Trademarks and low marks

Karen Gray

In July 2000, when the Clark County School Board adopted Policy Governance® – a trademarked and commercially sold package of operating principles and consultant services for boards of trustees – the board's president, Mary Beth Scow, predicted,  "Over time, we'll see a big impact in the performance of the kids."

Policy Governance®, however, is controversial. It teaches board members that their role is only to "set policy," then hire the superintendent to interpret that policy and function as the chief executive officer. Current school-board policy mandates that as long as the Superintendent uses any reasonable interpretation of the Board's policies, the Superintendent is authorized to establish all further policies, make all decisions, take all actions, establish all practices and develop all activities.

At the Board's 2006 Policy Governance® training, Dr. John Carver, author of Policy Governance® and paid consultant to the school board, instructed trustees, "You pass the policy… the superintendent's next step is to interpret that policy.  Now he doesn't need you to do that.  And you should keep your mouth shut about that." 

Under such a governance system, "policy" dictates that the superintendent is the Board's only link to district operation.  Board members can't even intercede on behalf of constituents, parents, students or employees when there is a concern.  Trustees cannot give instructions to persons who report directly or indirectly to the superintendent.  The superintendent alone directs and evaluates all staff.  According to Dr. Carver's training, the superintendent helps the board do its job, and the board never helps the superintendent do his job – "never, ever, ever."  There is no check-and-balance system, just total reliance on the superintendent and his yearly, staggered monitoring reports. 

Not surprisingly, superintendents as a rule much prefer this new empowerment.

Almost a decade after the Clark County School District (CCSD) adopted Policy Governance®, the natural question is: Has it moved the district along the road to higher achievement?

When school board members adopted Policy Governance®, they implemented a monitoring system whereby the superintendent provides the Board with an annual Academic Achievement Monitoring Report delineating student progress.  The December 2005 and 2006 reports – the last reports before the district altered reporting criteria and format in December 2007 – show Clark County running downhill. Graduation rates, under the State's formula, declined by 11.6 percent between the class of 2003 and 2005, dropping from 71.7 percent to 60.1 percent.

No doubt this data explains Superintendent Walt Rulffes' recent admission in the Las Vegas Review-Journal that Clark County's graduation rates have been "deplorable" and "shamefully low."

In 2000, the district boasted a graduation rate of 90.8 percent. True, this diploma rate was formulated by the district itself in order to respond to Policy Governance® criteria. Yet, even under that same formula, the district's most recent "diploma rate" data shows the class of 2006 crashing in at 85.4 percent – a 5.4 percent decrease in graduation since the adoption of Policy Governance®.

Let's look beyond graduation rates to the High School Proficiency Exam. Of Clark County high school seniors in 2000 who had enough credits, 90.5 percent had passed the High School Proficiency Exam.  Dissecting exam components, seniors who passed the reading, writing and math portions registered at 97.4 percent, 98.5 percent and 91.2 percent, respectively.

After six years under Policy Governance®, however, 2006 monitoring reports demonstrate that in 2006 a mere 84.1 percent of credit-sufficient seniors had passed the High School Proficiency Exam, a 6.4 percent decline. Similarly, reading slipped by 3.3 percent, writing by 3.8 percent and math by 6 percent.

So far, Policy Governance® doesn't seem to be the path to higher achievement in the district's high schools. Is the situation different at the district's elementary schools?

Unfortunately, no. Between the 01/02 school year and 2006, third graders' reading proficiency scores dropped 4 percent on the state's Criterion Reference Tests, while their math proficiency scores dropped 2 percent. Fifth grader reading proficiency scores, over the same period, crashed 11 percent. One exception to the pattern was a 1 percent increase in fifth-grade math proficiency scores. Could this be the "big impact" in performance that President Scow was predicting?

The Clark County School District has been under Policy Governance® for eight years and in that time the district has gone from boasting A-level graduation and proficiency rates to using adjectives such as deplorable and shamefully low

Whether or not the school board accepts a nexus between its implementing Policy Governance® and the district's decline, CCSD's own data tells a genuinely significant story – one where the costs to students, their parents and the entire community well exceed the program's dubious benefits.

Karen Gray is an education researcher at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.