A Long Overdue 12 Step Plan to Improve Jeffco’s Performance

In many previous articles, I have explained in detail why the performance of Jefferson County Schools desperately needs to improve. Achievement results in this affluent, educated county, which is the nation’s 36th largest school district, have been stagnant for a decade. Over the past three years they have actually declined, at an accelerating rate.

Over the same three-year period, Jeffco’s overhead costs have risen by $48 million, or $728 per student in district run schools, to a total of $3,658 per student per year. That’s $91,450 in overhead cost for every classroom of 25 students. By comparison, the average fully loaded (salary plus benefits) annual cost for the Jeffco teacher in that classroom is $79,736.

In addition to overhead costs, the district’s capital spending is also out of control. The most recent capital construction program began in 2019, with a six-year budget of $705 million. Each of the projects to be funded by the capital program includes a ten percent contingency to cover cost-overruns. If a project contingency is exceeded, the excess costs are charged to an $86 million “program contingency fund”. Less than two years into the six-year capital program, about $100 million in cost overruns have already been charged to the program contingency.

So let us agree that Jeffco is a mess. What can be done to change this sorry state of affairs?

Based on a long career in corporate performance improvement, as well as ten years of volunteer involvement in Jeffco at the school and district level, I know what I would do. But before presenting my list of changes that should be made, I want to acknowledge the elephants in the room: The three most important root causes of Jeffco’s extended period of mediocre performance.

The first is poor management and an automatic tendency to either hide or spin bad results, both of which have been on painful display as the district struggled to effectively respond after COVID arrived.

The second is weak governance, including weak processes and the tendency of too many board members to see the their primary role as docile district cheerleaders, rather than skeptical directors of a billion dollar organization with a fiduciary duty to exercise due care in their role — which means sometimes challenging management.

The third is an insular and deeply dysfunctional district culture with many destructive norms, including shirking accountability, routinely blaming others for bad results, and cutting high performing “tall poppies” down to size, be they effective leaders or high performing schools.

Sadly, these Jeffco elephants are not unique — they are exactly what you find in almost all organizations that have long operated as monopolies.

When thinking about the changes I’d make to improve Jeffco’s results, my starting point is the high performance education systems I’ve experienced outside Colorado, including Alberta and Massachusetts. In none of them is there a single silver bullet secret that other systems can easily adopt. Rather, their success emerges from an integrated set of policies and practices that reinforce and amplify each other’s effects.

Another major consideration is the sequencing of changes.

A painful example of what happens when you ignore sequencing is how district staff have been overwhelmed by the 26 unprioritized initiatives that former Superintendent Jason Glass launched three years ago to implement his “Jeffco Generations” vision.

In fact, Glass was specifically warned against this by the Deliver-Ed consultants he hired in 2017 to advise him on how to implement his vision.

In their final report, presented to the Jeffco board on November 15, 2017, Deliver-Ed observed that there is “some understanding of the underlying challenges that have stood in the way of performance [improvement in Jeffco]. The UIP [Unified Improvement Plan], for example, requires schools [and the district] to do a root cause analysis [each year of performance shortfalls versus goals], but it is unclear if it is being used by building leaders. There is also concern that with the increased focus on school autonomy [a long-term characteristic of Jeffco culture], district leaders may not be aware of all the programs implemented across schools, let alone what is and is not working. ‘We tend to analyze specific programs, but we don’t look across them to learn from each other.’”

Moreover, “there is no systematic process for elevating, prioritizing, and solving problems in an intentional way. As a result, there is a lot of firefighting and everything feels like an urgent issue.”

Deliver-Ed also found that, “meetings occur to discuss and share updates on the work that is underway, but these do not always focus on outcomes or performance. Often “conversations on progress are cancelled and postponed.” As a result, there is not an established structure for regularly discussing and acting on performance.”

Given these weak management processes, Deliver-Ed unsurprisingly found exactly what you could already see Jeffco’s historical achievement results: “Past strategic plans have often sat on a shelf as people continue with business as usual.” As a result, it recommended that Jason initially undertake no more than three simultaneous initiatives to begin the process of implementing his Jeffco Generations vision.

Jason disagreed, and dismissed Deliver-Ed. The subsequent results are painfully clear for all to see.

With that in mind, I will present the changes I propose in a series of time-sequenced waves.

WAVE-1

Change the organizational structure so that all schools in groups of two articulation areas report to the same Regional Assistant Superintendent who is accountable for their results.

