Differentiated Accountability in a word: “Fabulous.”
Superintendent reacts to new Department site visits
Approximately 30 Iowa Department of Education officials and another 20-or-so consultants from the state’s Area Education Agencies descended upon a Centerville elementary school.
An intimidating image? Not to Centerville Superintendent Tony Ryan. He welcomed the sight.
Ryan’s district is the first in the state to launch into Differentiated Accountability, a system designed to replace the former mandate of on-site visits every five years by the Department. The short concept of Differentiated Accountability, or DA, is that site visits are now focused on need. If a district is performing well, it may receive no visit, enabling districts with more needs to receive more coaching.
“As with anything, there is always a bit of apprehension,” Ryan said. “It comes down to your belief statement of doing what is best for kids. And we believe if the state is going to support us in such a way, we will take the step to do what’s best for kids. In the end, we want to assure teachers that we are not doing a ‘I gotcha,’ but instead doing what’s right for kids.”
The Centerville schools volunteered for the pre-pilot of DA; the Carroll Community School District will go next, followed by another 40-some schools in the official pilot in the spring. The pre-pilots are designed to iron out any unexpected wrinkles in the system.
"Differentiated Accountability allows us to collectively and collaboratively improve our practice,” Mark Crady of Heartland Area Education Agency (AEA) told the Centerville gathering. “We are going to do it together.”
And that is just the point of DA: Instead of a prescriptive, top-down list of corrective actions, the school will be an active participant in determining what’s working well, what needs improvement, and how to remedy it. Site visits under DA involve a team of educators from the Department and AEAs who partner with personnel from the school.
In determining whether a school or district needs a site visit, schools throughout the state annually complete for the Department what are called desk audits in which schools submit information about their compliance with state and federal law. Schools also submit data through the state’s early warning system on four pieces of information – known as Healthy Indicators – which are examined to determine the overall health of a school or district. The Healthy Indicators measure:
- The percent of learners assessed with a valid and reliable universal screener, which is a system that is used to determine whether students are falling through the cracks;
- The percent of learners not at benchmark – or where they need to be academically – who are regularly assessed with a valid and reliable progress monitoring tool;
- The percent of learners at benchmark on a universal screening assessment; and
- The percent of learners at benchmark remaining at or above benchmark in subsequent screening periods.
Boiled down, the Healthy Indicators measure the ability of school’s assessment system to screen students for literacy needs, monitor the progress of their students, and provide for good literacy instruction for all kids.
At the end of the visit, the Centerville team had created its own action plan:
- Develop a better approach to including the district’s preschool partners in universal screening.
- Create a consistent approach to interpreting data from building to building.
- Ensure principals at the schools coordinate when assessments are taken to avoid a shortage in substitute teachers.
- Introduce new technology into universal screening by using iPads.
- Schedule a common time for teams to review progress monitoring data.
- Explore implementing class-wide interventions.
- Examine instructional practices to ensure educators are being effective in their instruction and that their instruction is aligned to the Iowa Core.
What struck Iowa Department of Education’s Amy Williamson was the enthusiasm of the Centerville team.
“They already are doing some great educational practices, but they knew they needed improvement,” said Williamson, who is one of the chief architects of the state’s DA system. “They had groups of people from each building, from teachers to administrators. They had some disagreements, but worked hard to build consensus.”
Though most initially believed the four-day visit would be exhausting, by the end of the visit people wanted more.
“We had one teacher who planned on being there only two days, but she liked it so much that she ended up staying for the full four days,” Williamson said.
And Superintendent Ryan’s reaction to the visit? One word: “Fabulous.
“We thought it would go well, but it went a lot better than we could ever have dreamt. The collaboration between teachers, AEA and Department was fabulous. It was an experience that was uplifting to the staff, a morale booster.”
The perception of the visit, Ryan said, was that the collaboration created a team environment.
“We were working together rather than feeling something was ‘done to me,’” he said. “That was the big takeaway from the teachers because they felt the support was there.
“The teachers left motivated, eager and ready to go.”
The teachers themselves will create the action plan and roll it out. But first they plan to have a celebration observing the good things the district is doing.
“The teachers left inspired, and they want to take it in a positive direction and not let the momentum slip,” Ryan said.
The Centerville superintendent offered this bit of advice for other districts:
“As we move forward, I would suggest districts not to put up a defense, but seize the opportunity and tap into the AEA and the Department as a resource,” he said. “The actual experience was a positive experience focused on kids.”