are several approaches that can help you include intangible benefits in your decision making. The 5 Steps to Success approach is one and includes estimating total cost of ownership, creating a risks-and-rewards matrix, evaluating educational fit, identifying precisely what educational value you expect from the new technology, and considering how the value of the technology will grow over time.
Value Measuring Methodology is another example. It involves four steps, perhaps the most important of which is the first: developing a "decision framework." Through a systematic, facilitated process, a group of key, high-level decision makers consider five areas of potential value and agree to representative indicators, measures, and priorities. Software such as Decision Lens can structure and expedite these deliberations.
The Consortium for School Networking's (CoSN) Value of Investment (VOI) Leadership Initiative incorporates many of the considerations found in the previous two approaches.
Negotiation skills are essential to 21st-century school leadership. With digital technologies evolving at a rapid rate and hardware cycles becoming shorter, superintendents, principals, and technology directors are faced with decisions about purchasing that require ongoing interaction with vendors and service providers.
Dealing with multiple vendors and taking a systematic approach are two basic negotiation skills. While considering purchase of a budget-hefty student information system for the 130,000-student Prince George's Country Public Schools in Maryland, CIO Wesley Watts's team reviewed 10 bids and invited six to give full-day vendor presentations.
As a follow up to the presentations, Watts's team visited other locations that had implemented each of the solutions, and then it factored in costs, support, and necessary training before making its final decision.
When it comes to negotiating a good Service Level Agreement, Colorado's Jefferson Country Schools CIO Marcia Bohannon says the first step is determining key services from a user's point of view. Other steps include defining the services in business terms as opposed to tech terms, clearly spelling out roles and responsibilities of staff, and setting realistic goals. For additional negotiation tips, visit the School CIO section of techlearning.com, and see "14 Tips for Negotiating Software Agreements".