(1) Ralston Valley and Arvada West

(2) Pomona and Standley Lake

(3) Chatfield and Dakota Ridge

(4) Bear Creek and Columbine

(5) Conifer and Evergreen

(6) Golden and Green Mountain

(7) Alameda, Arvada, and Jefferson

(8) Lakewood and Wheat Ridge

Establish separate coordinators for Option and Charter Schools (which have their own distinct governance structures).

All of these positions will report to the Superintendent.

There is nothing magic about having just two Articulation Areas report to an Assistant Superintendent. In Calgary, Assistant Supes manage four. Rather, the choice of two reflects my concern with the limited managerial skills of the district’s current group of “Community Superintendents”. Over time, as their quality improves (or they are replaced with more talented individuals), their numbers should decrease.

This change would also eliminate the current positions of the district coordinators for elementary and secondary schools.

The logic here is painfully clear. When Jane Hammond became Jeffco’s Superintendent in July 1997 (after highly successful stints as the supe of Everett schools in Washington, and before that Wake County NC and Amarillo TX), she found not a school system, but a system of over 150 highly autonomous schools. Twenty-three years later, that hasn’t changed, and it has continued to be a major obstacle to improving district performance.

Let me give you a painful example. When I chaired the School Accountability Committee at Wheat Ridge High School, its principal, Griff Wirth, could not even get the principals of the articulation area’s feeder elementary and middle schools to meet together to better coordinate curriculum and transitions from school to school.

Over the past ten years, I have heard over and over again the shock and exasperation of professionals who have come to work in Jeffco when they first see practices like these. “What the hell have I gotten myself into?” has been a sadly common refrain.

The results of Jeffco’s extremely autonomous culture have been both persistent and pernicious. Lack of accountability is pervasive, which has promoted a cancerous culture of blaming. Coordination within articulation areas, even on critical matters like curriculum, instructional materials, and professional development is weak to non-existent, which has negatively affected achievement results.

Systematic innovation is also non-existent, and, as Deliver-Ed found, learning across schools is very weak.

Establishing a clear “chain of command” and clear accountability for results — including firing rather than promoting people who don’t deliver them — will go a long way towards overcoming many of these long-festering cultural problems in Jeffco.

Clarify critical relationships between the Assistant Superintendents (and their Articulation Areas) and head office departments.

Today in Jeffco, you too often see autonomous principals acting in ways that are inappropriate and damaging to the district, while head office staff look the other way rather than engage in a political battle that could cost them their job.

For example, Jeffco appears to be involved in more SPED related litigation than other districts, largely because of the actions of principals.

Another example is the district’s Gifted and Talented program, in which “center schools” have been undermined by the actions of principals, over which the head of GT at head office has no control.

You can find the same problems in ELL, and the services provided to students eligible for free and reduced lunch (FRL). In all these cases, parents feel both betrayed and angry as they struggle in vain to help their children by getting answers and action from Jeffco’s byzantine bureucracy.

The answer is simple: In specialized program areas, like SPED, GT, and ELL, the relevant head office leader must approve programming and other key decisions made by school and articulation area leaders.

The other aspect of this change is something that Denver Public Schools did with great success: Establish and continuously monitor performance against Service Level Agreements between head office departments and the different regions. If performance is poor, regions should have the right to reallocate their budgets to purchase these services from outside organizations, provided they have appropriate qualifications and are subject to Service Level Agreements.

Retain an outside firm to create an activity-based cost and performance model of the district.

Jeffco’s accounting and budgeting systems are of far lower quality than you would expect to find in a billion dollar organization.

Most concerning is the near complete absence of a detailed understanding of the activities the district performs, the costs associated with them (both direct cash costs and the value of employee time), and the direct and indirect impact of these activities on student achievement and other critical outcomes. If you don’t believe this, ask the Jeffco Supe how much the district spends on teacher professional development, including direct cash costs and the value of employee time, and the return on that investment in terms of student achievement gains.

For ten years, I’ve asked that question of many people in Jeffco and received blank stares every time. But there are benchmarks. In its report (“The Mirage”), the new teacher project found that in large districts the total economic cost of teacher PD was about $18,000 per year. Given about 5,000 Jeffco teachers, that’s about $90 million per year — or 9% of the district’s annual budget. And multiple studies have found that the effect size for much teacher PD is zero to negative.

Absent a detailed understanding of its costs, it is no surprise that Jeffco’s annual budgeting process is, compared to billion dollar private sector companies, a joke. It is highly politicized and focuses only on how to allocate the year’s marginal increase in revenues (e.g., $30 million, or 3% of total revenues). Implicitly, it assumes that a billion dollars in existing revenue is being used as effectively and efficiently as possible, which is clearly not the case.

