'Continuous Improvement' Model Woven Into State ESSA Plans
States seek systemic route to steady gains
"Continuous improvement" has quickly become a buzzword in K-12 policy and practice, as states, districts, and schools strive for systemic, long-term gains in student achievement, instead of looking for the next, shiniest silver bullet.
In fact, even without much meaningful prodding from the federal government, states have woven the strategy in various forms into their plans for implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act. Those plans, which go into effect this school year, will help guide goal-setting, accountability, and school improvement for the foreseeable future.
Although the emphasis on continuous improvement varies, "We now have 50 plans that say, 'We have data, we're looking at the data, we're using it to set plans, we're not just picking something out of a hat and hoping,' " said Paige Kowalski, the executive vice president of the Data Quality Campaign, a research and advocacy organization that has conducted a forthcoming analysis of continuous improvement in ESSA plans.
ESSA, which passed back in 2015, does not explicitly mention continuous improvement, a broad term for using certain structures and tools, especially data, to explore and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of systems and schools and pinpoint solutions over time in a sort of running feedback loop. And the application that the Trump administration gave states to use for federal plans doesn't ask about it specifically, either.
But ESSA supporters say the law is aimed at moving away from the compliance-driven system of its predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act, giving states the chance to charge forward on their own visions. States must set long-range and shorter-term goals for student achievement and graduation rates, and come up with their own strategies for fixing low-performing schools, instead of relying on federally dictated interventions.
A handful of states are using the law as an opportunity to rethink their systems through a continuous-improvement lens, according to experts who have analyzed the plans.
Some states are revamping their state education agencies, putting a greater focus on using data to support all schools and districts, not just the ones that are struggling the most. Others are using data and constant evaluation—major tenets of continuous improvement—to inform and refine their efforts to use "evidence based interventions" with the lowest-performing schools, as ESSA requires. And still others have pledged to keep revisiting and revising their ESSA plans.
Although the term isn’t specified in the Every Student Succeeds Act itself, state plans for ESSA are embracing some form of “continuous improvement”—systemic changes, informed by data, aimed at helping schools, districts, and state education agencies bolster outcomes for students over time. Among the examples in ESSA plans submitted to the federal government:
Developed a School Improvement Support Network as part of a redesigned Office of School Improvement to help districts craft plans to improve low-performing schools. The network trains district and state officials on understanding the needs of low-performing schools, and identifying the root causes of their problems, employing data in the school improvement process.
Set initial long-term goals for the first five years of ESSA plan implementation and will continuously update its goals for achievement and graduation rates annually. That way the goals can be regularly adjusted based on student outcomes over time.
Working with Proving Ground, an initiative out of Harvard University, to study the impact of evidence-based interventions on low-performing schools.
Working to develop a “real time” data system that will help the state and schools answer questions like how many 9th graders are behind where they need to be in terms of credit, or how many students have transferred from one school to another. Has reached out to the education community to get feedback on the state’s submitted ESSA plan.
Districts and schools must submit “continuous improvement” plans to the state that take into account both quantitative data such as test scores and graduation rates and qualitative data from school quality reviews performed by neighboring educators.
Still, some experts were disappointed with the quality of state plans on continuous improvement.
"Incentivizing continuous improvement, I think, is actually the point of ESSA, and very few people are doing that well," said Joanne Weiss, who served as the chief of staff to former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Weiss participated in a review of state plans that focused in part on continuous improvement and that was spearheaded by Bellwether Education Partners, a consulting organization, and the Collaborative for Student Success, an advocacy group.
"Most states are super vague. They just generally offer vague lists of evidence-based interventions that districts may use," Weiss said.
But Dan Gordon, a senior legal and policy adviser for EducationCounsel, an education consulting firm, noted that continuous improvement isn't something states were asked to address. It's not a strong theme in "enough" state plans, he said, but "there are a number of states [where it is] at the heart of their theory of action," said Gordon, who has worked on an analysis of continuous improvement in ESSA plans for Results for America, a research organization, as well as a forthcoming look at the topic from EducationCounsel.
"The states that spoke to it, some of them really spoke to it in deep and meaningful ways that are exciting for what it could be," he said.
Continuous improvement, which blends popular concepts from the business, nonprofit, and health-care worlds, is of deep interest to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Gates has or is currently providing funding for the Collaborative for Student Success, EducationCounsel, the Data Quality Campaign, and Education Week, although not always for the specific purpose of studying continuous improvement.
Some states have used ESSA as an opportunity to rethink how their state education agencies engage on school improvement across the board.
For instance, Georgia is making a shift from having one school improvement office focused on the schools with the biggest problems to having the entire state education agency consider the needs of all schools and districts in the state—from long-flailing schools to the highest flyers. The state has divided its schools into four tiers, including one for schools that haven't been identified for extra support under ESSA.
The law requires states and districts to give intensive help to schools in the bottom 5 percent of performers and those where vulnerable subgroups of students aren't performing well. But it isn't as specific about what happens in schools that seem to be chugging along just fine.
Georgia though, wants to identify potential trouble spots early on. "We're trying to be more proactive instead of reactive," said Matt Jones, the chief of staff to Richard Woods, the state superintendent of schools. "Instead of waiting for a school to get on a list, how can we provide some services and support up front to all our schools and districts?"
That means that even some high-performing schools have had state officials pop by to examine instruction or offer professional development, Jones said.
And the state is moving away from confining school improvement to a single office. Instead, it is tapping the expertise of staffers who focus on teacher quality, leadership, or curriculum, to help meet the needs of its schools, Jones said.
