If one seeks to eliminate achievement gaps at elementary, middle, and secondary school levels, then it is essential that improvement efforts focus on implementing a series of initiatives. The initiatives must aim to achieve a targeted degree of implementation in a focused and progressive effort. Periodic evaluations of progress in reaching new standards help determine when the various elements of the plan are in place and functioning reasonably well. Periodic visits to the schools enable superintendents and central office staff to estimate the extent to which work has been undertaken in each area. For example, if a district already has implemented a curriculum that aligns instruction and instructional materials, the superintendent may feel additional work is currently not needed. On the other hand, if the curriculum has been aligned, but no calendar or schedule of topics and skills to be taught has been established and implemented, this might appear under the “Next Steps Action Plan”.
Options for Judging Progress
In addition to periodic visits by the superintendent and central office staff, a number of other options may be considered for rendering judgments on the extent to which the indicators are being achieved. In a team approach, a superintendent might, for example, include some of his staff, building principals, or teacher representatives to make a judgment about progress or needs. The team approach offers a more thorough perspective on deciding where work is needed and in what order of priority. Another approach, contracting an independent, external consultant, might reveal some areas of need not identified by the team approach, but this approach should be executed carefully and thoroughly, with the results being provided to central office leaders or other members of the team working on the district’s annual plan for school improvement.
Impediments to Success
Teachers and principals tend to have difficulty eliminating the achievement gap if they don’t really believe it can be accomplished. The real challenge for school district leaders who believe their students can achieve at high levels is helping others come to hold this same view. Of course, a wide range of evidence now strongly suggests that, given high-quality learning opportunities, poor and minority students can succeed academically, so district leaders must inculcate this understanding and their vision of success in all stakeholders. If district leaders can overcome this first impediment to success, they must then sustain enthusiasm for change, often over a protracted time. Administrators can maintain enthusiasm by their own insistent commitment to change, but they must also create structures and policies that will support the reforms. No significant improvements on student achievement will accrue until the district is well along in providing the necessary training to its staff and implementing the changes that will follow adoption of these measures. In addition, school systems have only so much capacity for making real changes in any one year. Central office leaders will always need to judge just how far they can move in any one year and which areas should be given priority.
Using the Guideline
An accurate chart will readily inform leaders if, for example, training has been provided in a particular area and reveal the magnitude of implementation among district/school staff.
I. Standards and Assessment. The Standards and Assessment section includes five measures: (a) Key Indicators of Success, (b) Curriculum Alignment, (c) Management Information System, (d) Benchmark Testing, and (e) Using Item-analysis Data. Many districts work hard on providing staff development on teaching strategies only to find that test scores remain low because the curriculum teachers were using was not measured by the standardized tests the district had chosen or that were being required by the state education agency. Perhaps, too, the board of education had not articulated what the key indicators of success were, much less how judgments were to be made on these indicators. Key indicators of success may include scores on state assessments, but most boards probably are also interested in student performance in such untested areas as art, citizenship, and health.
Developing a good management information system, one that reliably informs school and district staff about student progress and provides a basis upon which to plan for improvement, takes time and the collaboration of both school and district information system personnel. If test data coming back from the state or other standardized testing agencies is not disaggregated to show how various subgroups of students are performing, the district office should do so before disseminating the data to the schools. The data should then be used to provide corrective instruction tailored to students’ weaknesses.
II. Restructuring for Accountability. The Restructuring for Accountability includes four measures: (a) Restructuring for Accountability, (b) Site-based Budgeting, (c) Team Planning for Improvement, and (d) Central Office Leaders Facilitate Processes.
Central office leaders have shifted their focus toward improving those processes that contribute to higher achievement rather than focusing on more traditional roles of control, resource allocation, and supervision. Their task today is to help principals and others get results. One strategy commonly employed is site-based budgeting, but even if a district decides against a true site-based budgeting plan, principals still need discretionary resources if they are to respond to immediate and changing needs.
It is axiomatic that schools should be “data-driven”. In many schools, teachers are also deeply involved in the responsibility for improving student achievement. However, many faculties will need training in how to work effectively as a team. Merely recognizing that meetings are held periodically by groups of people does not guarantee that a clear agenda is followed, data are used, decisions are made, and wide participation ensured.
In facilitating the restructuring of districts and schools for increased accountability, some districts provided more support than others, including district-wide staff development on teaching strategies, using data to plan improvements, identifying best practices, and helping the system retain its focus on improving student achievement.
III. Using Research-Based Teaching Strategies. Restructuring the schools and districts helps pinpoint responsibility for student achievement, and standards and assessment must be clear at the outset. But ultimately, students need robust and appropriate learning experiences that are more effective than their previous experiences or no boost in achievement will be forthcoming. Because there is a considerable body of evidence supporting the gains that can be attributed to improved classroom management and instructional skills, using research-based teaching strategies is, consequently, one of the priority areas of the benchmarking processes.