To cite just one comparison, the Calgary Board of Education serves more students with a smaller budget while delivering far better results. So don’t tell me it can’t be done.

Jeffco will never improve its efficiency and effectiveness until it develops a far better understanding of its costs.

After years of students falling further behind because of poor achievement performance, many of Jeffco’s children have now suffered substantial COVID-related learning losses. The district must establish and implement a process (or, more likely, multiple processes) to recover them.

Some of the key building blocks are already in place. One of the Jeffco Generations implementation initiatives focused on substantially improving the district’s Multi-Tiered System of Supports process. While Jeffco’s implementation of MTSS has, up to now, been poor, it is an approach that has been shown, given proper resourcing (which the district has not provided), to deliver significant achievement gains. But not in Jeffco — at least, not yet.

Following the COVID shock, other school systems have buttressed MTSS with an investment in in-person and online tutoring for students. But again, Jeffco has not.

An example of the latter is a product from NWEA that Jeffco has previously chosen not to purchase. Its “Math Accelerator” module uses the detailed analyses provided by MAP assessments to recommend specific Khan Academy online instructional modules to address students’ identified deficits. Other districts have used Math Accelerator and obtained strong results. But for some unfathomable reason, Jeffco decided not to buy it.

Replacing some senior staff is critical. If this isn’t done, any plan to improve Jeffco’s performance will fail.

Dan McMinimee and Jason Glass are very different people. Yet as Supes, both foundered on the treacherous rocks of Jeffco’s dysfunctional culture. From what I saw, both men fell victim to a rookie turnaround mistake: Believing that their inspiring leadership was sufficient to change the direction of an 11,000 person organization without the need for wholesale replacement of senior staff.

Both men failed to improve Jeffco’s results, and ultimately paid the price for their naivete and/or arrogance.

Toxic, dysfunctional cultures are carried and perpetuated by human beings. Through their beliefs, behavior, and decisions, they enable such cultures to persist for long periods of time. In too many cases, this is a critical root cause of organizational failure.

Under Dan McMinimee and Jason Glass, Jeffco’s senior managers had ample opportunities to change, both as individuals and leaders of the organization. But many did not, and instead chose to block change through fair means and foul.

The unavoidable truth is that if you want to substantially improve Jeffco’s results, a lot of its senior leaders — long-term Jeffco veterans — need to be replaced.

But by whom?

To be sure, I’ve met many good people in Jeffco who would jump at the opportunity to create a new, high-performance culture in which they could thrive. But too many of them were tall poppies, whose success attracted district antibodies who sought — too often successfully — to cut them back down to mediocrity. And many have left the district.

Some of them might come back, and join others like them who are still there. But placing all your hopes for substantial improvement on these people — products of the very culture you seek to change — is always a high-risk bet. People like Jack Welch and Jan Timmer (who, respectively, came up through General Electric’s and Philips Electronics’ cultures but later dramatically improved performance when they became CEO) are the exception, not the rule.

Given this, Jeffco should bring in more senior leaders from outside the district, and indeed outside Colorado. This includes people whose whole career has not been spent in K-12. The key is to bring in enough of them to form a critical mass that can drive cultural change.

Assume the WAVE-1 initiatives succeed. What comes next?

WAVE-2

Move to a single, knowledge-rich district curriculum, and high quality instructional materials to implement it.

This is a common characteristic of many high performing education systems, and its absence is more debilitating for Jeffco than most people realize (although Ann Schimke’s recent article about Jeffco’s disastrous approach to reading instruction has made many more people aware of this problem).

Consider the Canadian province of Alberta. Its knowledge-rich provincial curriculum and high quality instructional materials drive multiple achievement improving effects. Movements from grade to grade and from school to school are easy. Student, parent, and teacher guides support learning. Common professional development supports teacher effectiveness. Colleges’ teacher training programs are much more effective.

But do you know what’s the biggest benefit of all? You don’t need as many standardized tests. Shocking, right? But if you have a common curriculum, then it is easy to implement common grading standards. In Alberta, they don’t allow grading on a curve, so grades are a very powerful feedback mechanism, for students, parents, teachers, and administrators. And when you eliminate grade inflation and have teacher assigned grades that really mean something, you don’t need as many standardized tests to measure the quality of your education system.

