Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Improving the Academic Improvement Plan

On January 5, 2015 the RPS School Board approved the Academic Improvement Plan for 2014-2015. In its most simple form, the school administration is tasked with managing (A) people and programs, and (B) facilities and infrastructure. The Academic Improvement Plan just approved covers (A), and later this spring, school administration will present their plan for facilities and infrastructure (B). Thus, between these two documents we will have a complete plan for reform in RPS.

The Academic Improvement Plan

The plan is based upon the National Center for Education Achievement (NCEA) Core Framework. The NCEA was a research wing of ACT, Inc. - the ACT test people - but has been reabsorbed back into the company.   
As seen in the image below, the framework is based on common characteristics found at urban, high-achieving  high-poverty schools. From their research, they developed 5 common themes with 15 core practices to instruct actions at the district, school, and classroom level.
NCEA Core Framework.jpg
An example of how this model is applied can be found in this 2011 NCEA core practice audit of Winnisquam Regional School District in New Hampshire.
In Richmond, school administration identified key metrics for school accreditation and SOLs to track and determine impact. Action teams, mainly comprised of central administration and school principals, created year-long action plans with district, school, and classroom-level practices, followed by more specific deliverables for each one of the 5 themes. In all, 129 deliverable practices are to be accomplished within the next year.  
Action Team
Theme 1
Theme 2
Theme 3
Theme 4
Theme 5

My Analysis

Improvements in the Academic Improvement Plan are needed for RPS to realize their extensive goals (129 deliverables in the next year alone). By simplifying this plan to actions at the district-level for year 1, we can start to lay the all important infrastructure to foster and sustain an environment of successful classrooms. If constructed properly, one could easily draw a line between student activities in the classroom to the role of district administration - a constant illusion when I was teaching.

The Solution

Start with Dr. Bedden’s top 3 priorities (pp.6), which are:
Dr. Bedden’s Top Priorities
1. Improve Teaching and Learning  
2. Positive Stakeholder Engagement
3. Establish and Maintain Positive Climate

To me, #3 is a product of #1 and #2. The NCEA 5 Core Framework targets - in an extensive way - #1, teaching and learning. Therefore, I’d add a 6th theme to the Academic Improvement Plan, stakeholder engagement, to address #2.
Action teams should be led by central administration, but would be comprised of a smaller number (6-8 people), from a wider range (e.g. students, teachers, private sector). These teams would be assigned to 6 core theme areas, and would plan and manage the implementation of 2-3 key solutions by the end of next year. Thus reducing 129 deliverables, to a maximum of 18.
NCEA’s Core Themes
Garet’s 6 Themes
1. Curriculum and Academic Goals
Curriculum Alignment
2. Staff Selection, Leadership and Capacity Development
Staff Selection and Development
3. Instructional Tools: Programs and Strategies
Teaching Resources
4. Monitoring Performance and Progress
5. Intervention and Adjustment
Remediation or Advancement
[Bedden Priority #2]
Stakeholder Engagement

For example, the assessment team would set a district-level goal to have all test scores processed and returned to teachers within a 48-hour period. This would focus the team’s efforts on the needed procedural and technological efficiencies to accomplish by the end of a year at the district, school, and classroom levels.  
For this upcoming year, practices  - as identified in the Academic Improvement Plan - for schools and classrooms would remain, but would be recommendations instead of deliverables. This would allow for deliverables at these levels to be developed from the pursuit of key district-level goals in year 1.
The emphasis on paring down the number of deliverables is not to dilute the impact of change, but to direct it to where it is most needed - programmatic infrastructure.  
In talking with Jean Rutherford, a researcher at ACT, Inc. who worked to develop the NCEA Core Framework, she said the key to high functioning schools  - with populations similar to Richmond - was “establishing a powerhouse infrastructure that supports teachers, principals, and classrooms, regardless of who is in role.” Her top examples of this framework in action were Wilson High School in Long Beach, CA and the system of Plano, TX.
In the end, we have to establish a top-down philosophy, reinforced with actions, where district-level administration supports the needs of students, teachers and principals - in that order. Dr. Bedden has started to lay this groundwork through his speeches to the community and choices in his administrative team. The recent #BetterwithBedden is representative of a distinct change in perception of RPS from past superintendents.
To build on this momentum - by developing district-wide infrastructure - we must be careful to craft solutions that lessen the burden on students, teachers, and principals. From my experience as a teacher, well meaning district solutions such as: creating a common template for lesson plans, additional SOL district-level tests, or adding professional development time (e.g. PLCs or curriculum alignment) became burden-adding because they were disconnected from actual needs or lacked necessary resources.
To create authentic solutions, we need to engage students, teachers, and community stakeholders in the process to develop a powerhouse programmatic infrastructure. By expanding membership of the 6 theme action teams and centering our efforts in year 1 on a few key district-level changes we can begin to establish and maintain a positive climate of progress.

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