Making state grades matter: 3 keys to stronger local accountability planning

By Dr. Shelby McIntosh

When the Texas Education Agency released its preliminary A-F ratings for schools recently, a lot of educators–and parents and students, for that matter–were up in arms. And rightly so.

Dr. Shelby McIntosh
Dr. Shelby McIntosh

Across the state, critics of the preliminary system said the ratings discounted the quality teaching and learning that takes place every day in Texas schools. No school is perfect. Improvement is something educators, like students, aspire to daily. But it stings nevertheless when the good work you do feels like it isn’t counted.

The solution lies with a well-thought-out local accountability plan–a necessity that many school districts across the state have yet to master. Here’s three steps you can take right now to improve local accountability planning and community engagement in your district. If you want to talk more about how to do this, my contact information is below. I’m happy to walk you through it.

#1 Amplify the community’s voice

Give your community an opportunity to say for themselves how schools should be judged. Find out what’s truly important to parents and teachers and students. My bet: test scores rank pretty low on that list. Based on the feedback you receive from your community, and provided you’re in a position to really listen, you might find that qualities such as engagement and overall school climate are more important.

#2 Collect only the information you need

When you first start thinking about local accountability, the inclination will be to ask your community for feedback on every aspect of your school system. Resist the urge to throw the kitchen sink into your next district survey. Use up-front feedback to identify the areas that are important to the people who matter most. Then drill down where they tell you it counts. You can ask that other stuff later.

#3 Tell your story for real

Don’t let state legislators and others write your narrative for you. You know what an “A-plus” education looks like for your students and families. Make sure the people writing the rules and doling out the grades know it too. Present the data in the context of a compelling story–and turn information into action for your schools.

These are just a few of the many ways that your school district can leverage the power of local accountability planning to highlight its success, and improve its standing with the state. 

About the author

Dr. Shelby McIntosh is a former educator and school researcher living in Texas. She is currently Managing Director, Southwest, for K12 Insight. Reach her at smcintosh@k12insight.com.

Master Social Media in Schools With These 4 Steps

K12InsightDefinitiveGuideCoverMention the words social media in a room full of school leaders and you’ll be met with more than a few reservations: It’s too new. There are too many risks. I don’t know how to twit or tweet, or whatever. There’s got to be another way.

To the contrary, says Luvelle Brown, superintendent of the Ithaca City School District in upstate New York, social media is the way. Brown took that message to nearly 80 colleagues during an annual meeting of Empire State superintendents earlier this week.

“We have no excuses. We have to be active on these tools as instructional leaders, to give people a sense of what we are thinking and where we are,” said Brown during the New York Council of Superintendents fall meeting in Saratoga Springs. His words are the foundation of a new online guide designed to help the nation’s school leaders harness the power of social media to improve community engagement.

The aptly named Definitive School Leader’s Guide to Navigating Social Media acknowledges some hard truths—mainly, that school leaders still struggle to balance the inherent risks of communicating on social media with the tremendous benefits that these ubiquitous tools, such as Facebook and Twitter, now provide.

In addition to highlighting many anecdotal ways in which Brown and other school leaders have successfully improved community engagement with the aid of technology, the guide outlines four strategies to help other school leaders harness—and master—the power of social media.

1. Develop a plan
Outline goals for your social media campaigns. Set expectations. And create a process—so that all of your employees know what is, and is not, acceptable social media engagement.

2. Tell your story
Don’t use social media to simply react to negative feedback. Create a bully pulpit. Be proactive. And use the online tools and resources at your disposal to paint a positive picture of the good work under way in your school or district.

3. Encourage dialogue
Schools are great at pushing out information. But these days, there is no such thing as a one-way conversation. Use social media to engage parents, students, teachers and others in meaningful dialogue and use the results of those conversations to improve the quality of education across your school or district.

4. Avoid pitfalls
No denying it: social media has risks. Starting a Facebook or Twitter page might open your school or district up to the possibility of negative comments or feedback. But social media has its benefits, too. Knowing about these threats early, while they are just starting to make the rounds on social media, means you can head off a controversy before it ignites into a full-on PR crisis.

Just how much can a commitment to social media improve the reputation of your school district?

Brown says his district has become so adept at using social media that many community members now default to the district’s Twitter and Facebook pages to fact-check education news in the local press.

Ready to harness the power of social media to build stronger relationships in your school district? Download the Definitive School Leader’s Guide to Navigating Social Media and get to work.

Finding a Cure for Initiative Fatigue

businesswoman sleeping on stack of books

A teacher walks into the doctor’s office. “Doc, I don’t know what’s wrong, but I feel tired all the time. Just totally drained.”

The doctor performs a thorough physical exam and asks a series of questions. “How many more weeks of classes?”

