Microsoft Guides Philadelphia Schools Through Adoption of Competency-Based Approach to Employee, Partner and Student Development

REDMOND, Wash., July 31, 2006 – Building upon the maxim that great people make great organizations, Microsoft is making available to all educational institutions its newly created Education Competency Wheel, developed for the School District of Philadelphia and a significant outcome of the ongoing collaboration between the District and the Microsoft Partners in Learning Program in building the Philadelphia School of the Future.

The Education Competency Wheel is a set of guideposts for achieving educational excellence that centers on identifying and nurturing the right talents in a district’s employees, partners and students.

The Education Competency Wheel is a set of guideposts for achieving educational excellence that centers on identifying and nurturing the right talents in a district’s employees, partners and students. The Education Competency Wheel documents the spectrum of characteristics across various roles that can help a school district succeed in the 21st century. Philadelphia school officials recently began using the Education Competency Wheel and related materials to guide hiring decisions and professional development activities throughout the district. The Education Competency Wheel materials are posted on the Microsoft Education Web site ( for other school districts to adapt and use in creating their own competencies.

Based on Microsoft’s Own Professional Competencies

Modeled on the set of hiring and professional development competencies that Microsoft has adopted across its worldwide organization, the Education Competency Wheel now in use by Philadelphia schools evolved out of a year-long process that included extensive input from district teachers as well as parents and students. Lominger Limited Inc., a Minneapolis-based provider of leadership development resources, helped the district identify its Education Competencies as well as the competencies used internally by Microsoft.

Six core success factors – Individual Excellence, Organizational Skills, Courage, Results, Strategic Skills and Operating Skills – form the hub of the Education Competency Wheel with spokes depicting 37 specific competencies that the Philadelphia school district, Microsoft and other contributors have deemed essential to success in a 21st-century school environment. For example, the Individual Excellence success factor encompasses 11 competency areas such as Interpersonal Skill, Motivating Others, Building Effective Teams, Valuing Diversity and Listening. Accompanying these descriptions are examples of qualities or actions that demonstrate a person’s proficiency in the particular competency; interview questions designed to uncover the candidate’s skills and experience in each area; suggestions for further developing the competency; and other resources.

Benefit Students by Focusing on Employees

“These competencies give us a consistent framework for objectively assessing candidates’ skills, experiences and personal qualities in the context of our specific organizational goals and vision,” says Tomas Hanna, senior vice president of human resources for the School District of Philadelphia. “We believe that by focusing more clearly on what key qualities we want every employee to carry with them as they join and advance through the district, we will ultimately improve students’ performance by ensuring that we have the best available talent in place to serve them.”

Philadelphia is the seventh-largest public school district in the U.S. by enrollment, with more than 217,000 students at 273 schools and roughly 25,000 employees. Three years ago the district and the Microsoft Partners in Learning program agreed to work closely to build the School of the Future, a 750-student public high school in the Fairmount Park area of West Philadelphia that combines state-of-the-art facilities, a research-based progressive curriculum, innovative technology and other building blocks of an outstanding educational environment. The Education Competency Wheel is a direct result of that collaboration on the US$63 million school, which is funded out of the school district’s capital budget. The School of the Future will open its doors to its first entering class on Thursday, Sept. 7.

“Microsoft’s involvement in the Philadelphia School of the Future and the Education Competency Wheel springs from a deep interest in ensuring that all students receive the skills and resources that will enable them to succeed in a world that’s increasingly influenced by information and communication technologies,” says Mary Cullinane, group manager, Microsoft U.S. Partners in Learning Program, and a former teacher and school administrator.

Filling a Resource Need

Beyond the quality of facilities and tools that a school may provide, what really inspires success in the classroom are the interactions between teachers and students, Cullinane says. While the field of public education overall is as committed as any other industry to meeting high standards in employee selection and professional development, Cullinane notes that many school districts lack the budget and on-staff expertise to create their own resources in these areas. “That’s where we believe the Education Competency Wheel can make a tremendous impact in helping a school district hire the right people, retain them and foster their career growth,” she says.

Karen Kolsky, director of a district academy that helps train aspiring school principals and supports newly appointed principals, says this competency-based hiring approach ties back to the district’s Declaration of Education, which includes the beliefs that all children can learn at high levels and that the School District of Philadelphia can become a high-performing organization.

“Great people make great organizations,” Kolsky says, “And the Educational Competency Wheel is a tool for not only setting high standards of accountability for our employees but also ensuring we provide the tools for them to succeed.”

Kolsky, Hanna and others involved in the Philadelphia school district’s hiring process have so far used the Education Competency Wheel to define job profiles, evaluate applicants, structure interviews and assess the qualities of candidates for a number of district-wide administrative roles as well as about 20 school principal positions this summer. Over time, the district plans to formally adopt this framework for hiring teachers and support staff members as well.

Strengthen Team Building

“Since we began training our principals in the use of the Competency Wheel, many of them are already adopting the questions and techniques with their school teams as they interview teacher candidates through our site selection process,” Hanna says. “Principals also tell me that the Competency Wheel has inspired stronger team-building – which happens to be one of the main competencies our district seeks to develop – by bringing staff members together to talk about their school’s biggest needs and assess which people might be the best fit for addressing those needs.”

He says one of the most compelling aspects of the Education Competency Wheel is that it challenges people to describe how they’ve dealt with real situations in their career, rather than just how they would solve a hypothetical challenge.

“The competencies are built on a core belief that people’s future success is largely determined by their past behavior,” Hanna explains. “So instead of asking, ‘What will you do to raise high-school math scores in our district,’ we want to hear, ‘How have you monitored the achievement of goals and objectives – what measures did you set, and how did you monitor progress?’”

Most interviewees have reacted positively to this approach, though some admit the directness and demand for authenticity caught them off guard, Kolsky says. “Folks have told us that it’s refreshing but also that it has challenged them to think very differently,” she says.

“To me, the Education Competency Wheel provides a very rigorous yet non-judgmental yardstick by which we can measure each person’s strengths and weaknesses against the district’s performance standards,” Kolsky adds. “Plus, the developmental guidance and resources tied to each competency will help us provide clearer and more constructive feedback to our employees about where they can improve.”

With the Education Competency Wheel now widely available online and Philadelphia’s initial experiences to learn from, Cullinane says she is eager to see more districts adopt this practice. Microsoft has received requests from several major metropolitan school systems for presentations on the Education Competency Wheel.

Karen Bruett, vice president of K-12 Education at Dell, Inc. and a board member of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, says Philadelphia educators’ work with Microsoft maps closely to the Partnership’s overall objectives. “The core success factors outlined in the Education Competency Wheel reflect the skills that students will need when they get out of school, so it is essential for teachers and administrators to model these competencies,” Bruett says. “The School of the Future is about more than putting computers in kids’ hands. It’s about fostering positive changes throughout the whole education system.”

While solid evidence of the Education Competency Wheel’s effect on academic achievement scores, staff retention levels and other key performance benchmarks in Philadelphia schools will take months or even years to measure, Hanna says he has no misgivings about the value of this initiative.

“We’ve gained tremendous value from working with Microsoft to design and implement this Competency Wheel, which has the potential to improve our entire organizational culture,” he says. “An excellent employee is someone who is a great fit, someone you can count on to rise to the challenges and make a positive impact. The right hire not only adds value to an organization, it also saves us so much time and so much money.”

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