Towards a School System: Some Preliminary Results from Ogden

Posted on December 12, 2013

Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it is getting.”

W. Edwards Deming


In the March 2013 edition of the Utah Special Educator, I had the opportunity to review Ogden City School District’s context for academic improvement. I reviewed the work done at many schools in Ogden and district-wide school turnaround.

This article relates Ogden’s efforts–developmental and only beginning–to bring focus and clarity to its school turnaround. My primary point is that the vision of education as a collection of unconnected individuals operating independently no longer serves our needs well.  To the contrary, order our situation demands that we create and operate a school system, not merely a system of schools. This change is fundamental.  Professor Deming, one of the foremost systems thinkers asked:

What is a system? A system is a network of interdependent components that work together to try to accomplish the aim of the system. A system must have an aim. Without an aim, there is no system. The aim of the system must be clear to everyone in the system. The aim must include plans for the future. The aim is a value judgment.

With this vision of a system in mind, the task in Ogden City School District is to consider our system and attempt to modify it so as to achieve something new and different than we had achieved previously. That something is nothing less than the goal that every student will have an educational opportunity to achieve the very best, the very highest that that student may achieve.

Our system, therefore, has a new focus that is intensely and unapologetically student-centered.  Student results must be the standard by which everything in the system is measured.  I will review several areas in which OCSD has attempted to put this systems-focus into practical application.

A Sense of Urgency

Absent a basic belief that the present condition is unacceptable, change will not occur.  Accordingly, we have attempted, albeit imperfectly, to communicate a need for dramatic, immediate, and substantial change. Incrementalism is a strategy focused on the adults in the system; it posits that change can occur by marginal changes implemented gradually over years.  Student focused change requires a strong sense that present circumstances are unacceptable and must be dramatically, immediately, and substantially altered.  See, e.g., Frederick M. Hess, Cage-Busting Leadership, 27-79 (Harvard Education Press, 2013).

The foremost expert in change theory, Professor John Kotter, identifies an increase in urgency as the first step in a successful change process. John Kotter, Leading Change, (37-52)(Harvard Business Review Press, 2012).  Communicating the need for change in Ogden’s context was both obvious and difficult.  Obvious because Ogden’s objective performance in 2011 was unacceptable by any standard; difficult because it requires steady communication. For example, based on end of level examinations in 2011, six of the ten lowest performing elementary schools in Utah were in Ogden. System-wide, in 2011, proficiency in all subjects was barely more than 50%; math proficiency was less than 50%, dipping to less than 25% in our high schools. By any objective measure, performance was unacceptably low.

While the numerical, objective manifestations of low performance are clear and demand attention, they do little to move people to action. They are too cold and rigid.  A critical systems approach to motivating people to action is to illustrate as graphically, personally, and emotionally as possible the faces of the students behind the numbers. It is one thing to say that fewer than one in four graduates are proficient in math; it is something else to illustrate that a specific student suffered a specific set of problems (lack of employability, inability to complete college, need for remediation at college, etc.) as the proximate result of the offerings in the system. The former has little motivational traction; the latter has far greater potential.  Creating an urgency for change is the sine qua non of change itself.

Systems Alignment

A school system is among the most complex and varied systems in our culture.  Legislators, vendors, federal lawmakers, parents, advocacy groups, universities, police, and others all utilize the school system as a place to offer a cornucopia of good things.  As a concrete example of variety of offerings, one need look no further than the assurances LEA heads must sign as part of the Utah Consolidated Application. The required assurances include school safety plans, school enrollment options, lobbying, drug-free workplace, employee legal liability notices, detailed accounting assurances, collective bargaining assurances, assurances regarding posting the national motto and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, community councils, equal treatment of employee associations, association leave policies, payroll deductions, truancy, child abuse reporting, public meetings laws, corporal punishment, search and seizure policies, medical recommendations to parents, firearms safety training, K-3 reading plans and goals, educator evaluation programs, foreign exchange students, electronic media safety, accelerated student programs, threats, juvenile offenders, gang prevention, bullying, cyber-bullying, special education programs, and many more.

The point here is not to complain about the scope of these assurances. It is to observe that, among the pages of assurance, not one asked for an assurance that our system was aligned to support student achievement.  Many of these things are valuable and important; very few are urgent. Many are foundational to governmental openness and accountability and must be done.  However, the vast number of requirements, programs, and assurance is a siren-song, diverting us from focus and urgency. As the focus is broadened almost daily–an almost irresistible impulse for anyone associated with education from lawmakers to student custodians–attention paid to our core mission is necessarily diluted.

