What changed was an offer from The Studer Group, a consulting firm whose prescription for success in the health-care industry soon will be applied to the Janesville school system.
The company offered its services—valued at more than $1 million—for free. It was an offer the school board decided it couldn’t refuse.
The Studer process is well into its planning stages. Implementation this month will include the first-ever scientific look at what people think of their schools.
The survey data, along with test scores and other performance data, will be used to measure how good a job administrators are doing and to evaluate their performance.
Evaluations based on hard data are just one aspect of a wide-ranging revamp of how the schools are managed.
Other initiatives will focus on happier employees, and bosses writing thank-you notes and asking workers what they need to do a better job.
The Studer formula for more satisfied workers is already being applied at one of the district’s smallest schools, where teachers are asking students, and students are asking themselves:
-- What’s my purpose?
-- Is this worthwhile work?
-- Am I making a difference?
It’s a formula that seems to work especially well in the project-based learning at the TAGOS Leadership Academy, a Janesville School District charter school.
Every project must measure up to these questions.
“You’ll want to work on it. You’ll want to finish it rather than just doing it to get it done,” said student Derek Raese, 17.
In other words, school isn’t a series of exercises that kids find pointless, with no connection to what they want to do with their lives.
TAGOS students and staff sit in a discussion circle at the end of each day. One question teachers always bring up: “Who did something that had purpose today?”
That question makes hands go up, said Kelsey Wirth, 18.
“It gets kids to want to do stuff, because it’s nice to raise your hand and say, ‘Yeah, I did something good,’” Kelsey said.
And it’s all because of a company based in Pensacola, Fla., a company whose job is to fix hospitals and medical centers, not schools.
The focus on purpose, worthwhile work and making a difference come from the company’s founder, Quint Studer.
These ideas aren’t new, of course, but the way Studer applies them has made his company wildly successful.
Studer is a former Janesville teacher and former executive at Janesville’s Mercy Hospital. He went on to build a consulting firm that specializes in making bad health care companies better and good companies great. And that has a lot of companies nationwide knocking on the Studer Group’s door.
Studer is not one to kick back on the stacks of cash he is making. His latest project is to step outside the health-care field and see how it works in schools.
“The belief is that the Janesville public schools can be the showcase for other school districts. The main thing, though, is to make sure the Janesville students achieve high student achievement,” Studer said.
Studer once taught in Janesville schools, and he still has family ties here. He offered his company’s services for free, he said, because of a desire to give back.
Can the Studer process be as successful in education as it has been in health care?
Janesville is about to find out.
Janesville school officials are attending Studer seminars, and Studer is sending its experts to train Janesville staff.
So far, it’s mostly been about meetings in which local officials and Studer experts tweak the process so it will—they hope—work in education.
Studer Group is also preparing a survey of parents and district staff. Those surveys go out this month.
The survey data, along with test scores and other measures of how well a school performs, will be used as the measure of how good a job administrators are doing and to evaluate their performance.
Teachers could be evaluated, too, but probably not for several years.
Evaluations based on goals and hard data are hardly new to the business world, but the Studer process has its own ways of applying these ideas. And most of these ideas are probably new to public schools, said school board member Bill Sodemann.
Sodemann thinks that the process is so revolutionary and its potential so great that Janesville could become a model for the nation.
The process will be open to the public, Sodemann said, “and that’s going to mean some heartache here and there, to face issues that we need to get better on. …
“We’re going to release the good, the bad and the ugly, and based on those surveys, and based on test score results (and other measures), we’re going to set goals,” Sodemann said.
Those goals will be the standard against which the school board will measure the superintendent, how the superintendent in turn will measure his administrators and, eventually, how teachers will be measured, too, Sodemann said.
Sodemann is interested in tying teacher evaluations to a merit-pay system that rewards superior teacher performance, but that element would require contract bargaining to change the way teachers are paid.
It’s hard to say, however, whether a future school board will want to press the union for such a fundamental change in the compensation structure.
The evaluations will be boiled down to scores, 1 through 5, with a “3” being equivalent to an “A,” meaning the employee has done everything expected.
