Bellwether’s Academic and Program Strategy team partnered with K-12 schools in more than a dozen district and charter networks across the country in the 2020-21 academic year to adopt continuous improvement (CI) cycles that diagnose and reverse unfinished student learning through an iterative, evidence-based approach. In this final blog post, the team provides a customizable CI workbook for use in any school context.
Last week, we unpacked the increasing value of continuous improvement (CI) cycles in education settings and included reflections from four partner schools on what Bellwether’s distinct CI process looks like in practice.
In Bellwether’s refined CI approach, the technical and adaptive components of the cycle (Figure 1, represented by a circled “T” and “A”) are intentionally blended. This approach enables school leadership to ground CI plans in measurable goal-based data metrics within aligned, agile teams and coalitions focused on supporting seamless execution on behalf of students.
As schools reopen this fall, leaders and educators will need to get more strategic and efficient about diagnosing and reversing unfinished student learning in their unique school settings. Bellwether’s Continuous Improvement in Schools Workbook provides a customized way to do that.
We hope this workbook will be a useful tool as school leaders assess and respond to unfinished student learning this fall and beyond.
Bellwether’s Academic and Program Strategy team partnered with K-12 schools in more than a dozen districts and charter networks across the country in the 2020-21 academic year to adopt continuous improvement (CI) cycles that diagnose and reverse unfinished student learning through an iterative, evidence-based approach. In this first of two blog posts, the team unpacks Bellwether’s comprehensive approach to CI and what each step in the process looks like in K-12 school settings. Next week, stay tuned for a customizable CI workbook for use in any school context.
Since fall 2020, Bellwether has supported more than a dozen districts and charter networks in their CI efforts, within virtual and hybrid settings, and has developed a balanced approach to the process attuned to current realities in the field. Bellwether’s CI cycle (Figure 1) follows a familiar four-step cadence (“Envision-Execute-Examine-Enact”), but builds on prior models by adding a high-impact adaptive leadership action to what’s typically been viewed as a predominantly technical process. This modification — based on 21st century change management research from Chip and Dan Heath, Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, and Dr. John Kotter — is grounded in the idea that while CI’s technical elements are critical to understand what needs to happen, the cycle ultimately doesn’t lead to sustained change without careful consideration of how that change will occur.
In Bellwether’s refined approach to CI, the technical and adaptive components of the cycle (Figure 1, represented by a circled “T” and “A”) are intentionally blended. This approach enables school leadership to ground CI plans in measurable goal-based data metrics within aligned, agile teams and coalitions focused on supporting seamless execution on behalf of students.
What does this look like in practice?
Four of the schools Bellwether supported this year, each with its own unique context and focus, weigh in:
Achievers Early College Prep Charter School, a public charter middle school in Trenton, New Jersey, built and implemented a new, data-informed intervention program to accelerate the academic growth of its most vulnerable students. The technical work of the CI Envision stage consisted of AECP setting a vision to create a data-driven intervention program that would provide the right content to the right students at the right time. AECP then established a clear goal to leverage its intervention program to have 80% of its highest-need students reach 1.75 to 2 years of academic growth, as measured by the NWEA MAP assessment. Finally, AECP builta progress monitoring system to look at grade level aligned daily exit tickets in intervention and core classes to measure the effectiveness of both prerequisite intervention content and grade level aligned content. On the adaptive side, AECP built a coalition by having a strong eighth grade teacher team pilot this approach in its first CI cycle, enabling teachers to better troubleshoot problems in real time and facilitate training for the sixth and seventh grade teams in future CI cycles.
In AECP’s words: “[This CI cycle] improved our reflection on our targeted areas for improvement. We have been more strategic on creating intervention goals and maintaining strong leadership initiatives throughout our pilot.”
Seguin Independent School District, a K-12 traditional public school district outside of San Antonio, Texas, centered its CI work on developing teacher instructional capacity in a virtual academy. The technical work of the CI Execute stage consisted of a team taking action onits plan by hosting biweekly, district-wide Professional Learning Communities on virtual instruction, facilitating grade level planning time aligned to those instructional moves, and conducting 1:1 observations and coaching for virtual teachers. During this process, the SISD team gathered data and monitored progress on teacher and leader attendance, engagement, and perception of transferability of new strategies to the classroom. On the adaptive side, the team remained focused on designing high-quality supports aligned to the See it. Name it. Do it. Framework and the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching’s Virtual Look-Fors. However, SISD also had to remain agile by adjusting programs, processes, and communications as it responded to an historic set of regional ice storms, ongoing staffing shifts related to virtual instruction, and survey feedback from teachers.