“Two.”

“Bet you can’t wait for summer.”

The teacher nods. “Especially this year. With the Common Core and these new teacher performance metrics, it’s hard.”

“So they’ve got you doing a lot of new things at school then?”

“Seems like there’s a new requirement every day.”

“I see.” The doctor makes a couple of notes and looks up.

“What’s wrong with me, doc?”

“It’s called initiative fatigue. And your my fifth case this week.”

Spend a day or two walking the halls of your neighborhood high school and it’s apparent the kind of year it’s been for the nation’s teachers. Cutbacks and new testing requirements have taken their toll. From the front office to the classroom, everybody everywhere is ready for a break.

A couple of months to reflect and recharge might seem like the perfect antidote. But the reprieve is only temporary. The new school year promises to usher in a fresh set of priorities and requirements. Getting faculty and staff to buy into these reforms—whether it’s a new online testing model, professional development, performance evaluation, or other change—necessitates fresh stores of motivation and energy.

Author and education researcher Charlotte Danielson recently explored the link between initiative fatigue and classroom reforms. Though Danielson’s research, explained in this Education Week article, focuses on the Common Core, her findings are applicable to other systemic initiatives—a new technology project, for example.

While change does not come easy, Danielson says most educators are up to the task—provided that they understand what’s expected of them and are equipped with the skills and resources to get the job done.

“There is significant recognition that new adjustments will require perseverance and even struggle,” writes Danielson.

Across the board, educators said training was essential to their success and that, whatever the project, they needed time to adequately familiarize themselves with the content. They also sought stronger measures of personal mastery and access to advice from experienced peers who had achieved previous success.

Want to get faculty committed to and excited about a new reform on the books for next fall? Take the summer to thoroughly assess every facet of the program. Then ask yourself this question: Am I giving my staff the tools and resources they need to succeed?

If the answer is yes, you might have a cure for initiative fatigue.

Don’t Give Your Best Teachers a Reason to Quit on You

ThinkstockPhotos-78726889 (1)K12 schools face significant pressure to keep students engaged in learning. Every technology vendor you meet claims to be on the verge of the next big catch-all solution for classroom success.

But it isn’t just students who need help staying engaged in the subject matter; new evidence suggests that teachers are also starting to lose interest.

The findings are courtesy of NPR’s education team, which recently examined enrollment rates in statewide teacher education programs. What they found was alarming.

Over the past five years, enrollment in teacher training programs in the state of California is down more than half (53 percent). Other bellwether states, such as Texas and New York, have reported similar declines.

In North Carolina, NPR reports that participation in teacher training programs is down 20 percent over three years.

Bill McDiarmid, dean of the University of North Carolina School of Education, attributed the decline to a range of issues, from increased federal involvement to heightened scrutiny of teacher performance to a perception of poor pay and a lack of respect.

“It tears me up sometimes to see the way in which people talk about teachers because they are giving blood, sweat and tears for their students every day in this country,” McDiarmid told NPR. “There is a sense now that, ‘If I went into this job and it doesn’t pay a lot and it’s a lot of hard work, it may be that I’d lose it.’ And students are hearing this. And it deters them from entering the profession.”

Engaging educators
Even as technology radically transforms the classroom, K12 administrators know that the benefits of innovation hinge on their ability to marshal the support of staff and stakeholders.

McDiarmid says teachers often feel marginalized and underappreciated. The perception is that teachers become scapegoats for the failings of the school system. In reality, it’s a lack of resources, both in training and in pay, that drive people from the profession.

So, how can schools create a better, more fulfilling work environment for educators? How can they entice the best teachers to stay and finish what they started? Better pay is a good incentive. But it’s not the only solution. For a lot of districts, the process begins with a commitment to improved communication.

At the Rockford Public Schools in Illinois, the central office launched an online platform that gives the district’s 4,000 faculty members and teachers a direct line to the central office.

Superintendent Ehren Jarrett says the solution makes it possible to extend conversations with building staff beyond once yearly site visits and to “get a clearer, richer picture” of how teachers and others perceive the school system.

“Now, there is an ongoing opportunity to have regular dialogue with not only with the superintendent, but with any of the people in the district office who serve the staff,” explains Jarrett, who says that engaging staff in his top priority.

As a school leader, what steps have you taken to empower educators in your district? Do you believe that better communication is key to recruiting and retaining exceptional staff? If so, Let’s Talk! is worth a look.    

Competition is Heating Up; What Is Your District Doing About It?

CaptureK12 education is no stranger to adversity. Years of declining budgets make it difficult to adequately serve students. Divisive politics muddy the waters on accountability. Antagonistic community groups consistently stand in the way of progress.

Now a new report out of New Orleans suggests that schools in several communities face another adversary: themselves.