Our core mission is to insure that students graduate from our high schools with a quality foundation in reading, writing, thinking, math, science and citizenship to function meaningfully in the world they will live in.  Articulating a clear, coherent set of educational standards that focus clearly on the most important topics is a fundamental feature of the highest performing educational systems in the world.  See, e.g., Amanda Ripley, The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got that Way, 72-78 (Simon & Shuster 2013)(and sources cited therein).

The Utah Core is a substantial step that our state has taken–as a system–to provide a clear, coherent statement of what we expect our children to be able to do at the end of each grade of school. In Ogden, with so many programs, grants, ideas, and actions, it has taken a very heavy lift to try to bring some degree of order and alignment to the system.  We had systematically conflated activity with achievement. This manifest itself in the extreme fatigue, skepticism and even hostility with which many employees greeted school turnaround. After all, they were already working very hard and had been doing so for many years. Shifting from measuring success by looking to achievement rather than activity is a daunting part of our district’s turnaround.

In addition, the work of system alignment cannot be limited to a single school or a single program. While not every school is in need of turnaround, every school in Ogden was in need of a clear, consistent set of performance expectations. The foundation is the idea that we measure ourselves by student outcomes relentlessly and with steely discipline.  Achievement not activity is the touchstone of measurement.

Trying to understand the effectiveness of competing programs is central alignment.  Many programs are effective, but not equally so. Differentiating between the modestly effective and the highly effective requires discipline and information. A near canonical source is the groundbreaking work of Professor John Hattie, Visible Learning.  John Hattie, Visible Learning (Routledge 2009).  See also, John Hattie, Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning (Routledge 2012); John Hattie and Gregory Yates, Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn (Routledge 2013).  Our system is learning the discipline to reject the merely good in preference to the better and hopefully in preference to the best.

At present, our system remains unduly complex and unwieldy, a condition not unique to Ogden or to Utah. We do, however, have a clear focus on explicit, objectives, and specific student achievement goals.  All programs, new or existing, are subject to analysis and justification based on that single-minded focus. This aspect of our work is only nascent.  It has far-reaching implications for evaluation systems, talent management, budgeting, and community relations; implications we are only beginning to understand and explore.

Data Systems

In order to truly constitute a school system in which educating the individual child is the aim of the system, mechanisms that allow the individual educator to know and understand a child on a deep level are essential. As the 2011 school year concluded, our district had no meaningful system to provide teachers with actionable information.  Teachers were left adrift, to fend for themselves and try to understand the needs of their students. Expecting teachers to move a child academically without providing the teacher with a steady stream of easily accessed, easily understood, meaningful data is to expect what never was and never can be; it is profoundly unfair to both students and teachers.

As a system, we have begun to attempt to inculcate a system of “data-driven” instruction. Short cycle, common interim assessments are now a district norm. We have struggled–and continue to struggle–to insure that these assessment align to end of level tests, a less and obvious task. Our preliminary data suggest that our common interim assessments are reasonably predictive of end of level performance.

The advantage of a system of six to eight week assessment cycles, with lesson planning, reteaching, interventions, and instruction structured in response to the assessments is that we begin to (1) systematically address individual students by name, by skill; and (2) develop a repertoire of tactics to address students where they are. A core resource is the detailed, pragmatic data utilization materials developed by Paul Bambrick-Santoyo.  Paul Bambrick-Santoyo, Driven by Data: A Practical Guide to Improve Instruction (Jossey-Bass 2010).  See also, Paul Bambrick-Santoyo, Leverage Leadership: A Practical Guide to Building Exceptional Schools, 21-58 (Jossey-Bass 2012).

Developing data-driven instruction as a system is essential in Ogden’s context.  Our students have a high mobility rate and move between schools with alarming frequency.  Having similar systems in place from classroom to classroom and from school to school ameliorates the loss and harm done to children by being highly mobile. Consistency of assessment, curriculum, curricular resources and approaches also allows best-practices for reaching and engaging highly at-risk students.

