Ryan Miskell is an OK Policy Research Fellow and a research associate with the Oklahoma Center for Education Policy. He is working on his Ph.D. in Education Leadership and Policy Studies from The University of Oklahoma.
Oklahoma, like most states, has been redesigning education policies to match requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waiver and to improve school performance. Policies like Common Core, the Reading Sufficiency Act, and additional end-of-instruction exams are intended to ensure students are on grade level and prepared for college, careers, and citizenship. The A-F Report Card Grading System is intended to make school performance clear and provide the necessary information to improve schools. Despite these good intentions, these policies have proven divisive and unpopular, so much so that the state legislature has passed, or plans to pass, measures that scale back or revoke these reforms.
After these reforms were designed, adopted, and implemented, their problems became apparent. Reforms narrowly focused on test scores often lead to gaming practices, especially when high-stakes are attached to them, and it is unlikely they are capable of providing clear and accurate information on school performance. As the legislative session nears its conclusion and the primary election for state superintendent approaches, the debate and politics behind these policies will heat up. The serious flaws and uncertain futures of these policies put the onus on school districts to craft and implement reforms and practices that help them better understand school performance and improve teaching and learning. The question might be asked: If such reforms cannot be effectively implemented at the state level, what can districts do differently?
Two Oklahoma districts have begun to collect and analyze an array of data from a variety of stakeholders enabling their understanding and improvement of school performance. To augment the limited information provided by high-stakes tests, Tulsa Public Schools and Union Public Schools are implementing large-scale efforts that more comprehensively map school climate, culture, and stakeholder relationships with schools and the districts.
Collaborating with OU’s Center for Education Policy (OCEP), these districts annually survey perceptions of parents, students, teachers, and principals. The data analyses are summarized in individual reports detailing longitudinal findings across five key domains critical to successful schools. For example, school reports document the degree to which students are supported by teachers and peers, the degree to which teachers are supported by colleagues and principal, and the degree to which parents trust the school and its staff.
Principals receive confidential reports that reflect how teachers, students, and parents view them and their role in the school. Principals, then, can begin to understand their leadership effectiveness and the degree to which teachers trust and feel supported by them. Confidentiality enables principals to reflect honestly and direct their professional growth and development.
District leaders receive reports detailing the degree to which principals and teachers trust district administrators and detailing the aggregated school-level responses aligning to the five key domains critical to successful schools. Aggregation of findings to the school level protects the anonymity of students, parents, teachers, and principals while providing valuable information for improving teaching and learning.
These reports of school conditions are not used for evaluation; rather they are viewed as providing trend information upon which school professionals can base continuous improvement efforts in their respective schools. The collaboration between OCEP and the districts embraces the idea that no single indicator can provide a complete picture of principal, school, or district performance. Rather, it is necessary to combine systematically gathered information with expertise and contextual understanding to make informed decisions. The absence of “high-stakes” helps to ensure that surveys are answered honestly and openly. Proponents of high-stakes evaluation are concerned with the problem of how information leads to improved practice. The thought is that if you are not held accountable to the reported information, there is no incentive to act. However, every year, OCEP researchers and district leaders have found that principals and teachers eagerly anticipate and evaluate school reports.
Now, more than ever, the state has the capacity to support and enable districts in collecting and analyzing data that augments the limited information provided by state tests. The work of schools is complex. Our understanding of school performance should reflect the complex nature of schools. If policies continue to simplify how we understand school performance, Oklahoma will continue to implement failed reforms that divide and degrade rather than unite and support.
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