A 4 or 5 is reserved for those who go above and beyond.
Studer’s theory is that the high-performing employees will welcome this rating system, the middle-level performers will feel pressure to improve, and the low performers will divide into three groups: Those who leave, those who work to improve and those who stay but reject any suggestion for improvement.
Teacher and union leader Jennifer Fanning has embraced the process, as have all the teachers who have gone through the Studer training, she said.
Teachers weary of education fads, but Fanning said this one is different because district leaders are investing so much effort.
Studer’s process focuses on improving the workplace, “and that’s what we want to do, here, is improve our work environment by having happier employees who feel good about their job and the people they work with, and in turn they’ll do a better job, which is going to improve the teaching, the student learning, and ultimately improve the tests scores,” Fanning said.
Fanning said not all teachers are on board with the new ideas, in large part because they don’t know much about it, yet.
Fanning likes the fact that the process allows regular opportunities for staff to give feedback to administrators, with an eye for making things work more smoothly.
School board member Amy Rashkin, who sits on a Studer steering committee with Fanning and Sodemann, likens the Studer process to a fitness regime: One exercise may be simple to do, but for best results, a series of exercises that improve the entire body must be done properly and consistently.
The reason officials are so hopeful that the process will work wonders is that it will be applied system-wide, “in a way that’s positive, non-threatening, encourages open discussion of problems and also focuses on things that are going right with the organization,” Rashkin said.
While the Studer process will fan out over all the district, it’s not likely that every school will immediately adopt it the way TAGOS has.
TAGOS dean of students, Al Lindau, was so inspired when he heard Studer speak that he rushed to incorporate the ideas into the new charter school.
Another idea Lindau adopted was to visit with staff and students on a regular basis to find out:
-- What is working for them.
-- What isn’t.
-- What resources they lack to get the job done.
-- Who they think is worthy of recognition.
These questions are part of what Studer calls “rounding,” and every principal will be trained in how to make rounds with staff.
Rounding is not so much a way to evaluate a teacher’s performance, for example, as to find out what fine-tuning can be done to make work more comfortable or efficient.
An administrator who hears of a positive act by a staff member would make a point to praise that person or to send a thank-you note. Sounds simple, but all this communication and feedback are expected to become a regular way of running a school, a part of the district’s culture.
Lindau said he has found that those little things, such as saying “I’m really proud of you for what you are doing,” have made a difference.
“You do that five times a week with kids, week after week, and I really see that it is building our community,” Lindau said. “We’ve really come together as a community of learners, and it’s powerful, powerful stuff.”
And what works with kids, officials hope, should work with adults such as teachers, principals and secretaries.
Studer Group process implementation in the Janesville School District:
-- Spring 2008— Principal-hiring process modified to adhere to Studer Group principles. The district is in the process of replacing two elementary school principals.
-- May 2008—Surveys of Janesville School District parents and staff go out.
-- 2008-09— Superintendent Tom Evert evaluated using Studer Group process first, followed by directors, principals and assistant principals. Administrators begin “rounding,” a practice that involves quality-focused conversations with staff. Staff members are trained in Studer Group performance indicators. New employees are evaluated with a focus on employee recruitment and retention. Reward and recognition activities begin.
-- 2009-10—All members of the administrative team fall under the new evaluation process.
-- Unknown date—Teacher evaluations discussed as part of contract negotiations.
A few Studer Group successes, according to Quint Studer:
-- Grew from three employees in 2000 to 145 in 2008 without any advertising or sales effort.
-- Customer retention is 98 percent.
-- Vanderbilt Medical Center’s medical school, a Studer client, is now rated in the top 10 in its field, with patient satisfaction in the top 4 percent. In a recent study of registered-nurse satisfaction, it was best in the country.
-- Studer’s book “Hardwiring Excellence” made the Wall Street Journal’s list of best-selling business books this year. Studer says it’s the most-read health care leadership book ever written.
-- “I feel we have also had a great influence over the past 15 years in putting patient care back on the top of the to do list with most health care leaders,” Studer wrote in an e-mail.