Accountability Opinion

Collaboration: Capacity Builder and Silo Breaker

By Contributing Blogger — July 01, 2015 10 min read
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This post is by Joey Hunziker, who is a Senior Associate with the Innovation Lab Network at the Council of Chief State School Officers. If you’d like to engage further with Joey or the ILN, find them on twitter at @joeyhunziker or #ccssoILN. And follow the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE) at @SCOPE_Stanford.

If you scratch the surface of most education policy conversations happening across the country, you’ll quickly find talk about the need to “break down silos.” My favorite running spot when I lived in Seattle was Myrtle Edwards Park. The park--a beautiful, picturesque slice of land that hugs the coast of Puget Sound--is also home to a massive mill and three large grain silos. Whenever I hear people use the phrase “breaking down silos” I think of those grain silos alongside Puget Sound. They towered some 150 feet above me, gigantic monsters lurking among men. How would you break down those silos?

And when people in education talk about breaking down silos, I’m curious to know, what is the point of reference? Do they mean within government agencies, nonprofits, or businesses? Could it be between them? It seems that “silos” are really a metaphor for lack of collaboration--both within organizations and between them. And what, exactly, prevents organizations and people from collaborating or “breaking down silos”? Without all these silos, what kind of bold, transformative work could we do in our education systems? One tactic, explored in depth in this blog post, is the use of intentional collaboration around a shared problem of practice.

Several states, many of which are members of the Innovation Lab Network at the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), came together in February at CCSSO to explore how to make state accountability systems more empowering and supportive of personalized, deeper learning for students. State leaders met with national experts from the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE) and the Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning and Equity (SCALE), the Center for Innovation in Education (CIE), and the Alliance for Excellent Education. The states explored several topic areas for accountability, organized under the facets of an imaginary “51st State” accountability system (a paper authored by Linda Darling-Hammond, Gene Wilhoit, and Linda Pittenger). These facets include Multiple Measure Dashboards, Performance-Based Assessments, Professional Growth and Capacity, and, the one I’ll focus on here, School Quality Reviews, sometimes referred to as diagnostic reviews.

What is a School Quality Review? Picture your car (if you’re a city dweller like me, think of someone else’s car). The dashboard in your car gives you critical information about your car’s performance. Fuel usage, mileage, and oil levels are readily accessible, digestible information. In many cases, however, your dashboard lacks the depth of detail and knowledge necessary to identify the causes of your car’s performance, requiring you to open the hood and take a deeper look into the car’s mechanics. School Quality Reviews are a school-based measure comparable to “looking under the hood,” using the information collected to inform improvement plans. SQRs rely on the expertise of highly trained and accomplished reviewers and leading pedagogues and incorporate the use of validated rubrics and standardized procedures. In a comprehensive accountability system, the information displayed on your dashboard and the information collected during your in-depth engine review act as checks and balances. No single data point is stable enough or reliable enough to provide sufficient information to support decision-making. As the nation and leading education policy experts debate the use of standardized tests and their reliability, there lies under the “hoods” of all our schools deep, rich information just waiting to be discovered.

School Quality Reviews have been in use with turnaround and priority schools for several years, but the model has the potential to be used with all schools as a critical driver for continuous and sustained improvement. The United Kingdom and a handful of states use various SQR models as critical components of their accountability systems. What’s stopping other states from doing the same?

It takes deep knowledge, skills, and resources to build a system of school quality reviews: technical knowledge of data systems, qualitative and quantitative research practices, awareness of the variety of models currently in existence and how they function, understanding of quality pedagogy, the ability to assess school leadership, funding to support the reviews, strong relationships between the state and districts, and so on. On its own, a state education agency, nonprofit, or business may not have the needed knowledge, skills, or resources to build a school quality review system. But together, education leaders have the power to collectively tackle these challenges through collaboration and capacity building.

Recognizing the value of networked collaboration, the leaders at CCSSO, AEE, SCOPE, SCALE, and CIE organized several states into working groups to tackle these four specific accountability strategies as components that comprise a reimagined statewide accountability system. I and my colleague Soung Bae, from SCOPE, agreed to steer the school quality review working group and committed to addressing two of the largest barriers associated with developing a School Quality Review system--increasing system capacity and building expert knowledge and skills. The goals of the working group are to identify best practices, share lessons learned (both successes and failures), and to problem-solve challenges and dilemmas rooted in the actual practice of teaching and learning in schools.