Other states are moving in a similar direction, according to Results for America's analysis.
Continuum of Support
For instance, Ohio is planning to place all its districts in a "continuum of support" to figure out what kinds of extra help they need from their state education agency. In the Buckeye State, districts could get assistance in bolstering data quality, or tap the services of an "improvement liaison" with expertise in the sort of "evidence based" interventions ESSA calls for. And in Vermont, every school and district, whether it is low- or high-performing, must submit a "continuous improvement plan" to the state. Kentucky is taking a similar approach, according to the Results for America analysis.
In Vermont, these continuous improvement plans will be informed both by hard data—like test scores and graduation rates—and more holistic feedback that comes directly from educators in neighboring districts. For the past year, educators in the Green Mountain State have conducted "school quality reviews," in which a team of outside educators works with a nearby district, giving feedback on everything from curriculum to social and emotional learning.
The reviews, which aren't punitive, have sometimes identified significant differences in instruction from one school to another, even within the same small district, officials say.
"Sometimes the school district is aware that there are disparities, but to hear that or have that affirmed by an outside group of educators, ... it really gives it some legs," said Jesse Roy, the education quality assurance coordinator at the Vermont education agency.
And New Mexico is piloting a "real-time" data system, with an initial 20 districts participating. The goal is to allow the state to probe beyond just reading and math achievement, figuring out, for example, the number of 9th graders who are behind where they need to be on their credits, or how many 6th graders have missed more than 10 days of school, said Christopher Ruszkowski, the state's secretary of education.
That data will help inform the state's policymaking and improvement process, Ruszkowski said. For instance, data could help officials figure out what's behind changes in a school's overall rating—why one school went from a B to a D on the state's grading system over the course of just a few years, he explained.
"When you have a strong performance management in place, you want to ask the next set of questions around what's driving performance," Ruszkowski said.
Other states have set up research partnerships to improve plan implementation, according to DQC's forthcoming analysis. For instance, Tennessee has partnered with outside academic researchers to help inform its school improvement vision. The partnerships run through the Tennessee Education Research Alliance at Vanderbilt University.
And of course, another key aspect of continuous improvement: How are states helping schools and districts support the low-performing schools and those where vulnerable groups of students are struggling?
ESSA requires districts to use "evidence based" interventions in those schools. Educators are supposed to carefully monitor these strategies to make sure that they are working.
Fifteen states said they plan to collect data on their interventions and regularly refresh the evidence base around them, according to the forthcoming analysis by the Data Quality Campaign. And six described those efforts in significant detail in their ESSA plans.
"You didn't see a lot of school improvement around necessarily shutting a school down or turning it over [to outside operators] [in ESSA plans]. It was, 'We have tools and templates and data and information where we can sit down with the school and connect them with others and work with them with this information,'" Kowalski said. "That is continuous improvement. That's not, 'Pick from a menu of A through D.' It's doing the hard work of improvement, which really is about digging in and coming up with a school-specific plan."
For instance, Ohio is teaming up with Proving Ground, a research partnership at the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University, to help schools and districts quickly evaluate their interventions, according to forthcoming analyses by the DQC and EducationCounsel.
And Tennessee plans to take a hard look at its fastest-improving schools, so that it can better support schools that aren't improving as quickly, according to Results for America's analysis. The Volunteer State also has created a "school improvement support network" to help districts develop plans to overhaul foundering schools, in part by using data to pinpoint the root causes of schools' lack of progress, according to the DQC's forthcoming analysis.
Revising ESSA plans
States are applying the concept of "continuous improvement" to ESSA plans themselves. For some, that means continually reaching out to the education community to see how the plan is playing out in practice. For instance, New Mexico's Ruszkowski conducted a "New Mexico Rising" tour of the state prior to the submission of its ESSA plan, to get feedback from educators on the ground. After the plan was implemented, he launched a sequel: the "New Mexico Rising Returns" tour, to explain where the state landed. Ruszkowski also visited every school in the state that got an A rating, and got educators' takes on state and federal policy, including ESSA.
A number of states also plan to go back and look at data to see how their new ESSA accountability systems are playing out in practice. Thirty-one states mentioned this strategy in their plans, although most did not describe their plans in detail, DQC found.
For instance, ESSA requires states to look beyond test scores in gauging student achievement. Vermont is planning to take a hard look at how well the four school-quality indicators that it chose capture student achievement. The state wants to consider science, physical education, and two different college- and career-readiness indicators, much of which hasn't been measured in the state before.
Already, the state is aware that one of its metrics—tracking workforce and postsecondary outcomes for its graduates—may be problematic, since the state's current system may not capture whether a student has enrolled in college in nearby Canada or found work outside the state.
"We may bring in some more" indicators, said Patrick Halladay, an education project manager for the state education agency. "We may get rid of some."
Forty states said they would consider revisiting their goals for student achievement, but only two provided details on this score, according to DQC's analysis. For instance, New York is planning to re-adjust its long-term goals for student achievement each year, setting a new endpoint, so that the goals always cover a five-year period. That way the goals can be informed by student achievement over time.
Some states are also planning to keep tabs on the measures they use to gauge school performance.
For instance, Rhode Island is rating its schools on a five-star system. The state is planning to randomly visit schools at different levels to see whether it is accurate.
Such accountablity tweaks are made possible by the flexibility in the law.
"States get a lot more freedom under ESSA and a lot of them are using that to say we need to really commit to continuous improvement," Gordon said.
Vol. 37, Issue 30, Pages 16-18Published in Print: May 7, 2018, as Improvement Model Woven Into ESSA Plans