In SISD’s words: “The structures and logistics were set by the project plan and covered by the central office. This meant we had the capacity and brain space to respond to shifting circumstances and teacher needs as they arose.”
LEEP Dual Language Academy, a K-2 public charter school in Brooklyn, New York, focused on evaluating and coaching effective lesson planning and execution for guided reading in a hybrid setting. On the technical side of the CI Examine stage, LEEP measured impact by analyzing both process and efficacy data for its CI strategy. The team examined process data by analyzing the consistency of its strategy implementation, and dug into efficacy data to see how both teacher practice and student achievement outcomes were impacted. In this stage, the team identified the following key takeaways: (1) they were less consistent in implementing coaching and feedback on lesson execution and would need to make this shift in the second cycle of CI to drive impact, and (2) they saw less reading growth from virtual kindergarten students and identified the schedule, reading group size, and content prioritization as opportunities to address in the second cycle. The team’s adaptive work of celebrating small wins focused on noting the increase of consistency in lesson plan submission and feedback to teachers in guided reading. They also celebrated mid-year growth on the STEP assessment in second grade with 49% of students growing two reading levels or more after one month of implementation.
In LEEP’s words: “After examining our data, I think that we have remained focused and nimble in our implementation and this has been done through careful data analysis to then inform next steps and any modifications needed to the plan.”
Promise Community School at Baker-Ripley, a small public charter school network in Houston, Texas, piloted a “Just In Time” (JIT) intervention model for elementary math instruction in a hybrid setting. The technical work of the team’s Enact stage centered on translating key takeaways from its first cycle of JIT intervention to make measurable shifts for a second cycle. In the first cycle of implementing the continuous JIT intervention strategy, the team saw a 30%-point increase in mastery for virtual students, however students’ proficiency fluctuated between 50 to 70%. In order to increase consistency of virtual student mastery, the Promise team shifted its data analysis to focus on remote learners by (1) analyzing remote student work and misconceptions, and (2) increasing engagement strategies during small-group virtual instruction. From an adaptive standpoint, the Promise team focused on clearly communicating adjustments for cycle 2, reinvesting the pilot team by including a rationale and updated goals for the shift, and inspiring through a reiteration of the bright spots observed in cycle 1.
In Promise’s words: “It’s never too late to reset expectations (we reset in January). We use data to help zoom in on places for focus and problem solving, and we need to be flexible and innovative with what works for our kids.”
We hope that Bellwether’s CI cycle framework and glimpses into its application in schools help educators begin to think about how this process could live in their unique school settings. For questions or comments, please feel free to email us, and stay tuned next week for a customizable CI workbook for use in any school context.
When the Biden administration announced required state standardized testing this spring, I was angry. We’re in the middle of a pandemic. A vast majority of students at the charter school I teach at in Boston plan to stay remote the rest of the year. What would testing look like in this context? And what could the results tell us?
Even pre-pandemic, in my five years as a high school teacher in Massachusetts and North Carolina, state tests were used for labeling schools and little else. Pressure the tests created affected my approach to teaching in ways that didn’t always serve my students. I love algebra and, in my experience, it’s much more engaging when taught experientially. But I saw a tradeoff between the time experiential lessons take and my ability to cover the total volume of material I knew my students were likely to encounter on state tests. I never received detailed student achievement reports for my current class or last year’s data, meaning that state test results didn’t help to inform differentiation in the classroom. To ensure that I provided my students with the support they needed, I relied heavily on formative quizzes and “exit ticket” assessments, but having access to student achievement reports would have exposed gaps that existed before students stepped into my classroom.
My initial anger subsided as I read more about the arguments for and against testing this spring. An opportunity exists for systemic change thanks to flexibility the Biden administration provides states in how they use test scores. Instead of labeling schools, scores can potentially inform how states and districts spend $123 billion in K-12 funds from the federal American Rescue Plan Act stimulus package. These funds can benefit all students, especially those often left out of the conversation, like students in foster care or the juvenile legal system.
