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Thoughts on the Equity issue and school improvement mandates

Educational Directions is a consulting company that works with states, school districts, and individual schools to support student growth as learner and student growth as performer. We usually tie that support to test scores, school and district accountability, etc.

As a part of our work with states, districts, and schools, we regularly work with our leadership partners to evaluate initiatives that are being recommended by federal and state agencies, vendors of education programs or interest groups (e.g. the Council for economic education). Our part in the evaluation process is not to make a decision or recommendation, but to facilitate an evaluation of the initiative in terms of the needs and priorities of the state, district, or school.

Currently Educational Directions is working with districts to evaluate “equity” reform initiatives (e.g. critical race theory curricula and alternative approaches like the 1619 project curriculum) to assess their potential impact on the federal and state “standards” expectations required of schools. For most of the superintendents we work with this is a high priority/high visibility issue with focal and aggressive supporters and opponents. Our goal is to allow the company to remain a neutral facilitator for the decision-making process.

This is problematic for Educational Directions and our leadership. Educational Directions was established to support districts and schools who were struggling to adapt their practice to high-stakes accountability based on expectations of student mastery of “standards.” Our approach then, and now, is that standards demanded “equity.” Standards are, in our estimation, minimum competencies expected of all students, and required so that schools “improve” until all students can demonstrate the proficiencies required by the standards.

In every state that we have worked in as a consultant group, the state has established, by law or regulation, an expectation of student growth towards standards and have designed assessment tools to measure school success in moving students. The problem for schools, and for Educational Directions as it consults with schools, is that students are judged not by the analysis of their performance in standards-based applications but on their ability to accumulate a number of points on a standardized test (Kentucky tried to deal with this by including performance events and portfolio collections, but unfortunately, these proved to be too expensive).

This approach assumes that the assessment point count is determined by the student knowledge of content.  It also assumes that by identifying areas of underperformance or performance gaps and holding schools accountable, the inevitable result is improved student performance. In Educational Directions’ experience, both of these assumptions are flawed.

Educational Directions approaches school improvement on multiple levels. We acknowledge the need to improve student scores to avoid state intervention. We call this our “Band-Aid” intervention, and to be honest this is what most districts/schools one from us.

Our major focus (although this hasn’t always been marketable) is that schools have an obligation to all students to prepare them for the proficiencies needed to make successful transitions, and to independently use learnings in real-life situations (we call this effective, lifelong learning). In other blogs we have “unpacked” standards to show what this means in terms of establishing curricular expectations, embedding components of proficiency in all content curricula (e.g. learning competencies, performance competencies, habits of mind, thinking competencies, and communication competencies), building intentional curricula that enables teachers to move all students from where they start the year to where they are expected to be by the end of the year, and building monitoring strategies that enable teachers and schools to track student growth in all competency areas (this can’t be done by just recording scores).

For Educational Directions, the value of the “equity issue” or any of the other “reform” initiative is determined by its effect on the appropriate preparation for all students. It is fundamental to the work that we do as a consultant group. We honor the state tests, and that schools need to show improvement on the state tests, but we also honor the major requirement of improving schools’ ability to build proficient learners and performers.

State departments of education have addressed the problem of chronic school or chronic group underperformance by recommending/mandating statewide initiatives and/or by changing the nature of the assessment the way the assessment is scored. Some added nonacademic factors to the scoring, or reward movement out of the bottom quartile or bottom 5%, and some introduced a “fudge factor” to be added to underperforming group scores, etc.

For Educational Directions, accountability is determined by the state through its Department of Education. The agenda is determined by priorities identified by the state or by the greater community. Addressing the agenda is left up to the state, the state Department of Education, the school districts, and ultimately to the schools and the teachers. When new “agendas” come into play we, as a company, try remain neutral. Our stance is that as an outside agency it is not our place to decide the value of an initiative/agenda. Our focus is to facilitate discussions of the “value” of the initiative/agenda and its potential impact on both learners and the schools that are responsible for ensuring “success for all.” So far, we been able to help schools successfully integrate effective citizenship, school to work, 21st century technology aptitude and others.

In almost every case our programs and coaches have been able to help schools successfully integrate strategies that enable at least the majority of students to achieve the agenda goals. We’ve done this by supporting district/school leadership analysis of the initiative/agenda to determine:

  • congruence to existing state expectations and assessment specifications
  • congruence with current state “success for all” initiatives
  • value added potential of the program or agenda
  • opportunity costs of the program or agenda (e.g. time, curriculum displacement, etc.)
  • school or district readiness (e.g. materials, training, curriculum adaptation, lesson adaptation, culture/climate implications, etc.)
  • impact current districts/school SIP initiatives

Our current emphasis in supporting the evaluation of state “equity” initiatives is problematic since these vary from state to state. To determine the potential value of recommended initiatives and determine if and how we can help schools adjust to the new directions we use a directed planning activity to facilitate and help shape district/school discussions.

Educational Directions uses a number of tools to facilitate district/school evaluations of a recommended agenda or initiative, and if it is applied to existing programs and curricula, to also build plans that ensure successful implementation. Two of the tools are included below.

The first tool supports district evaluation of the appropriateness of the initiative to the district/school responsibility for moving all students towards state proficiency expectations. It develops a data stream that can be prioritized to help determine if and to what extent the initiative should be adopted and the resources that would be committed to successful implementation.

District Initiative analysis/ planner

Initiative:                                                     analysis:
Name: role:                                    date:
Analysis stepMy understandingPossible issues/barriers
Nature of the initiativeWhat the initiative is about:     Goal of the initiative:     
Congruence to state expectationsStandard Language/tasks:     State assessment:     
Congruence with other initiativesState initiatives:     District/school initiatives:       
Value added potentialculture/climate:   curriculum:     Unit/lesson planning:     
Opportunity costsTime:   Training:   Materials/technology:     
Our Readiness to implementConsensus commitments:   Rollout/staging:         

The second tool takes the steps Educational Directionsuses in building strategic plans and uses them to ensure that districts/schools think through the decisions necessary to build a successful implementation plan

District – initiative planning

initiative description:   source:                         priority:                           goal:
Implementation stepImplementation teamStart date/ completion dateResponsibilities/Product
Feasibility analysis  Pro/con analysisconcurrence analysisapproval/commitment
Integration plan  Implementation timelineassignment of tasksfunding commitmentstime commitments
Marketing plan  Rollout planconsensus development plan“on boarding” critical players – district level“on boarding” critical players – school level
Implementation planning  District Strategic plan – logistics planning, tactical planning, personal action plansschool leadership plan – school strategic plan, school logistics plan, school action plans
Plan monitoring  District monitoring implementation and impact planschool plan for monitoring implementation and impact on school and on student performanceplans for modifications/ changes identified as necessary to achieve the desired results  
Plan for end of year (EO Y) analysis of initiative results  Analysis of initiative impact on district/school practiceanalysis of the impact on teacher/student workan initial plan to segue the initiative into next year’s planning cycleanalysis of the impact on student learning/ performance

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