To facilitate the professional learning and development of the school quality review group, we invited the state leaders to participate in monthly calls where we tackle discrete problems associated with developing a School Quality Review system. What models already exist? How do you define “quality”? How are School Quality Review systems funded? States tackle all these questions, and more, with aplomb. I and my colleague Soung provide research and facilitation to the group, offering support where needed and sometimes asking difficult questions to stimulate thinking. But the state leaders involved in this group have a passion to share with one another, to genuinely offer support and guidance, which is unparalleled. On one particularly technical call, focused on design and data considerations, I worried the conversation would stall and devolve into 45 minutes of silence. But the conversation proved to be lively, and the group members were so thoughtful and had a genuine curiosity to consider data that would provide meaningful insight into school and district operations.

In addition to uniting around a shared interest in the concept of School Quality Reviews, the working group galvanized around supporting the very practical and pressing needs of one state, Vermont. The year prior, Vermont passed new Education Quality Standards, which had high, clear expectations for student learning. Accompanying those standards was a requirement that the State Agency of Education assess the progress made towards those expectations and assess the quality of the state’s schools. With limited time, resources, and capacity, Vermont approached the group for help. The group has used Vermont’s experience as an example for discussion, reflection, and shared problem solving. While the other states in the working group have varying levels of experience with School Quality Reviews, their voices have equally substantial impact on the group’s work. One state implements a joint quality review/accreditation system, and offers guidance based in experience. Another currently reviews a handful of schools annually using rubrics and methods a state consultant created, but recognizes the need to make the process more robust and to learn alongside others. And while one state doesn’t have a formal process, it is interested in learning from the working group members’ experiences in order to inform how they might build their own system. This group of states coalesced around their willingness to learn with and from one another, and it’s been successful in that regard.

During the group’s tenure, Vermont held two statewide summits that aimed to gather feedback from state stakeholders on their Education Quality Review system. Vermont graciously invited the other state leaders in the working group to attend the summits, and several took advantage of the opportunity. The summits, while largely aimed at internal state conversations, had tremendous value for the other state leaders in attendance. The other states observed Vermont’s deputy secretary, Amy Fowler, expertly facilitate large stakeholder summits that were highly technical but exceptionally well received by participants. During one of the summits, I noticed a few state leaders talking with Amy. They remarked that it was incredible that so many state stakeholders were in the same room, discussing design aspects of the quality review system, without conflict, overtalk, or competitive conversation. They wanted to know her secrets, and she sent them everything she had on her R.A.P.I.D. decision-making model, her powerpoints, and the collaborative site, Trello, that she uses to organize feedback and resources. That simple act of collaboration provided needed resources for the other state leaders, who, without that experience, may not have had access to or been aware of that work. A simple act of sharing can be truly transformational.

If you think back to my original question at the start of this blog, you may wonder “how do we actually break down silos and not just talk about breaking them down?” First, the simple act of reaching out and asking for advice, commiserating, and sharing is a substantial crack in an organizational or cross-organizational silo. Second, when policymakers come together to learn, experiment, and problem solve with one another, they build individual and collective capacity. That level of networked collaboration, as evidenced by the School Quality Review working group, is like a roundhouse kick to the crack in our organizational grain silos. Individual policymakers and educational leaders are able to implement meaningful reforms, and sustain those reforms, as a result of the increased capacity, knowledge, and skills gained through collaboration.

Collaboration also offers unique opportunities for personal and professional growth and development of education leaders. Exploring school quality review as a group has enabled our state leaders to develop working relationships with one another. These relationships create, in essence, a professional learning community, allowing state leaders to rely on one another’s expertise, knowledge, and experience, to stimulate new ideas and learning so that they build on and expand the collective capacity of the group to realize bold, transformative work.

Collaboration is not the only solution to building capacity, but it is a sound, research-based option. Research on communities of practice has shown that when teachers are engaged in joint work, changes in individual capacity will emerge. In addition, work on networked improvement communities suggests that networking communities may facilitate improvements in teaching and learning. States have deep, important knowledge that, when shared with others, can be a powerful bridge that builds capacity for other state leaders and organizations working on transformation efforts. I challenge you to find one hour, one day a month, to share, learn, commiserate, and problem solve with peers and colleagues. Find a common problem and tackle it with a collaborative spirit and openness to learn. If you need a facilitator or expert knowledge, reach out to organizations working in this space. Don’t be afraid to ask for help; we all need support, because the answers don’t always lie in our individual grain silos along Puget Sound, but may be found in the silos next to us, the water around us, and the people running by us.

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