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GRAVES: Link between scoreboard and scholastics distant, but still expected

When I think back to my first year as a school superintendent — now 23 years in the past — I marvel at just how hard I worked, how many Joe Graves, Mitchell Superintendentvery long hours I worked, and just how little I got done in comparison with today. While it may be an exaggeration, it seems like I get more done by 9 a.m. in 2014 than I accomplished by 9 p.m. in 1991.

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The simple truth is that I am enormously more efficient at my job today than I was back then. (We can still argue over whether my current job performance is exemplary or execrable; either way, it is still far better now than then.) Educational research suggests this is also true of teachers. Senior level teachers typically produce more academic achievement in their students than novice ones because veteran instructors have an extensive “bag of tricks” they have developed over the years and because they have adopted rules of thumb which guide their instruction and classroom management.

I strongly suspect, though know of no research on the topic, that the same is true of school administrators. I was thinking of one of these recently in regard to an issue we brought before the last school board meeting. The rule of thumb, to put it in Stephen Covey’s words is: “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” (This is one of those wonderful quotes that conveys a powerful message even though logically it turns in on itself and so literally means nothing.) Which is to say, “figure out your mission and then place all of your resources relentlessly in pursuit of that mission.” If you want to know why Mitchell Technical Institute has been so incredibly successful over the years, it is because it knows its mission — providing skills to student in high-paying technical fields in response to market conditions — and pursues it persistently, even ruthlessly.

That such a seemingly obvious point can produce such wonderful results and that it even needs to be said makes the point that too often we stray from it. People get bored or they magnify the causes of mission realization or even the mission itself and pretty soon they are wandering off into the no-man’s land of anything goes. Keeping the main thing the main thing may be simple when you talk about it, but it can also be tough to do in practice. As the non-Covey quote goes, “When you are up to your rear end in alligators, it can be tough to remember that your objective was to drain the swamp.”

And I suppose that is how I felt when I brought to the school board an overall plan to replace the current scoreboard at Joe Quintal Field. The school district’s mission, after all, is to produce high student achievement. A thousand things go into getting there, but the linkage between a student proficient in reading, English, and math and a cool scoreboard with messaging abilities and a sound system is, well, an awfully strained one.

Which leads me to another rule of thumb for administration: there are certain things you have to do which are remarkably distant from the mission but that are simply expected. Need an example? Sometime this summer, we will probably be re-paving some school district parking lots. This is an extraordinarily expensive undertaking and I don’t believe it will add one scintilla to our achievement numbers. But if you are going to have school buildings, you are going to need paved parking lots. It is simply expected.

Now, I truly enjoy high school football. Watching the Kernels duke it out with their rivals from around the ESD makes for some truly enjoyable fall evenings. And extracurriculars do keep many a student-athlete not just a student but also a student who works harder at their grades. And if you are going to have a football team, well, you are going to need a scoreboard, even one that costs as much as most people’s houses. The fact that it would be more mission-specific and more enjoyable to spend those dollars on computers or other teaching technology or textbooks (note I’m only mentioning items that can be purchased from the capital outlay fund as this is also the source of dollars for a scoreboard) doesn’t change the fact that we’ve got to have a good scoreboard.

So, even though sometimes it feels a bit like a necessary evil, we will spend those dollars — in conjunction with privately donated funds — on a scoreboard and we will select a scoreboard which can enhance our football, soccer and track programs. As we do so, we will also attempt to purchase one that gives us not only the biggest bang for the buck but also that enhances the educational — both inside and outside of the classroom — experience for those we are fortunate enough to be educating.