Most importantly, a data-driven culture encourages each participant in the system–adults and children–to develop the intentionality required to succeed with the most rigorous college and career readiness standards. A data driven culture presses adults to understand students, dynamically, and by skill. It also impels students and their parents to do the same by providing them with real-time informance about specific skills they can address and augment.


For both adults and children, high-quality, timely feedback is among the most effective teaching modalities available. High-quality feedback, however, is predicated upon the availability of timely information. A data-driven culture therefore is emphatically not about simply collecting information. As long as data is viewed as something “over there” it is not useful. Instead, a data-driving culture seeks to empower each person to understand both a present position, the desired vector of action, and the actions necessary to move to higher performance.

Feedback, as a formative tool, is a powerful systems tool. Of course, it is clear that the relationship between a teacher and a student is a basic predictor of success. When a close bond is coupled with powerful information, the relationship becomes one of partnership in which a student takes responsibility for learning augmented by feedback and support from a teacher. A virtuous cycle is created. Educational excellence for both teacher and student is the outcome.

The cycle, however, is not different for adults.  Effective feedback systems between teachers and administrators work exactly the same way. In Ogden, we are seeking to establish a system of openness, clarity, observation, and partnership, focused on student achievement. Our evaluation system has not focused on that goal; as a system it has been at war with student achievement. Moreover, it has been a source of perpetual frustration for teachers and administrators.

While there is understandable trepidation about any evaluation system, we strive to move to a post-industrial model of intentional adult learning. We learn best when we are observed often, authentically and given quick feedback, support and opportunity to grow. To paraphrase Tom Peters, the crux of effective feedback in Ogden is “fail often and fail early.” Growth assumes the risk of failure. In Ogden, failure is not a sin. The only sin is the refusal to learn from failure.

We are only just starting to understand what it looks like to institutionalize effective feedback. Failure following work is acceptable; a refusal to learn is not. While merely aborning, our system seeks to institutionalize effort, analysis, adaptation, and adjustment.

Preliminary Results   

Our results after two years are strongly encouraging. The heavy line on the accompanying chart shows our average proficiency for ELA, math and science, for all schools in Ogden, K-12.  Over two years, district-wide proficiency went from 52.9% to 61.6 %, an increase of 8.7%.  This reflects nearly 1,100 students who were not proficient in 2011 who were proficient in 2013.

The best trajectory based upon the 2009-2011 period would be that change in proficiency would have been flat, district-wide.  In that period, our district started in 2009 with all grade, all school proficiency of 51.4%. Two years later, in 2011, it was 52.9%, a positive change of 1.5%.  However, comparing the two years from 2009-2011 with the two years from 2011-2013 shows that the increase in proficiency was 5.8 times greater in the most recent two years. Putting this in terms of children, for every one child who moved into proficiency in 2009-2011, nearly six children moved to proficiency in 2011-2013.  The teachers, administrators, and staff in Ogden City School District are clearly getting it right.

Drilling down to the three tested subject areas is equally encouraging. With respect to English/Language Arts, from 2009-2011, proficiency increased from 63.1% to 64.2%, or 1.1%.  From 2011-2013, proficiency moved from 64.2% to 74.2%, a 10.0% increase.  Put differently, for each student who moved to ELA proficiency in the period 2009-2011, nine students moved to proficiency in 2011-2013; for math, for each student moved to proficiency in 2009-2011, 3.3 students moved to proficiency in 2011-2013; for science, for each student moved to proficiency in 2009-2011, more than five students moved to proficiency in 2011-2013.

These results are strongly encouraging.  No longer do we need to hear stories of some school in some other place that was a turnaround success.  The stories of students rising to the level of heightened expectations, of teachers stretching students to their full potential, and of schools being successful are here, in Ogden, in our schools.  However, these results are only preliminary.  While the increases are stunning and a testament to hard work and dedication, they presage the work yet to be done.  We have worked hard, but it is a marathon.

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As a district, support for school turnaround is essential.  In many systems turnaround leaders are forced to become “as a fish swims in the sea” to paraphrase Chairman Mao.  Because the system is not geared to support turnaround, a turnaround leader becomes a deviant. District supported turnaround starts with the premise that we are a school system, a network of interdependent components that must function together. The district thus becomes either a source of power for turnaround or a source of drag.  Our learning in Ogden is that district support for turnaround is an essential part of improving educational outcomes for our children.

Author: Brad Smith, Superintendent, Ogden City School District