In spirit, the national school-choice movement seeks to give students who attend underperforming schools access to a higher-quality alternative education, whether through vouchers to local charter schools or open enrollment at neighboring public schools, among other options.

The goal: incentivize struggling schools to step up their game — or risk losing students.

But the study, from the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, suggests schools in the Big Easy spend more to fend off the competition than to improve academics.

This story in the Washington Post points out that of the 30 schools surveyed for the study, 10 tried to attract students by putting a charge into struggling academic programs. That’s compared with 25 schools that ramped up marketing for existing programs, with few if any academic improvements. Extracurricular activities were used as incentives. In some instances, public schools recruited individual students.

Huriya Jabbar, the report’s author and an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin, asserts that such tactics underscore a fundamental weakness in the school-choice movement, and hints that more oversight may be necessary.

“If schools, like firms in other markets, can choose to compete in ways other than improving their products — even in ways that violate district policies — a more significant role for a central authority may be warranted,” Jabbar writes in her report. “Without some process to manage the current responses to competition like student selection and exclusion, New Orleans could end up with a less equitable school system.”

Since Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans has become a leader in school choice. In 2014, NPR estimated that as many as 9 in 10 students attended privately run charter schools there. But it’s hardly the only place in the country in which public schools have been forced, for one reason or another, to confront the specter of increased competition. In Florida, pending legislation would allow parents to send their children to any public school in the state that has space. A report in the Tampa Bay Tribune notes that at least 20 states have laws that require public schools to accept students from other school districts.

What’s your take on school choice? Does it drive improvements or create disparities? Have you considered surveying your school community to find out what it thinks? Something to think about. 

Change the Rhetoric: Making Progress in the Age of Mistrust 

shutterstock_217249864Across the country, school district leaders have committed to making the kinds of bold reforms necessary to improve student outcomes. But a new report suggests that political infighting and a lack of public support threatens to sabotage these efforts.

Maze of Mistrust: How District Politics and Crosstalk are Stalling Efforts to Improve Public Education, profiles reforms underway in four U.S. school districts and considers the obstacles that prevent such improvements from achieving their potential.

At the heart of the problem, a lack of public trust.

“School leaders, teachers, and other educators frequently see themselves — and public schooling more generally — as besieged and second-guessed,” explain the report’s authors. “The dynamic colors educators’ responses to innovations and calls for reform, and it undermines relationships within and outside the schools that are needed to advance progress.”

That’s a heady indictment. But when you think about the shifting nature of communication — or some would say, the lack thereof — in the nation’s K12 schools it isn’t hard to comprehend how the writers arrived at such a conclusion.

Reality check
In an ideal world, the best educators would propose and support the boldest school improvements. But big changes don’t happen overnight — and they don’t usually take root without first weathering their share of resistance.

The question becomes whether school district leaders and others have the patience and the fortitude to see these plans through. In an age of heightened accountability — where careers are increasingly tied to performance and, to a larger extent, public sentiment — too many school leaders remain unready or unwilling to open themselves up to the criticism that precedes meaningful reform.

How can school leaders change the tenor of communication? How can we empower the best and brightest educators to confidently tackle those thorny, but potentially transformative issues? The report, underwritten by the nonprofit Kettering Foundation, offers several worthwhile suggestions.

Stop public attacks and second-guessing. Though educators are committed to improving student success, they are also hyperaware of political infighting in the school district and the consequences that come with a willingness to speak out against popular opinion. “Addressing this nearly ubiquitous sense of unease among educators may be a perquisite to garnering their wholehearted commitment to change,” say the report’s authors.

Get a clear picture of what the community’s needs are. When it comes to public engagement, the conversation needs to shift from drumming up support for a preexisting agenda to getting a better idea of what stakeholders actually want. Thanks to the evolution of social media, the age of the unilateral decision in the nation’s K12 schools is over. Successful reformers increasingly use technology and other tools and resources to connect with community members and consider their input when making tough decisions.

Close the chasm between the central office and school staff. Parents and community members aren’t the only ones who hold sway in the school decision-making process. Classroom teachers and principals also want and need to be heard. The report says that teachers often feel left out of important conversations about school reform and suggests that school district leaders make a genuine effort, through focus groups and other means, to bring these important voices into the fold.

Build a “reservoir of trust” within the local community. The most successful school districts do not operate in a vacuum. They work with partners, including local businesses and employers, to develop a deeper commitment to education and its role in the broader community. These relationships are important to reducing the amount of politics and infighting that occurs in the district and are needed to fast track programs to success, according to the report.

As a school leader, do you have any suggestions for how districts can change the rhetoric to promote a culture of trust and drive more effective reforms? Tell us in the Comments.