On the second day of the Palo Alto Board of Education's annual retreat Wednesday, new Superintendent Max McGee introduced six ambitious goals for the district, which the board provided feedback on and asked him to further develop before they decide which ones to adopt.
A thread uniting the six goals is McGee's commitment to making the school district more of a "collective community" rather than a "collection of communities," phrases he used frequently throughout the two-day retreat. He introduced the six goals with the caveat that the board might decide to pare them down to just two or three, though board members did not make any decisions Wednesday. (Read the six goals at the bottom of this story.)
Board members said they most resonated with two goals, one for its student-centric focus and another for its institutionalization of a commitment to innovative practices and programs.
The student-centric goal focuses on better preparing students for "a future that necessitates global collaboration and competition" and cultivating a "district-wide culture that expects, advances, inspires and promotes academic excellence, hard work, active engagement and perseverance for every student."
The goal aligns with the district's commitment to "mak(ing) sure student learning is first for everything we do," member Melissa Baten Caswell said.
Board President Barb Mitchell lauded McGee's goal of developing district-wide review and evaluation for innovative, new programs and practices as "the heart and soul of our district" and the biggest change brought to the table Wednesday.
"What I like about this -- in whatever wordsmith form it ends up being -- is it really prioritizes innovation," she said. "I think we've always accepted it, but we haven't had a systemic approach to it that supports it.
"This institutionalizes it as a goal. I think this probably represents the biggest change of the six (goals)," she said.
McGee stressed that there need to be concrete review and evaluation processes for new practices or programs at every level of the district from special education to the IT department in order to have "outcome metrics and deliverables" that the board can act on.
"It's important here to have this district-wide system," he said. "I think it's critical."
Most board members said they appreciate the inclusion of further evaluation processes but wanted more detail on what those processes might look like.
The board immediately found issue with the phrasing of McGee's first-listed goal, which used the term "consistency" to promote evenness in curriculum, instruction and assessment -- while aiming to still allow individual schools' autonomy.
"Consistency seems to be a big issue," McGee said. "That's something I've gleaned over the first 13 days. ... However, we still want to give schools that autonomy."
"I think that particular word (consistency) risks being interpreted as 'You do everything the same on Tuesday,'" Mitchell said. "I've heard that from staff members. ... I think what kids have said, it's quality and fairness they're looking for."
The rest of the board agreed that "consistency" should be replaced with a standard of quality and fairness.
McGee's sixth goal "Generate a mindset of collective community learning that works collaboratively and actively to identify, prevent and solve strategic problems that are detrimental to teaching and learning" -- struck a familiar chord. In his explanation of the goal, McGee urged the board to focus on "problem finding" rather than problem solving -- and being proactive rather than reactive when problems arise.
"Let me be blunt: There are issues around communication, right? What can we do to identify and prevent these ahead of time? This speaks to not being in such a reactive mode. Let's think about these problems ahead of time," he said.
He cited the series of Office of Civil Rights investigations brought against the district in the past few years as an example of something that diverted the board, staff and teachers' resources and attention away from "the core mission."
"I wasn't (here) at the outset (of the investigations), but a lot of this involves communicating and anticipating what are the problems going to be, what are the consequences of these decisions going to be and really thinking about that ahead of time," he said.
Board member Camille Townsend said she thought the use of the word "detrimental" is jarring. Others expressed that "generate a mindset" should be somehow replaced with "Be more proactive and less reactive."
The board and McGee also provided feedback on a draft of the district's 2014-2015 annual focused goals, which were presented by Associate Superintendent Charles Young. The goals include evaluating writing achievement; assessing hybrid and online courses; implementation and impact of Common Core State Standards; raising the achievement of struggling students; providing training for the district's recently adopted bullying policy; and creating more transparent governance and communication, among others.
Before convening in a short closed session at the end of the day, the board discussed the evaluation process for McGee. The board is required by law to evaluate the superintendent every June and also traditionally meets mid-year for an informal conversation. They decided on Wednesday that for this year McGee's first as superintendent as well as a year in which two new members will join the board they will do three evaluations instead of the usual two. One will be conducted in November and the other two next year with the new board members.
Superintendent Max McGee's six draft goals, as presented to the board on Aug. 13, 2014:
1. Create conditions that assure consistency in curriculum, instruction and assessment while affording individual schools autonomy to design, develop and implement innovative practices and programs aligned with the district's strategic plan.
2. To prepare students for a future that necessitates global collaboration and competition, cultivate support for a district-wide culture that expects, advances, inspires and promotes academic excellence, hard work, active engagement and perseverance for every student.
3. Lead the development of a district-wide system of program review and evaluation that both encourages innovative practices and pilot programs and also provides evidence for efficacy and dissemination of them among school sites.
4. Align faculty, staff and administrators' professional development with specific school improvement goals that are tied directly to the PAUSD strategic plan.
5. Develop clear accountabilities for ensuring implementation of key strategic plan initiatives.
6. Generate a mindset of collective community learning that works collaboratively and actively to identify, prevent and solve strategic problems that are detrimental to teaching and learning.