by Dr. Ann Kox, The American School of Valencia
All schools want to improve – so why do they continue to struggle? There is widely-accepted research on school improvement, and there are powerful case studies that have showcased highly successful improvement strategies in schools. There is also no lack of effort on the part of school teams with costly and time-consuming efforts: conducting elaborate needs assessments, attending conferences, working with consultants, studying data, visiting other schools who have been successful, hiring a turnaround principal. Who hasn’t done at least one of these things?
But why do schools continue to be challenged in sustaining improvement efforts that yield consistent results? And when they do succeed, why is it so hard to replicate their success?
Common, Destabilizing Challenges
There are many reasons why school improvement is hard. Unfortunately, efforts and knowledge are undercut by well-known obstacles: administrative turnover, teacher turnover, board micromanagement, bandwagons, unions and climate problems, lack of resources, inability to execute a plan, and the list goes on. In the end, with the sheer amount of constant change, few achieve what they want to and many efforts get derailed or delayed.
For all of these reasons and more, educational leadership is susceptible to the temporary spell of magic bullets. When one school has great success with an initiative, there can be a rush to try to replicate, or to focus energies on areas where training and resources are readily available (whether or not it is what the school actually needs).
How can this pattern be disrupted for something that can serve a school’s interests in the longer term, something that can bridge administrations with common language, something that helps a team quickly evaluate their school and their own functionality? The Comprehensive District Rubric is a tool that can quickly help a team be strategic about their priorities, needs and the use of time.
The Power of A Rubric
One area where there has been significant momentum and a positive shift in the national conversation is in teacher effectiveness–inarguably a major component of school improvement. It is just one area, but much of the focus of the national conversation has focused on instructional improvement and teacher effectiveness for a very good reason: there are really good tools that have made that work easier. For one, the Charlotte Danielson rubrics and the training and goal-setting that bring vivid clarity to effective teaching shows what it looks like in all the different facets. This has had a dramatic impact on teaching.
Collective Determination of Current Status — Build Common Language Together
One of the great challenges in school leadership can be establishing a focus on a priority (or two), and then maintaining that focus. Taking the necessary time for a 360 degree look at the entire organization can help to develop common language among a team, contributing to collective determination that will sustain an effort and see it through. This rubric can support the conversations that build common language, shared mindset, shared vision and, ultimately, collective will to act. This can help to create coherence and distribute the burden of leadership so that movement forward continues despite the daily onslaught that can derail, divide and destabilize leadership work.
The CDR is not a compliance document, and using it as such could be counterproductive. It is an instrument that can have multiple purposes, all of them related to the growth of individuals, teams & school organizations, and to preserving essential aspects of continuity and momentum when there are changes in administration. When used well, it can create confidence and clarity in areas that are unanimously strong. It can also help direct focus to areas where there is inconsistency, to prioritize areas that need attention, and tp create common language where it is needed.
The following are uses of the CDR:
- 1. Bringing on any new admin team member. Ask a new member of the administrative team to take no more than 30 minutes to place a checkmark in each of the component areas, indicating their observations, perceptions and questions, approximately one month into their new position. This is a way to value their fresh view and to see what immediately stands out as strengths to a new person. They are in a position to see things in a way that existing members can’t, and this can help to reveal any blind spots. For a new member, it can also serve as a way to have significant early discussions and to learn about an organization. With both of these objectives, this can maximize continuity, minimize any time loss, and can help gather data about the school’s systems and processes.
- The superintendent can then review the document, deciding which areas may merit further discussion individually or as a team.
- Another option is to review the document and dedicate little or no time to discussing or reviewing it, but ask the new person to again complete it half-way through the year. What changes and what remains the same can also yield insight into the strengths and areas of need in a district, and can serve as a natural way to involve the new administrator in this conversation.
- 2. To decide focus areas based on collective scoring and discussion of the entire administrative team. All members of a team take no more than 30 minutes to complete the rubric self-assessment of the organization, marking where they see the level of functioning of the organization (and mentally noting at least one piece of evidence). Then, share the results and discuss areas of agreement and difference to construct commonality in language and perception. Through this, a common vision of areas that are consistently viewed as strong (with evidence to support the perception) can be celebrated and buoy a team in difficult times. It can also reveal areas where the team decides to place intentional focus and to build strength.
- 3. Determine collective team strength, diversity in skill, and distribution of responsibility. Have each team member rate their top 3-5 areas where they are confident and like to work (indicating this on the left, as they are not actually rating the level of performance in this activity). Once all team members have done this, examine to see if there are areas where there is overlapping interest or gaps. This kind of a check, done prior to hiring, can also help determine the skills and interests needed to enrich and diversify a team and add strength. This activity can also be done after a comprehensive rating is completed, which can contribute to a plan for how the work is distributed.
- 4. Goal setting and deeper dive into functioning. An internal audit of all areas, or deeper exploration in a specific domain, can reveal significant strengths and weaknesses that can guide action planning. This process involves more significant time to discuss and provide evidence of each area (or of key areas) — first among the administrative team, then among other stakeholders and the Board of Education — to create consensus on the current level of functioning. The key is not to belabor the process and to keep the discussion moving, so dedicating a limited amount of time to discuss evidence and agree on key points is critical. This can build common language and build common perceptions so that it is much easier to move forward.
- 5. Communication with Board and stakeholders. Though the tool may be unwieldy for some stakeholders, knowing that there is a tool to guide an audit and to determine areas of focus can foster confidence. Sharing parts of the tool can help to communicate present and a desired state to support the direction of improvement. Parts of the rubric may also help when difficult conversations arise from Board members. Their feedback can be solicited and examined to determine if disagreements stem from lack of common language, lack of consensus in what the data reveals, or lack of agreement on priorities.
- 6. Gut Check. The rubric can be used for a quick gut-check to re-center in turbulent times or to contribute to thinking when a team is stuck, or when returning from a break.
The Comprehensive District Rubric (CDR) provides such a platform to discuss and contextualize information so the leaders of an organization can exercise greater intention in determining priorities and the “right work” for a given district at a given time. A rubric, such as a the CDR offers not only common language, but a path forward.
Dr. Ann Kox has over 25 years of experience in education and currently the K-12 Curriculum Coordinator and PK-5 Principal at The American School of Valencia. She served as a principal, curriculum leader, director of student services and as a superintendent. Under her leadership, Waterloo Middle School was recognized as a school of excellence. Ann completed the School Superintendent National Certification — her project was a rubric for school improvement, which she recently presented at AAIE.