Flexibility can better enable 2020-21 test data to be used productively for students and schools, creating a reset opportunity from the frustrating status quo. In order for leaders and administrators to use the data to equitably support all students, change must follow the intent in five key ways:
Tests should be scored, with reports in teachers’ and families’ inboxes, by mid-summer
Teachers begin planning for the upcoming school year over the summer, often hoping to spiral in content that needs to be remediated the very first week of school. In my experience, reports from state tests are typically not released until several weeks into the school year. Providing detailed score reports to teachers earlier, on both their incoming students and last year’s class, would allow for more practical application of test scores in instruction.
The process of sharing test data across relevant agencies should be smoother
Schools are not the only organizations that can use test data to support students. Other agencies, such as the foster care system and family support services, could use group-level data, or individual student data with appropriate privacy safeguards, to better support students outside of school. But not every state makes this kind of data sharing transparent, consistent, and student-centered. If teachers aren’t getting this data in practice, it’s doubtful that other adults in children’s lives are getting the information they need. Even the fact that a student missed testing might be useful for a social worker or another service provider to know. If other agencies are aware that a child they work with did not attend tests, they can work with the family on a back-to-school preparation plan for the fall.
School leaders and administrators should identify and support students missing from testing
The Biden administration relaxed participation requirements to account for remote schooling and ongoing COVID-19 uncertainty. Education leaders and analysts should consider which populations of students may be absent from testing this year and the potential implications for interpreting results. Some students who aren’t present for testing may need additional support and remediation. Populations with less access to remote learning include students experiencing homelessness, students living in poverty, and students living in multigenerational households. Statistically, these students are more likely to be children of color — a lack of urgency in school administration supports may widen opportunity gaps.
Test results should inform how schools and districts spend federal stimulus funds
Districts and schools with widening opportunity gaps based on this year’s tests should shape their stimulus spending plans to address those results with research-backed interventions and improvement plans. Identifying populations most in need of support in these schools, and targeting resources accordingly, is critical. For example, if high schoolers underperformed in math, additional funding could go towards hiring in-school math tutors for students in need of additional learning support.
Academics shouldn’t be the sole focus
Academic performance is essential. As an algebra teacher, I want to know that my students are leaving my class ready to take on more advanced mathematical analyses. But I also want my students to get more from school than what is reflected in the state standards: I want them to feel safe, engage in deeper thinking, learn how to communicate with their classmates, and build a love of learning. Many students are struggling right now with the disruptions, trauma, and isolation the past year has brought. Remote learning has limited students’ social interaction and, for many, impeded their sense of safety and security. In addition to heeding what we can learn from state standardized tests, administrators should plan for interventions that support and serve students’ mental health and social-emotional needs.
I’ve moved on from my initial anger at state testing this year and have embraced a wait-and-see mindset. It will be interesting to see whether this year’s results will have a meaningful positive effect on my students and/or signal larger culture shifts around state standardized tests in the long run. Regardless, the most urgent priority for educators and school administrators should be marshalling all resources and information at their disposal to support all students in recovering lost instructional time due to the pandemic.
Kate Keller completed a project internship at Bellwether Education Partners this spring focused on educational continuity. She has taught high school for five years and is pursuing her Master’s degree in Human Development and Psychology at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
In Bellwether’s recent From Pandemic to Progress three-part district webinar series, leaders of school districts and community-based educational initiatives joined our team to discuss the upcoming 2021-22 school year. Read a summary and see the video of Part 1: Policy and Planning, here, and Part 2: Operations and Outreach, here.
Rigorous academics, high-quality instruction, and strong student-educator relationships must be at the core of efforts to ensure that every student is able to thrive in school and achieve success. Schools and districts making academic and instructional plans for the school year ahead should anticipate and assess new student needs, and effectively leverage new resources available through federal stimulus funds aimed at learning recovery.
Part 3 of Bellwether’s From Pandemic to Progress webinar series focused on academics and instruction and featured:
Dwight Jones, Interim Superintendent and Senior Deputy Superintendent, Equity and Engagement, Denver Public Schools, Colorado.
Dr. Leslie Torres-Rodriguez, Superintendent, Hartford Public Schools, Connecticut.
Facilitator: Bill Durbin, Senior Adviser, Academic Strategy, Bellwether Education Partners.
The discussion (video above) led to four key takeaways:
Takeaway 1: Strong relationships with students and families form the foundation of successful academic and instructional plans
Building relationships among educators, students, and families as the new school year begins is essential after more than a year of multiple disruptions to students’ and families’ lives. Districts should not see that relationship-building time as a loss for academics.