I know what you’re thinking. But won’t my kid be at a disadvantage in college admissions, compared to kids from places that still have grade inflation? That’s not a problem in Alberta, where universities routinely increase Alberta students’ GPAs to make them comparable with other provinces. It all comes down to how effectively a state or district explains their system to the colleges to which their students apply.

Last but not least, what about AP and IB or Jeffco’s recent experiment introducing the classical education model at Vivian Elementary School? Clearly, these are important exceptions that would have to be managed. But this is not hard to do, and is certainly not a reason to reject the many proven benefits of having a common, knowledge-rich district curriculum.

Get poor or chronically absent teachers out of Jeffco classrooms.

Common, high quality curriculum makes teacher professional development more effective, and should reduce the number of poor teachers who need to find a better match for their talents, either in the district or elsewhere. And I am the first to say that there are people in Jeffco’s classrooms who could make a much greater contribution to the district’s success in other roles.

But there will still be teachers who abuse the system. Perhaps the worst offenders are teachers who are chronically absent. The Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Energy collects data on how many teachers, at the district and school level, use more than 10 personal and sick days per year. These teachers are deemed “chronically absent.” They chose this number because their research found it is the cutoff number above which teacher absences have a significant negative impact on student achievement. Ask yourself: How much do your kids learn from a substitute teacher?

Base on the most recent federal data (which is collected with a lag, but Jeffco refuses to publish more current data), about 22% of Jeffco teachers are chronically absent.

Every school’s, and the district’s teacher chronic absence rate should be tracked and published in real time. Chronic teacher absences are just as much a threat to your child’s future as ineffective school HVAC systems (the details of which, as I write this, Jeffco still refuses to make public).

Fix CTE and STEM programs, which are generally a disaster in Jeffco.

Consider this: When Jeffco voters passed the 5A mill levy increase in November 2018, they were told that it would fund $3 million per year in higher spending on Career and Technical Education and STEM programming. Two years later, at the end of Fiscal Year 2020 on June 30, 2020, $4.7 million of the $6.0 million in additional funding received over the first two years of the mill remained unspent. Jeffco has talked a good game to voters, but has dragged its feet (to put it politely) when it comes to actually putting taxpayers’ money where the district’s mouth is (or was).

To be blunt, Jeffco’s CTE programs are a mess.

While district leaders love to point to Warren Tech, their support for Colorado’s state apprenticeship program (CareerWise Colorado) has consistently declined since my son was in the first class of advanced manufacturing apprentices in 2017.

It was also a struggle to launch CareerExplore at Wheat Ridge High School (with valuable, if unofficial, assistance from the leaders of Denver Public Schools’ CareerConnect program). This program is targeted at students who have lost hope, and are at grave risk of substance abuse, dropping out, and worse. It is focused on helping them earn certifications and undertake apprenticeships in the hospitality, construction, and healthcare industries. But despite its success at re-engaging these students and helping them to find jobs after graduation, Jeffco has failed to scale it up across the district.

Jeffco’s approach to helping students earn credentials that are highly valued by employers is chaotic. It has no effective, systematic approach to building relationships with employers. And its support for school level STEM programs is anemic, contrary to its chest-pounding public pronouncements.

A painful case in point: As I write this, Wheat Ridge High School’s national award winning STEM program — at a school that is 50% FRL — is on the verge of shutting down, due to budget cuts, even while $4.7 million in 5A funds earmarked for CTE and STEM remain unspent. Another tall poppy, cut down to size.

Jeffco should do what DPS did, and bring in business people to build relationships with employers and a first class CTE program. And start funding STEM as Jeffco promised voters that it would.

Help students reduce the cost of college by paying for BOTH concurrent enrollment courses at community colleges, AND dual enrollment courses at CU, CSU and other universities.

Colorado law requires districts to only pay for concurrent enrollment courses at two year community colleges. These courses are of widely varying quality, and many universities won’t accept credits from them. The exception are so-called “guaranteed transfer courses”, which by law must be accepted by other Colorado state colleges and universities.

In contrast, districts have the option, but not the obligation to pay for “dual enrollment” courses taken at CU, CSU and other universities. The difference from community college courses is that these credits are almost always accepted by whatever college — in state or out of state — a student attends after high school. Unsurprisingly, Jeffco doesn’t pay for dual enrollment courses, despite its alleged focus on improving “equity”.

Jeffco should help defray the cost of college for many more students and start paying for dual enrollment credits.

WAVE-3

If the previous waves’ changes have not substantiallyy improved the performance of the Jefferson and Alameda Articulation Areas, Jeffco must make more aggressive moves, such as wrap around zones and/or conversion to charter schools.

