On February 16, 2021, the APS Board of Education adopted a results and limitations model. This model describes the Board governance process, Board-superintendent relationship, executive limitations and district results. There are many reasons why the Board adopted this model, including being more strategic, more student-focused and to increase community engagement.
Aurora Public Schools
The “Why” Of School Systems & School Boards
School systems exist to improve student outcomes. That is the only reason for which school systems exist. School systems do not exist to have great buildings, have happy parents, have balanced budgets, have satisfied teachers, provide student lunches, provide employment in the county/city, or anything else. Those are all means -- and incredibly important and valuable means at that -- but none of them are the ends; none of those are why we have school systems. They are all inputs, not outcomes. None of those are measures of what students know or are able to do. School systems exist for one reason and one reason only: to improve student outcomes.
An immediate challenge is that throughout the community there are many ideas about which student outcomes -- which measures of what students know and are able to do -- should be focused on (I refer to this as the community’s “vision”) and which means to accomplish the vision should/shouldn’t be used (I refer to this as the community’s “values”). A school system can’t be effective if it’s trying to pursue a myriad of incoherent visions while implementing a cacophony of conflicting values. So the decision was made to select a group of individuals who would collectively represent the community’s vision and values. We refer to this group as a school board. The school board exists to represent the vision and values of the community.
Why The “Why” Isn’t Enough Without An Effective “How”
Even though school boards have an inherent desire to see improvements in student outcomes, comprehensive analysis of hundreds of hours of school board meetings from across the nation reveals that few school boards invest a meaningful percentage of their time in behaviors that most correlate with improvements in student outcomes. Simply put, the design of most school board meetings and processes is focused on managing the adult inputs, not governing for student outcomes. In the absence of a coherent framework for what it means to “govern”, school board members often view the school board as being one layer above management. But that is a flawed understanding of governance; in reality the proper alignment of the school board is one layer below community. This sounds like mere semantics, but the difference in mindset manifests in wildly divergent adult behaviors in the boardroom -- the board positioning itself as inward focused super manager of adult inputs rather than a community vision- and values-focused protector of student outcomes.
This clarifies why 100 years of school board orthodoxy have often failed to protect children from unintentional, but very real, educational malpractice. When school boards approach “governing” the way it’s always been done they -- again, typically without intending to -- create school systems where improvements in student outcomes occur either in spite of the school board, or not at all. This norm is deeply ingrained in school board culture nationwide and requires dramatic transformation in adult behavior. But change is often difficult -- particularly for public officials who are often punished for any significant change in direction from the status quo.
The “How” Of Effective School Board Governance
This leads to a simple axiom: student outcomes don’t change until adult behaviors change. Or said differently when placed in the context of governing, patterns of behavior that are exhibited in the boardroom can reasonably be expected to be found paralleled in the classroom. This concept, which offers a summation of the current literature and research on school board behaviors and their relationship to improving student outcomes, is as elegant as it can be confounding.
Because the function of the school board is to represent the vision and values of the community, any effective system of governance must support the board at adhering closely to the community’s vision and values. But even though the school board has far fewer members than the community as a whole -- typically around 5 to 9 members -- the school board members may still disagree on what the community's vision and values truly are. If school boards aren't intentional, they can start focusing on the wants and wishes of individual community members rather than the vision and value of the community as a whole. To resolve this and to create a way of holding the school system accountable, the school board as a whole adopts two special types of policy. It adopts Results that reflect the community's vision. And it adopts Limitations that describe the community values that must be protected while in pursuit of the Results.
Results & Limitations
Because the intention of Results is to reveal the community’s vision for its students’ outcomes, Results are only about student outcomes -- what the community wants its students to know and be able to do. Ideal Results will be SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, results-focused, and time-bound), will describe what the community wants its students to know and/or be able to do, and will number between one and five (we generally recommend three). Results describe what the school system is trying to accomplish. APS Board's adopted Results are:
- Early Literacy: The percentage of 3rd grade students in APS-operated schools who demonstrate grade level literacy skills based on CMAS English/Language Arts assessment will increase from 21.80% in August 2019 to 33.8% in August 2026.
- Postsecondary Workforce Readiness: The percentage of APS students in APS-operated schools graduating in four years will increase from 76% in 2019 (available January 2020) under the current Colorado graduation requirements to 80% to 2026 (available January 2027) based on the new Colorado graduation requirements, which requires a demonstration of college and career readiness.