“It’s really been a challenge,” said Jones, to build and maintain relationships with students throughout the pandemic, “And it’s become even more critical.” Multiple changes in learning modes, necessitated by fluctuating rates of COVID-19 infection in the Denver community, have made this even tougher. “We know that learning is best when students know that teachers care about them,” so Jones and his team are encouraging teachers to spend dedicated time focused on social and emotional learning and on developing relationships, and plan to roll out a new curriculum to guide that time.
Dr. Torres-Rodriguez plans to build time into school days to keep students and families engaged in their school community with expanded before- and after-school offerings, and summer programs. “We don’t want to forget to create opportunities for fun and joy for our students and families,” she said, in addition to direct outreach to families to offer wraparound support such as tutoring or connections to other social services families might need.
Takeaway 2: Educators and school staff will also need care and support in order to do their best work for students
Much like students and families, many educators and school staff have endured a very difficult, exhausting, and traumatizing time over the past year and a half. If districts hope to hit the ground running in fall 2021 and implement ambitious academic plans and intervention programs, they must consider the needs of their educators and other school staff. For example, expanded summer learning programs may be difficult when teachers and staff need a break in order to mentally prepare for the year ahead.
“We have to be mindful of the level of almost burnout that our adults are feeling,” said Jones, especially with reduced opportunities for interpersonal connection in or out of work. He’s working with labor unions on revised scheduling and identifying ways to encourage self-care during the work day.
Torres-Rodriguez agreed, adding, “We have to tend to ourselves before we can tend to others.” She described a two-part approach to supporting staff in the school year ahead. First, increased staff engagement in decision-making and planning processes will empower staff at all levels to shape the districts’ strategic priorities and professional learning plans. Second, carving out dedicated time for wellness initiatives, mindfulness, and stress management can help address the higher stress levels many educators and staff face at home and in their work.
Takeaway 3: Districts should use data to understand students’ individual needs and inform instruction
Students’ academic and non-academic needs may be very different in fall 2021 than they were at the beginning of the pandemic. Districts are planning to use data and assessments in new ways to better understand those needs, monitor progress, and shape plans accordingly.
“It’s essential that we understand new and even deeper student needs,” said Torres-Rodriguez, and her team is preparing the data infrastructure now to use multiple kinds of information about student learning more effectively in the new school year. “We’ll be looking at student learning data, attendance, and early warning indicators,” she said, and setting up rapid improvement cycles to respond to individual and group trends. For example, by using this approach in winter 2021, in response to rising rates of chronic absenteeism, her Hartford team was able to target family outreach and collaboration with community groups in order to get more students back to virtual or in-person school.
In Denver, Jones and the educators on his team are emphasizing frequent formative assessments embedded in the curriculum to guide instruction on an ongoing basis, within a framework of culturally responsive educational practices and research-based interventions to accelerate student learning. “Let’s not do the same old remediation, let’s not make it feel like students or teachers are being punished. Let’s find a way to make it fun, engaging, and feel like an acceleration, not remediation.”
Takeaway 4: The pandemic isn’t over yet, and academic plans need to be flexible to different circumstances
Both Jones and Torres-Rodriguez hope to get as many students as possible back into in-person classrooms safely in the coming months. However, they recognized that their plans will have to be responsive and flexible to the possibility of changing public health guidance as well as changing family preferences to potentially continue with remote learning.
Even with the added uncertainties of the current moment, Torres-Rodriguez identified four “must-win” areas for her district in the year ahead: 1) expanding learning time during and outside of the school day, 2) increasing support for teachers and leaders, 3) connecting every student to an adult advocate, and 4) cultivating a sustainable teacher pipeline. Across those topics, Hartford is putting extra emphasis on students in grades K-3 and 9-10, which are both critical times of transition, as well as on schools in need of additional targeted support.
In Bellwether’s recent From Pandemic to Progress three-part district webinar series, leaders of school districts and community-based educational initiatives joined our team to discuss the 2021-22 school year ahead. Read our summary and see the video of Part 1: Policy and Planning, here.
Since first shutting their doors to in-person learning in March 2020, school districts and community partners have had to work harder and smarter in order to communicate and collaborate with students, families, and other stakeholders. Even as more schools transition back to in-person learning this spring or fall, millions of students nationally may have had minimal or no engagement with virtual learning over the past year. What has the 2020-21 academic year taught district and community leaders about family engagement, and how might school operations change as students make a safe return to classrooms?
