How a Maryland District Redefined School Improvement

Phil Snyder and Renee Villareal – October 2016 (originally published in American School Board Journal)

In Harford County Public Schools, we hold each of our 54 schools accountable for meeting the goals set forth in their School Improvement Plans. Accountability, however, is only one factor in the formula for school improvement. Support is essential, too.

The reality is that every school has different needs, and principals don’t have an abundance of time. So, we created three teams at our district’s central office — the Leadership, Central Instructional Leadership, and Central School Improvement — to provide support and services to our schools to help them achieve their improvement goals.

Each team reports to the superintendent and uses data to drive its decisions. Together, these teams are holding schools accountable and providing support for strategic planning and school improvement, data analysis, and professional development.

Leadership Team

The Leadership Team is responsible for district-level decisions that pertain to the operational side of our schools as well as the instructional side. The team, which meets for two hours every Monday, includes the superintendent and 15 district-level staff from all departments in our central office. In our meetings, we discuss the day-to-day operations of our school system including how we can spend our budget dollars to make the greatest impact in student achievement across the district and within individual schools. The Leadership Team presents recommendations to the school board. We also regularly present student performance data to the board to demonstrate the effectiveness of our endeavors. In addition, the team reviews presentations by district and school personnel before they present to the board to ensure they are prepared.

Central Instructional Leadership Team

The Central Instructional Leadership Team is a subgroup of the Leadership Team. It includes the superintendent; executive director of curriculum, instruction, and assessment; elementary and secondary executive directors of student performance; supervisor of accountability; coordinator of leadership and professional development; and coordinator of school improvement. This team meets every two weeks to discuss instruction and make district-level decisions about areas including instructional programming, staffing, and professional development. We also talk about how to support individual schools from an instructional perspective, based on feedback and recommendations from the Central School Improvement Team.

Central School Improvement Team

The Central School Improvement Team meets once a month and looks at five to seven schools. This team includes the supervisor and assistant supervisor of accountability; coordinator of accelerated learning and intervention; coordinator of school improvement; coordinator of teacher induction; director of special education; elementary and secondary executive directors of student performance; supervisors of English, mathematics, science, and social studies; supervisor of equity and cultural proficiency; and Title I supervisor.

During the summer, a number of academic measures are analyzed to identify our priority schools that need additional support. One individual from this team is selected to serve as the liaison between that priority school and the central office. This liaison attends school-based Instructional Leadership and School Improvement teams’ meetings as needed, and coordinates follow-up to address specific school needs, including professional development.

For each school, the Central School Improvement Team reviews the School Improvement Plan, and then dives into the school’s current and historical data. The team looks for direct connections between the school’s needs, its goals, and its planned initiatives and professional development.

School Improvement Plan

Each year, every school in our district develops a School Improvement Plan with measurable goals and objectives for academics and the school environment. Academic goals must include mathematics, reading/English/language arts, science, social studies, and unified arts. School environment goals must include climate and culture, wellness, and attendance where applicable. The high schools must also set SAT, Advanced Placement, and graduation rate goals.

For each goal, the school must identify any subgroups that are low performing. In addition, within each goal, it must establish three tiers of instruction:

  • Tier 1 – Instructional strategies that impact students in the classroom; 80-100 percent of students
  • Tier 2 – Instructional strategies that target specific needs (small groups); 10-20 percent of students
  • Tier 3 – Instructional strategies that target intense needs (individualized); 1-10 percent of students

Data Analysis and Needs Assessment

The Central School Improvement Team analyzes data regarding the school’s focus areas to identify its successes and its most pressing needs. There are several options available, but in our district, we use the Performance Matters assessment and data management system (ADMS) and Unify assessment platform to access and analyze student data from multiple sources.

For example, using the Baseball Card, which is an ad-hoc reporting tool available in ADMS and Unify, we can look at how students performed on high-stakes tests, district benchmark assessments, and other measures including the SAT, reading comprehension, and course grades. We simply select the measures we want to review for each school and it builds a report for us. We can also use filters to choose the student populations we are interested in viewing. Then we can export and share the data with each school, and provide them with hyperlinks to the data.

In turn, the school will then incorporate this data into its School Improvement Plan. The school administrators and teachers, too, can access their own data and build their own reports so they can monitor their students’ progress and make real-time adjustments to their instruction.

