Improving district performance: A collaboration that really works
In the not-too-distant past, school districts throughout Iowa would receive a visit from the Department of Education every five years. No more.
Instead, Iowa has put in place a statewide accountability model that focuses on need: High-functioning districts no longer receive regular visits, freeing up capacity at the Department to focus on districts that do need a leg up. Differentiated Accountability, or DA for short, provides support for public districts, accredited nonpublic schools and Area Education Agencies (AEA) when and where they need it most.
Instead of a prescriptive, top-down list of corrective actions, the district is 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.
“Differentiated Accountability is the process we use to provide schools the supports they need when they need them to improve student achievement,” said Ryan Wise, director of the Iowa Department of Education. “Instead of a one-size-fits-all model, such as the old state plan when every five years every school got a visit from the DE whether they needed it or not, this is designed to let us look at set of indicators each year and determine which schools and districts need support at that time.”
Since its pilot launched in 2015, data shows it is producing impressive results: While nearly 63 percent of all the state’s districts showed positive growth from the fall of 2016 to the spring of 2017, 81 percent of the districts that had gone through the Differentiated Accountability process showed gains.
“This approach is really grounded in a school’s data and is designed to help them ask the questions that will lead to improvement,” Wise said. “Collaboratively, we uncover the path toward improvement that will work for them. I will add, even though it is a more tailored approach, it is still pressing the question: What is it that you can and must do to ensure every kid is becoming at least proficient in each subject matter and ultimately becoming career and college ready?”
DA, which is an essential element in the state’s Every Student Succeeds Act plan, is founded on Multi-Tiered Systems of Support. All districts use universal screening assessments through a state-approved literacy screening assessment. Most districts use the FAST suite of assessments, and many use math and behavior screeners, as well. These data are used by districts in conjunction with the accountability index data required by ESSA.
Schools that fall into the state’s lowest 5 percent are identified as requiring comprehensive work; it is the comprehensive work that brings the district, state and AEAs together to collaborate. Schools with underperforming subgroups receive targeted support through regional training and coaching.
Boiled down, DA has measured districts’ ability to screen students for literacy needs, monitor the progress of their students, and provide good literacy instruction for all kids. As Iowa implements ESSA, the measures are expanding.
Initially, the conceptual areas used as part of DA were Assessment and Data-Based Decision-Making, Universal Instruction, and Intervention System. These areas were used with an emphasis on literacy in preschool through sixth grades, during the 2015-16, 2016-17, and 2017-18 school years. As DA expands and is aligned with Iowa’s accountability system under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the other conceptual areas will be used and will also expand to literacy in grades 7-12, mathematics, and behavior and social-emotional learning.
“In my travels around the state, I have heard educators say that Differentiated Accountability is meaningful because it is tailored to them,” Wise said. “They have much more latitude as to how to go forward rather than the limited set of options under No Child Left Behind.”
Among the volunteers in the 2015 pilot was Carroll Community School district in west-central Iowa. Though a high-performing district, officials there wanted to participate nonetheless.
“The main reason we volunteered is that you can always improve,” said Sue Ruch, the principal of the district’s two elementary schools. “It was an opportunity that I felt we needed to get involved in.”
One niggling problem the district was experiencing was the number of students who surprised staff when data showed they hadn’t made progress.
Through DA, they discovered that they weren’t monitoring progress as regularly as they should have been.
“That was an eye opener because we believed they were doing well,” Ruch said. “The progress monitoring needed to be checked continuously.
“I cannot stress the importance of progress monitoring every week. Prior to Differentiated Accountability, we never said that was an expectation. But how do you know if they are improving or if an intervention works if you don’t monitor weekly? That was the turn about for us.”
The whole process made Ruch look at education – and the Department of Education – differently.
“My view of the DE changed at that point,” she said. “They are really making an effort to help every student and every teacher in the state. If you don’t take advantage of Differentiated Accountability, you’re really missing out on school improvement.