What does it take to turnaround an “underperforming” district? This question becomes more urgent every day as the number of districts earning this designation grows—and the consequences get tougher.
For EDC’s Barbara Miller, “turnaround partner” for the Winchendon (Massachusetts) Public Schools, the answer begins with some hard thinking about where an outside advisor like herself can have the biggest impact quickly.
“In a struggling district there are many needs, so we have to be strategic about where we can make the biggest difference. In other words, where’s the biggest bang for the buck? Usually the answer lies in supporting work that is most directly related to teaching and learning—work that is rooted in classrooms.”
The answer also involves working at multiple levels simultaneously so that teachers, administrators, and central office staff coordinate their efforts toward a set of common goals.
In Winchendon, district leaders had already developed district turnaround and school improvement plans to increase student achievement so Miller designed her work to align with these plans.
“Barbara has been a great resource and support to us,” says Peter Azar, superintendent of schools in Winchendon. “She has helped us focus on the most essential areas of our improvement plans and directed our work in those areas.”
In reviewing these plans, Miller saw one opportunity for improvement in bolstering the district’s implementation of a newly-adopted mathematics curriculum, Everyday Math. She knew from experience that just getting good materials into a school is not enough; teachers need support to use them well. This is particularly true with mathematics because many standards-based programs require teachers to work in ways that are new and difficult for them.
To build on the professional development already provided by the curriculum’s publisher, Miller and EDC colleagues developed a cadre of in-house leaders to support colleagues as they used the new curriculum.
Working with Winchendon staff, they identified one outstanding teacher per grade and further developed their knowledge of the mathematics and teaching methods in the new curriculum. These teacher-leaders facilitate monthly grade level meetings in mathematics, working with their colleagues on issues like pacing, managing student discussions, and understanding student work. They also worked with colleagues to develop and use “formative assessments”— activities to evaluate how well students are learning the new material as the year moves along, rather than waiting for year-end test results to tell them.
Along with the support for teachers, Miller also worked with administrators to develop an observation tool that principals and others can use to monitor how well teachers are using the new materials. “What we’ve seen in other districts is that a lot of effort goes into getting good materials into a district, but not enough goes into monitoring and oversight about how well they are being used,” she says. “This tool gives us the opportunity to learn more about how teachers are actually using the materials.”
She developed a 10-minute observation tool that administrators can use in an elementary mathematics or English/Language Arts classroom at any point in a lesson to assess whether the curriculum is being taught appropriately. The tool identifies key features of the program and asks observers to look for evidence of those features in the classroom. For instance, a key feature of Everyday Math involves students talking about their mathematical strategies, either in whole group or small groups. Hands-on activities are another key feature—students actually doing math, such as collecting and analyzing data or working with math manipulatives.
To date, administrators have collected two rounds of data and report that the great majority of teachers are using the program as it is meant to be used. However the data also suggests that teachers are doing a better job with some features of the program than others. In response, Miller and her staff have developed a revised tool that will focus on how well teachers are using the materials so that more can be done to support them.
The work Miller is doing to strengthen the district’s mathematics instruction is just one example of the multi-pronged way she collaborates with districts, engaging teachers, administrators, and central office staff. “Part of the scope of work involves delivering quality goods and services. But the bigger question is, have we built capacity and how do we know it?”
Miller says she knows she’s built district capacity when she sees evidence of greater “administrative coherence.” For instance, when central office staff routinely gather, analyze, and apply data to instruction and policy decisions, rather than relying on tradition or ad hoc decision making. Or when staff coordinate professional development efforts so that grade-level meetings align with building level meetings and all of it is informed by data on student outcomes.
Of course there are also test results. So far math scores have been going up, and the high school has been taken off the state’s underperforming list. “We are using data to inform instruction and we have a thoughtful structure in place for our professional development programs,” says Azar. “We are a very different district today than we were three years ago.”
This project is funded by the Massachusetts Department of Education.
Originally published on August 1, 2007