Part 2 of Bellwether’s From Pandemic to Progress webinar series focused on operations and outreach to tackle these fundamental questions. Panelists included:
Amanda Fernández, CEO and Founder of Latinos for Education and Partner in the Boston Community Learning Collaborative, Massachusetts.
Peter Hilts, CEO, District 49, Colorado.
Michael Matsuda, Superintendent, Anaheim Union High School District, California.
Facilitator: Mary K. Wells, Managing Partner and Co-Founder, Bellwether Education Partners.
The discussion (video above) led to three key takeaways:
Takeaway 1: Districts should recognize the essential role community-based organizations can play in connecting schools with families and communities, and in expanding district capacity
The pandemic, “Unmasked the illusion of independence,” within Hilts’ district that stretches across suburban and rural communities near Colorado Springs, Colorado. “We thought we operated pretty independently…but in a crisis we needed to increase the tempo of our collaboration,” and work with neighboring school districts and community organizations to execute on initiatives like a regional free meal distribution strategy, he noted.
Similarly, Matsuda highlighted the value of community partnerships over the past year, which have helped his district build relationships with families in new settings and get the word out about community public health initiatives such as COVID-19 tests and vaccinations. “We need our faith-based communities, our nonprofits, and our schools working together to build trust,” especially with communities of color and immigrant communities, according to Matsuda. He noted that these new partnerships shouldn’t just be temporary, “And will make us much stronger as institutions.”
Fernández saw these dynamics play out from a different angle in Boston, where her organization is one of the leading partners in a community-based effort to launch more than a dozen free, in-person, small-group learning pods serving mostly Black and Latino children. “The pandemic has surfaced a need for equal partnership at the table between families, community-based organizations, and schools, which will contribute to better outcomes for students.”
Each of the organizations in the Community Learning Collaborative built trusting relationships with different groups of families over the years. These existing relationships served as a foundation for recruiting families into the pods and providing a safe, supportive learning environment. According to Fernández, “Trust, collaboration, and centering students and families have all been consistent in the approach we’re taking,” to running the pods.
Takeaway 2: Inclusivity and equity are essential to successful outreach efforts
As learning conditions and district offerings evolved rapidly over the last year, it was essential to keep families in the loop and informed. However, traditional venues for communication like parent-teacher nights, flyers in backpacks, or in-person conversations were off the table. Successful communication strategies in this new environment prioritized inclusivity and equity, multiple modes of communication to reach families wherever they were, and a focus on listening to families’ needs and priorities.
Matsuda noted that families in his district speak more than 40 languages. Beyond translating communications, his district also worked to anticipate and facilitate two-way conversations with families in their preferred language.
One of the ingredients for success in the Boston Community Learning Collaborative, according to Fernández, was intentionally recruiting mostly Latino and Black educators and staff to supervise the pods. These team members often came from the same communities as the children they served and were well-positioned to quickly build communicative, trusting relationships with students and families.
Takeaway 3: What families and students are looking for from school may have shifted permanently
Experiences of the past year, both positive and negative, have changed many students’ and families’ goals and expectations from schools. Panelists were optimistic about near-term opportunities to bring a renewed sense of urgency to educational innovation. They also agreed on the importance of partnerships among districts, higher-education entities, employers, and community-based organizations to meet students’ needs in new and better ways.
For example, Hilts anticipated that an increasing number of districts would offer, “A mix of online learning and flexible schedule options, because it serves our students, their life circumstances, and their personal preferences,” especially at the high school level. “We have to be better about providing culturally and technically responsive learning options that provide access to more students.” Matsuda was also excited about this possibility, adding, “It’s not going to be easy to innovate, but the comfort level among families and students [with online learning], particularly at the high school level, has grown.” Both Hilts and Matsuda agreed that well-designed, flexible academic learning environments might increase student engagement in learning and develop deeper life skills such as self-directed time management. But they underscored that policy barriers in many states could be an impediment to these kinds of innovative offerings.
Each panelist noted that the isolating and traumatizing effects of the pandemic have made students’ mental health and social-emotional learning urgent priorities. “Families are concerned about social, emotional, and mental health,” said Matsuda, and are looking to schools to help assess, monitor, and meet those needs. Fernández reported hearing from families that mental health is a top concern and urged districts to, “Continue that kind of support and balance it with any academic support that might be needed.” All three panelists agreed that, by keeping community partners at the table, districts can deepen the web of academic and non-academic supports for students and families.