For twenty years or more, Jeffco leaders have promised parents in the high FRL Jefferson and Alameda Articulation Areas that they were going to improve the dismal performance of their children’s schools. Every time they have failed to deliver on this promise, despite district leaders’ self-proclaimed focus on improving “equity”. A generation of Jeffco’s children has paid a heavy price for the district’s hypocrisy.

If the steps described in Wave-1 and Wave-2 do not produce a substantial improvement in results in these two articulation areas, more fundamental steps must be taken. One artic should create a Wrap Around Zone, of the type that was used to successfully turn around the Lawrence, Massachusetts, school district.

Empower Schools, which led the Lawrence effort, has already approached Jeffco to crate a Wrap Around Zone in the Jefferson Articulation Area. Despite Empower’s offer being financed by outside donors, Jason Glass (without telling the public) turned it down. Jeffco should not reject it again.

In the artic not creating a Wrap Around Zone, a recognized high performing charter school organization (like DSST) should be brought in on a contract basis to run all the schools in the articulation area.

It is important that both turnaround approaches should be employed at the same time, so that their results can be compared and used to decide on next steps. Parallel experimentation will increase the speed of improvement.

Establish a systematic approach to innovation.

Under Jason Glass, Jeffco established an “Innovation Fund” that for three years gave $1 million in grants to support teachers’ proposals for new approaches that promised to improve district results. The underlying theory was that teachers had a large number of effective ideas that previous superintendents had failed to tap.

The theory has been decisively disproven; the Jeffco Innovation Fund has been a disaster. The decline in overall district achievement results has accelerated. Only a few of the ideas backed by the Innovation Fund have shown positive results. And over time the quality of ideas precipitously fell (by year three, it was funding construction of storage lockers for sports equipment).

The contrast between Jeffco’s shambolic approach to innovation and the systematic approach used in high performance systems like Alberta could not be starker.

Under the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement, the provincial ministry searched the world for them most promising performance improvement ideas, and they systematically piloted them in rural, suburban, and urban schools. Evaluation was quantitative and rigorous. Initiatives that failed to show results were cut, regardless of the political power of their supporters. Those that showed promise at the pilot stage were gradually scaled up — but cut if pilot performance was not replicated at a larger scale. And all this was done transparently — AISI had its own website, and all its data was made available to education researchers from around the world.

Jeffco needs to establish a similarly disciplined innovation process.

Eliminate the use of policy governance by the Jeffco Board of Education.

I have written at length about the dangers created when boards adopt policy governance (instead of the administrative governance approach used by public companies).

Jason Glass was a classic example of one of them: The creation of an overly powerful superintendent, who limited the flow of information to the board as well as their decision authority. More than once Glass cited his authority under policy governance to deem out of order board members’ requests for information and desire to bring up issues.

Unfortunately, the board’s weak chair routinely supported Glass’ disruption of what would be normal board governance processes in a public company.

Under Glass, Jeffco’s board meetings have included no conversations between board members — only tightly limited time for them to ask a maximum of two questions each about each agenda item. These were at best congressional oversight hearings, not board meetings of a billion dollar organization (although too often, “puppet show” has seemed a better description).

Critically, the use of policy governance prevents board directors from fully exercising their legal fiduciary duty of care. The potential exposure to litigation this creates is why no public company board uses policy governance. The abysmal performance of Jeffco, a billion dollar school district, under policy governance is just one more example of why it should not be used.

Final Thoughts

For the past ten years, since we moved here from Calgary, I have watched as year after year Jefferson County Schools delivered poor and stagnant performance. I’ve seen few adults pay the price for this failure. But thousands of children have, and research says that price often lasts a lifetime.

I have met many great Jeffco teachers, administrators, coaches, and other employees who I would not hesitate to hire — but too many whom I would fire.

I’ve seen too many of Jeffco’s best people leave, and too many of its worst get promoted.

I have also seen school teams work exceptionally hard to substantially improve their performance — only to have Jeffco’s dysfunctional district culture quickly cut them back down to mediocrity.

On the basis of ten years of evidence, it is clear that the real root causes of Jeffco’s persistently pathetic performance — which never appear in the district’s annual Unified Improvement Plans — are its poor management, weak governance, and cancerous culture.

Unless and until Jeffco’s citizens and employers summon the courage to address these deep root causes (which will inevitably generate conflict, and get you publicly accused of not being sufficiently “collaborative” with district leaders) performance will never improve.

In the meantime, thousands more Jeffco children will be forced to pay the price for adults’ collective failure.

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