- Equity: The percentage of 6th grade Latinx/Black students in APS-operated schools who are not on grade level in English/Language Arts and Math, as measured by CMAS, will decrease from 85.2 percent in August 2019 to 79 percent by August 2026
- Equity: The percentage of 9th grade Latinx/Black students in APS-operated schools who are not on grade level, as measured by PSAT will decrease from 80.6 percent in August 2019 to 74.6 percent by August 2026
The community will also have other things it values beyond the vision. These other items relate to what the adults are doing to cause the Results to happen -- they are the inputs, not the outcomes. They are about the means, not the ends. We refer to the written version of these values as Limitations. Ideally a school board will adopt one to five such overarching statements (we generally recommend three). Limitations describe how the school system will behave as it seeks to accomplish the Results. APS Board's adopted Limitations are:
- DEI: The Superintendent may not allow implementation or adoption of any programming that does not prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion.
- Arts: The Superintendent may not allow the elimination of art, music, and/or physical education from student schedules.
- Engagement: The Superintendent may not propose major decisions to the board without first engaging students, parents, community, and staff.
- Student Treatment: The Superintendent may neither cause nor allow district circumstances for current or prospective students, their parents/guardians, or community members that are unsafe, undignified, disrespectful, or unnecessarily intrusive or restrictive.
- Staff Treatment: The superintendent may neither cause nor allow District circumstances for staff (including employees, independent contractors and volunteers) that are unfair, undignified, disrespectful, disorganized or unclear.
- Financial Responsibility: The superintendent may neither cause nor allow District circumstances that are financially imprudent, inconsistent with generally accepted financial management practices, conducted without appropriate financial planning, that jeopardize the assets of the District, or that represent a material deviation of actual expenditures from Board priorities established in District Result policies
The more clearly and finitely defined the school board’s adopted Results and Limitations are, the easier it is for the school board to ensure alignment between not only the school board’s sayings and doings, but also the superintendent’s sayings and doings. This is what we mean by creating the conditions for improving student outcomes.
Once a school board has adopted Results and Limitations, the school board now has a tool for evaluating any recommendations brought before the school board.
- Should we adopt the budget proposed by the superintendent? Yes, if (and only if) the superintendent has demonstrated that it prioritizes accomplishment of the Results and adherence to the Limitations.
- Should we proceed with placing an item on the ballot for consideration? Yes, if (and only if) the superintendent’s implementation plan clearly shows how use of those funds will help accomplish the Results while honoring the Limitations.
- How will we evaluate the superintendent’s performance? That’s determined by the extent to which she made sufficient progress toward the Results while operating within the Limitations.
While the school board exists to represent the vision and values of the community, the job of the superintendent is to implement the vision and values of the community as described to them by the school board via the Results and Limitations.
This arrangement creates clarity for the board regarding how to monitor progress and it creates freedom for the superintendent to innovate and take risks knowing that the board has pre-agreed to support whichever path she leads the school system so long as she can demonstrate that it prioritizes making progress toward the Results/vision while honoring the Limitations/values.
Once the school board has clarified what the priorities are -- Results and Limitations -- the superintendent determines how best to implement them. From that point on, the work of the school board shifts to monitoring progress to ensure that reality increasingly matches the Results and Limitations.
Results and Limitations, however, often reference performance data that only gets updated once per year. So to monitor progress, more frequently available data is needed. For this, the board tasks the superintendent with developing a set of progress measures for each goal and guardrail. These Results Progress Measures and Limitations Progress Measures are based on formative/interim data that is regularly updated and that allow the board to know whether or not the district is getting closer to being able to accomplish the Results and Limitations throughout the year — rather than having to wait until the end of the school year and to find out if things are on track.
To be useful as progress measures, Results Progress Measures and Limitations Progress Measures must be SMART, must update multiple times during the school year, must be predictive of their respective Results/Limitations, and must be things that the administration can influence. The superintendent will select between one and three of these progress measures per Result / Limitation.
Having clarity about the community’s vision and values (Results & Limitations) and progress measures for tracking performance (Results Progress Measures & Limitations Progress Measures), the Board can now create a monitoring calendar and then begin receiving monitoring reports each month.
The school board behavior most strongly correlated with improvements in student outcomes is working collaboratively with the community and the superintendent to identify the vision and values and then adopting them into a set of Results and Limitations.
Once Results, Limitations, Results Progress Measures and Limitations Progress Measures have been adopted, the next behavior of school boards that most correlates with improvements in student outcomes is monitoring progress toward the board’s adopted Results and Limitations. School boards that truly desire to create the conditions for improvements in student outcomes invest at least 50% of their time each month into monitoring progress toward their Results for student outcomes.
Effective governance is not easy; changing adult behaviors requires effort to overcome institutional inertia. But with a framework, training, and coaching, school boards can change their adult behaviors in ways that most correlate with improvements in student outcomes.
To best serve Aurora’s students, the APS board routinely engages in governance best practices such as board self evaluations, time use evaluations, agenda evaluations, ongoing training for board members, and providing training for members of the community. This is what it means to be intensely focused on improving student outcomes. This is what it means to engage in student outcomes focused governance.
- Student Outcomes Focused Governance Manual
- Progress Monitoring Guide
- Additional Reading About Governance