Lakeville schools are taking a business concept from the boardroom to the classroom, hoping to evaluate which academic programs are working and which ones aren't worth it.

This summer the district started using an academic return-on-investment (A-ROI) philosophy to look at one program, with plans to do the same with others in the coming year.

Other districts, such as West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan and South St. Paul, have also used A-ROI. In fact, that's how Lakeville became familiar with the concept, said Superintendent Lisa Snyder.

Officials admit that schools aren't exactly businesses, and that measuring outcomes can mean grappling with some things that are tough to measure.

One attribute — and educational buzzword — that may be assessed is grit, or how determined a student is to do something, despite challenges. Others include students' engagement, resiliency and curiosity.

How to assess such fuzzy concepts?

There are ways to do it, including surveys, focus groups, observations and interviews, officials insist. Parents, teachers and students will all be involved.

"We feel like we need to take a 'whole child' approach," Snyder said.

'ROI'

In business, return on investment means how much a company is getting back for what it has paid in, financially and otherwise.

In education, it involves determining a program's goals, measuring them using data and determining whether students in the program are meeting them, said Jason Molesky, the district's program evaluation director.

A program's cost is also weighed in, he said.

The system "is exciting because it's the first time that we can really evaluate each program for what its merit is," said Roz Peterson, school board chairwoman.

A-ROI is still brand new in Lakeville, having been discussed at a recent school board work session. A formal presentation to the board is scheduled this week.

In recent years, Lakeville has experimented with many innovative programs, from Impact Academy, in which students learn at their own pace, to Link 12, an online school.

This system will "just strengthen our improvement efforts and provide another means for talking about how we're doing," Molesky said.

While Lakeville was already results-oriented, the new system "is a really good fit for Lakeville to bring us to the next level," Snyder said.

So many variables

This summer, administrators and teachers at Impact Academy have already begun using A-ROI to determine what the school's goals are and how they might be measured.

"The value is really in the process, getting people more in an accountability mind-set," Molesky said.

That will be the first step in assessing any program, Molesky said — setting concrete, measurable goals.

Then, decisions are made about how to measure the goals, data is collected and results are calculated. Comparisons are made to other district programs and student groups.

Molesky acknowledges that figuring out how to measure things related to kids and learning is sometimes easier said than done.

"The difficulty with education is there are so many variables and so many different factors that we're looking at," he said.

While A-ROI will use traditional measurements of student success, such as standardized test scores, it won't require kids to take more of them, he said.

"We overtest our kids already," he said. "What we want to do is look at other assessment tools to measure some of those intangibles that are out there."

'Overwhelming but exciting'

In schools today, there's an increasing focus on accountability and student performance, said Molesky.

The emphasis is often on kids' math and reading test scores, but this allows the district to look at more programs and broader goals, he said.

A need to cut programs isn't why A-ROI is being implemented, but cuts "certainly could happen," Snyder said.

Molesky said the end goal isn't to be able to create a ranking of the best or worst programs, but to look at each one's effectiveness.

School board members have already suggested the district assess specific efforts, such as Advancement Via Individual Determination, a college readiness program, as well as the Ignite program for gifted students.

Another recommendation was to look at the practice of having middle school students take a double block of language arts classes, Snyder said.

While it can be a bit overwhelming, the new approach is also exciting, Snyder said. "I think it can be transformational, actually."