On the Road #3 – The Plan (Arizona)

According to the laws of Arizona, the state board of education is directed to “Determine the policy and work undertaken by it.” In other words, as a body whose existence is spelled out in the state’s constitution, the board has both the opportunity and the responsibility for figuring out what needs to be done and then doing it.

Boards can meet this mandate in a number of ways, but one of the most effective ways is to develop a strategic plan that can guide their work for the next year. During my visit to Phoenix in August, that was what the board was tackling.

There’s nothing glamorous about a planning retreat. It’s hard work—looking back to see what has worked (and what hasn’t), looking forward to see what needs to be done, building consensus around priorities. The board devoted the better part of a full day to the task.

Arizona’s board is diverse. While the governor makes appointments, he or she must be sure their appointees fill different membership categories: the president of a state university or state college, four lay members, a president or chancellor of a community college district, a person who is an owner or administrator of a charter school, a superintendent of a high school district, a classroom teacher, and a county school superintendent. The state superintendent of public instruction is also a board member.

Because the board is so diverse, finding consensus could be a real challenge. This is where it paid off for the board to consider some bigger questions:

  • What strategies and events have had the greatest impact on student achievement in the last two years? What events do we think will require our attention in the next year? Legislative sessions – past and future – figured prominently in responses to both those questions.
  • What worked well? The board’s decision to award a Native Language Teaching Certificate was highlighted here as having a big impact for Native American communities in the state.
  • What are we hearing from other stakeholder groups? Before the meeting, the board’s staff consulted with groups ranging from superintendents to charter school operators to the teachers’ unions.

It was not a day that provided spectators with many interesting moments. Board members wrote their thoughts, shared them in small groups, and then reported out. But areas of consensus did emerge.

The board renewed its commitment to its strong mission statement: “To aggressively set policies that foster excellence in public education.” They laid out plans for the coming year. And if experience has taught me anything, it’s that having a solid strategic plan (which NASBE can assist member boards with assembling) is the foundation for sound decisionmaking.

Now at Arizona’s next meetings, the task—and challenge—will be to see those plans turn into action items.