In the spring, we provide each school with end-of-year data as well as data from prior years so they can begin writing their School Improvement Plan for the next school year. By the end of June, each school must submit their plan and professional development calendar to the central office. Schools are then asked to update their plan throughout the school year, based on their current data. Our school improvement plans are written with a three- to five-year time frame in mind, with adjustments and revisions occurring on a regular basis. Our plans are living, breathing documents that truly guide school-based decisions.

Instructional Leadership Team Dialog

We also use the data gathered in our monthly Central School Improvement Team meetings to generate questions for the school’s own Instructional Leadership Team so they can prepare for their annual visit from the superintendent and central office staff members. Providing this information to principals in advance allows them to make the most of their time with the superintendent and district staff.

Superintendent Visits

Superintendent visits are half- or full-day appointments conducted once a year or more at each school. In addition to the superintendent, the visits include a team of six to 12 members from the central office.

Instructional Leadership Team Dialog

The visit begins with the Instructional Leadership Team dialog. In this 90-minute, data-driven event, the school principal, assistant principals and instructional supervisors review the school’s data with us and discuss how it relates to their School Improvement Plan. Specifically, they discuss the school’s achievements and areas of need, its culture and climate, and its focus area goals. Together, we help them identify one or more focus areas to guide the improvement process moving forward. We also celebrate their accomplishments at this time.

Staff Member Dialogs

The superintendent then invites up to six staff members to participate in a dialog with the team. The school administration is not present. During the discussion, the superintendent usually asks two questions: 1) What do you love about this school and/or what would you never want to see change here? 2) If you could make this school better and/or if you could change anything here, what would it be? Or, sometimes in lieu of questions, the superintendent will open the floor and invite the staff member to bring up topics that they would like to discuss.

Student Dialogs

The superintendent also will talk with up to five individual students and ask the same two questions. Students give very straightforward, honest answers, so this is a great way to get a real sense of what the school is all about.

Walkthroughs and Observations

The district team will then conduct instructional walkthroughs for 30 minutes. Afterward, we provide feedback to the school’s Instructional Leadership Team.

During full-day visits at schools with new principals, we also will watch them conduct observations of their teachers and then give them feedback on the process.

Debrief and Follow-Up

The meeting will conclude with a debrief with the principal. Follow-up is then provided, as needed.

Local Attention and Priority Schools

Within our district, we strive to offer differentiated levels of support and accountability to our schools. Toward that end, we also use data to identify Local Priority Schools and Local Attention Schools that require more specialized attention from the central office. Local Priority Schools are those that struggle with overall performance and need the most intensive support. Local Attention Schools are those that haven’t quite reached their performance goals and could use more support than we typically provide during the school year.

To identify these schools, we use Performance Matters and Unify to look at three years of data from state assessments and district assessments, as well as early warning indicators, classroom summary reports, and more. This not only helps us to identify trends over time, but it helps us to predict student performance on future assessments.

For example, we can use the Baseball Card to place a school’s Lexile data and district benchmark data next to its PARCC data. This allows us to see how the school is performing, as well as the impact their interventions are having on student performance. Using the Early Warning Indicator filters, we can also see how indicators such as behavior, mobility and attendance relate to student performance, which is often very eye-opening for our schools.

In addition to the annual superintendent visit, the Local Priority Schools and Local Attention Schools receive two follow-up visits during the school year. During and in between the visits, we use student performance data to differentiate every conversation we have with these schools. With this information at our fingertips, we can get very specific about their needs, goals and initiatives, and discuss how to address the gap between the two. Then they can take that information back to their school-based teams for further discussion, so they can better focus their school improvement efforts.

Building Bridges

Serving the children in our schools is the most important thing we do. In the central office, we also believe that just as every child needs a champion, every school needs a champion.

Through our Leadership Team, Central Instructional Leadership Team, and Central School Improvement Team, we are providing both the support and the accountability that schools need to improve. These teams are building bridges between the central office and our schools — bridges that travel both ways and allow us to meet in the middle. This has helped us build trust between school staff and district staff, and accelerate our efforts to move our schools and our district forward.

We constantly are looking for new ways to further differentiate the levels of support and accountability we provide to our schools to make it even more meaningful. Having accurate, reliable data is key to this effort. Equally important is having the structures and support in place to act on that data. With the ongoing support of our superintendent, our school board, our district-level staff and each of our schools, we’re excited to continue our transformation.