“Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?
The Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.
Alice: I don't much care where.
The Cheshire Cat: Then it doesn't much matter which way you go.
Alice: ...So long as I get somewhere.
The Cheshire Cat: Oh, you're sure to do that, if only you walk long enough.”
One of my favorite moments from the timeless Lewis Carroll classic, Alice in Wonderland, is the conversation between Alice and the Cheshire Cat about how to get to somewhere. While the circular nature of their exchange is amusing, it also reminds me of conversations we have too often in education. What are we trying to do? Raise student achievement. Well, how do we do that? We’re working very hard! Such exchanges are less amusing when students’ educational futures are at stake.
As a charter school board member, your role is clear: you are responsible for making sure that your school meets the goals of its charter. Accountability for these goals is at the heart of the charter bargain; your school gets more autonomy and flexibility but must meet high standards or risk closure. At least one of your annual accountability goals is certain to be focused on student academic achievement outcomes. But, being held accountable for your student results necessarily comes at the end of a whole cycle of actions. Most of those actions – planning, teaching, assessing, re-teaching – are not part of your role as a board member. So, what can you, as a board member, do to ensure that your school is successfully accountable for your student outcomes? I think every board member could benefit from taking three simple, data-driven actions.
First, unlike Alice, know where you are now and where you are trying to go. What are your school’s accountability goals? What is the current baseline data for your school now?
If your school leader is not sharing accountability goals and baseline data with the board, ask for it. You have a responsibility to your school and students, so becoming familiar with this this information is essential. If your school leader and her team are already sharing this data with you, great. You’re already set up for success. Study this data. Even if you are not an education data expert, you should make this one of your core pieces of knowledge about your school. Much of this accountability data is annual data, so you can refresh your knowledge of it each year you serve on the board.
Second, learn what milestones are important to hit to make sure that you get where you are going. Based on where we are now, where should we be next to show that we’re on track for our goal?
For example, if your school’s baseline attendance data shows that average student attendance is 90%, but the annual goal is 95%, what must the school’s monthly average be to meet your target? Are there some months that need to be higher to make up for months when low attendance might be expected (i.e., bad weather months)? This same kind of question can be asked about math and ELA achievement goals, student growth, and any other accountability metrics your school has.
Finally, like Alice, you’ll need to ask questions. You should be asking lots of questions about data. Why does our data look like this? How are we working to improve this metric? Who is involved in those efforts? When will we have our next progress update on this goal?
And, like Alice, you may find that the process of questioning is uncomfortable. Your school leader is busy and may bristle at having board members question him about growth targets or timing for making progress, especially if your board has not routinely asked these kinds of questions. You may feel pushy about asking too many questions. Rest assured – asking questions is your job as a board member. Your school leader has the responsibility to help the board understand all that he is doing to ensure that the school meets its goals and best serves its students. Good questions will help your board gauge whether your school is making progress and whether your school leader has the support and resources he needs to accomplish the goals. Regular and targeted questions about data will ideally lead to an ongoing dialogue between the board and the school leader about the school’s progress towards its goals.
One final and important word on doing the above work well: The language of education data can sometimes feel as foreign as the creatures in Wonderland. It is worthwhile to learn the basics of the lingo your state and school uses when talking about data. You will ask better questions and feel more comfortable in discussions about data if you learn the names of assessments that your school uses for benchmarking progress, the annual assessments used for calculating accountability, and the shorthand your school leader may use when referring to metrics or measurements that are part of her daily work. Familiarizing yourself with the names and terms will help you ask better questions, make you a better board member, and help your school get to exactly where it is trying to go.
Written by Jessica Sutter, founder and president of EdPro Consulting, and a former board member for Center City Public Charter School and a current board member at Paul Public Charter School, both based in Washington, DC.