Bringing about optimized learning environments through a customized program of holistic, collaborative school reviews – how the Alabama State Dept of Education ‘cut to the chase’ when it came to developing their strategies for improvement.
The Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) made the decision that analyzing test scores alone would not give the holistic view of educational performance the state desired to support potential areas of strength, and identify areas and strategies for improvement.
Following a tender process, ALSDE appointed Class Measures to undertake a comprehensive 15-month program of external evaluation services for 10 districts and 38 schools. The program focused on each district’s ability to support schools in making a difference to the academic, personal and social learning of all students, and the preparation of students for college and future careers. The outcomes have been hugely positive, and the Alabama State Department of Education has now further revised the review protocol to use as the foundation for all support needs assessment and progress monitoring.
Lori Boyd, Office of Student Learning, Education Administrator, cited the calibre of the Class Measures team as key to the success of the reviews,
“The ALSDE was impressed with the quality of the evaluation teams assembled to conduct the reviews. The team members were experienced educators who understood quality schools and provided unbiased analysis of school performance based on the ALSDE rubric. Their work was of exceptional quality.”
A customized program designed with clear, measurable outputs in mind
The customized Class Measures program commenced with ALSDE staff training to build capacity within the department; this was followed by the protocol development ahead of the quality reviews. The subsequent ten district reviews to establish the quality of school support were followed by district level strategy and action planning, school level quality school reviews (QSR), and school level action planning sessions.
Class Measures customized their methodology to align with various specific teaching and learning approaches adopted by ALSDE. Having already been customized for the US market on a number of previous projects, and further improved through their successful implementation in the national and global market, this customization was very straight forward. A critical part of the customization was to develop a framework that organized the collection of both quantitative and qualitative evidence into seven main evaluation sections:
1. The quality of student achievement and learning;
2. The quality of teaching and assessment;
3. The quality of school leadership and management;
4. The quality of the school culture for learning;
5. The quality of the school curriculum;
6. The quality of school links with families and the local community;
7. The quality of support and guidance provided by the school district.
Prior to commencing the Quality School Reviews, the Project Director met with district leaders and school leaders at an orientation session to set expectations, explain how the review process would work in each school, and to help school leaders to maximize the impact of the quality school review process on their school.
Each of the identified schools was required to complete a self-assessment focusing on the impact of the school improvement strategies that had been implemented to date, as well as identify what still needed to be done to complete those strategies. This assessment was then shared with school leaders at their respective orientation sessions so that they could explain the whole process to the staff and the school community, for greater understanding, buy-in and contribution.
Robust external review
The evidence gathering process itself commenced by meeting with the principal and leadership team to discuss the school’s performance data and to investigate in more detail the contents of the school self-assessment document. Time was also taken to discuss the quality and impact of the support and guidance provided by the school district.
The review team subsequently visited and observed a sample of classes with administrators to gain an accurate understanding of the quality of learning and teaching taking place in an agreed cross-section of classes. At the end of each lesson observation the reviewer, the administrator and the ALSDE reviewer discussed what had been observed, and agreed the quality of the learning observed and the impact of the key improvement strategies that made that learning possible.
Focus groups of instructional staff discussed the school’s approach to lesson planning, and input from students, family members and community members completed a holistic understanding of each groups’ perceptions of the effectiveness of the school.
Complete transparency and thoroughness
The Class Measures process ensured that the principal and senior leaders received constant feedback on the findings of the reviews, and meetings with the district staff member responsible for the school during the site visit helped gather information about the impact of district-led school improvement strategies.
A number of review team meetings were also carried out during each review to summarize what had been learnt and what course changes needed to be made to ensure that the judgements about key findings were both valid and reliable.
After two days of robust evidence gathering the lead reviewer led a final meeting when all of the evidence was triangulated and each of the performance indicators graded using the evaluation rubric and the four-point scale established by the ALSDE in the Summative Turnaround Principles Rubric.
Turning evidence into action
On completion of each school visit, Class Measures reported back to school leaders, highlighting some of the more obvious priorities for action, and identifying for each of the seven sections the factors that most significantly supported effective student learning, as well as those factors that limited effective learning. This also included practical recommendations for each of the review sections and performance indicators, and gave practical suggestions for how each school could quickly be transformed into an effective center of learning.
Antonio Williams, Principal at Lanier High, Montgomery Public Schools, describes the value he gained from the process,
“Working with Class Measures provided me with the opportunity as a school leader to receive valuable input from a diverse group of qualified educators on how to improve the learning culture of my school. The process was very beneficial and inclusive. Administrators, teachers, staff members, parents, and students all were able to provide feedback on norms and common practices among all stakeholders. The feedback that Class Measures provided was non-threatening and practical. We were able to improve and optimize our learning environment as a result of their review.”
Jo Cheadle, Vice President for School and District Transformation at Class Measures, observes how Antonio’s feedback was certainly not isolated,
“Without exception, school leaders appreciated the immediate feedback, and the support given to plan next steps. In many cases, leaders expressed the huge learning they experienced through collaborative observation, objective use of the evaluation rubric and the participation of a wide stakeholder group in discussion and evidence gathering. It was interesting to see the most significant game changer was the focus that the Quality School Reviews (QSR) had on impact, rather than intention. It was hugely encouraging to hear leaders explain that the push to answer the question, ‘so what?’, led them to look at school provision in a new and productive way.”
The process empowered leaders to ‘cut to the chase’ and pay attention to aspects of their schools that could really make a difference to student outcomes. The subsequent Meta-Analysis Report then went a stage further to identify common outcomes and trends across the schools and spotlight practices that were particularly successful in certain schools, as well as aspects that needed to be improved in others.
The culmination of the reporting was to then create the plan for improvement. Working with a member of the district school improvement team alongside the school implementation team, Class Measures developed an action plan identifying key priorities and devised a plan to address those key priorities with a working group of school administrators and staff.
Ms Boyd commented,
“The meta-analysis of the district reviews has enabled state officers to focus on strategic support based on need.” Ms Boyd added, “I highly recommend Class Measures to conduct quality reviews and a range of other school improvement work.”
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