Federal Opinion

Engaging Stakeholders to Define School Quality Under ESSA

By Jal Mehta — May 25, 2016 7 min read
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By Joey Hunziker

Senior Associate--Innovation Lab Network at CCSSO

It was Feb. 5, 2015--less than a month into my new job with the Innovation Lab Network at the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). After a few weeks of research, I was tasked with leading a discussion on School Quality Reviews--a continuous improvement strategy that involves deep, diagnostic reviews of school practice and environment -with a group of state education leaders interested in using the strategy as part of a reimagined state accountability system. One state in particular--Vermont--had a pressing need: state statute required them to build, test, and implement a system of quality reviews that would provide the state Agency of Education deeper information about school quality and environment, which would then inform how it identifies and helps all schools engage in a cycle of continuous improvement. That February meeting was the jumping off point for a 15-month collaboration that eventually brought me to Montpelier last week to witness their progress and work to date. This blog is an attempt to document that work, draw implications for other states, and challenge you, the reader, to think about school “quality” in different ways.

Under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), state accountability systems were required to identify underperforming schools, rank them in accordance with a set of performance indicators, and recommend schools enter tiers of support that would help them improve their performance. Unfortunately, one of the criticisms of implementation of NCLB was the lack of attention paid to supporting schools in substantive ways that engaged local communities, parents and school leaders. School accountability was, in many ways, a thing that was done to schools. As a result, accountability created competition among districts and sanctioning from the states and federal government. The school improvement components of NCLB became high risk, and often low reward, making it a challenge to share best practices among schools, improve school culture, and fuel student performance. States looked for new solutions to engage communities and parents in the process of school improvement. That opportunity comes, in part, under the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which gives states more authority to design accountability and continuous improvement systems that meet the needs of its schools, districts and communities. Many of the decisions associated with supports and interventions, and continuous improvement, are now the responsibility of state education agencies, local school districts, and the communities they serve. I would argue that school quality reviews offer a salient solution for building community connections to the process and cause of school improvement and support, if designed with a thoughtful public engagement process. Here’s why.

Vermont joined other states in the Innovation Lab Network to collaborate and build capacity to create an integrated school quality review system (documented in an earlier blog post here). Since that Feb. 5 meeting, Vermont’s leaders hosted two statewide stakeholder summits, eight pilot review visits across the state, and the most recent state summit, which was designed to celebrate the work of the last year and guide the direction of the state process for the next school year. I believe Vermont’s process holds a great deal of power for being a model for other states as they work to engage stakeholders around implementation of ESSA. With more decision making authority around targeted support and interventions now in the hands of state education agencies (as opposed to a federally defined process under NCLB), there comes a responsibility to engage districts, parents, teachers and students in different ways. Vermont engaged stakeholders in targeted feedback sessions, offering opportunities for stakeholders as wide ranging as superintendents, special education teachers, parents, and librarians, the chance to inform the direction of the Integrated Field Review process. That may sound daunting to a large state with limited resources, but it’s possible to do and to do well.

  • First, you should be clear about the voices you want and need at the table. Through the stakeholder process, Vermont learned that many people wanted students involved in the actual school review process. Engaging students in state policy is a complex task, but the idea had merit so the state worked with an organization to train and support students to be ambassadors who could participate in the pilot of the review process. A participant in the summit last week said that including students in the process made her school think about how often, and to what extent, they include students in decision making within their own school. This framing is critical, both for school leaders and state leaders, as we move to support student-centered learning in districts and schools across the country.
  • Second, a state and its leaders must be clear about what they would like feedback on. The questions you ask should have substance and weight, giving stakeholders a chance to engage with your strategic vision in meaningful ways. Through its stakeholder summits, Vermont facilitated conversations that gathered input from participants about the vision and direction of the integrated field review system, the indicators that would appear in the review, and the process the state would carry out to review schools. As one stakeholder said in the most recent summit, “Vermont took several small steps to include feedback from stakeholders, not reinventing their work, but using it to inform their field reviews. Because it was a pilot, it was lower stakes and they could LEARN about process and use feedback when needed.”
  • Third, you should be clear about how you will use the feedback you gather from stakeholders. Amy Fowler, the Deputy Secretary in the Vermont Agency of Education, was clear from the beginning that its stakeholder engagement process would have periods of targeted input, not deliberations and group decision-making. The stakeholder input would inform the decisions the state had to make, giving the Agency the tools, knowledge, and perspective to make a decision. They used a R.A.P.I.D. decision making model that allowed stakeholder input to be used, without the pitfalls of negotiating or deliberating. At one point, the state team leading the field review work gathered 500 different indicators of school quality from stakeholders within and outside of the state agency. This model allowed them to refine and reflect on the stakeholder input without being overwhelmed. As Amy noted in the recent summit, this was a learning process, akin to producing a recognizable, though rough, diamond from an otherwise ordinary stone. The piloting of the actual reviews, which followed the stakeholder engagement process, was a learning process as well--like taking that rough diamond and polishing it into finger-ready jewelry.

And finally, states should understand that any process that aims to gather stakeholder input may be challenging and overwhelming, but can be extremely rewarding when built with an eye for iteration and collaboration. I was extremely overwhelmed to hear the positive, critical feedback expressed at the state summit last week in Vermont. It was clear from the stakeholders, who came to this work with different opinions and beliefs about school quality, that the work carried out to build the integrated field review system was difficult, complex, rewarding and profound. Ultimately, the process built good will with state stakeholders, and informed a successful implementation of the field review pilot. A district Special Education coordinator noted the following about her school’s field review visit:

Being in northeast, rural Vermont, we never get a chance to collaborate. The field reviews allowed us to connect with other professionals and build connections to see other practices. As a unified building school system (K-12) it’s easier for us to communicate and transform our work. The feedback we received from the reviews were not surprising, they confirmed for us our areas of weakness, but it helped identify how we could improve on these weaknesses. The review has helped us communicate with our board what initiatives and strategic decisions are working, and what areas we should prioritize more. The immediate feedback of the [integrated field review] visit is SO helpful, it helped us reflect on our needs. As such, we’ve added two guiding questions for our board meetings related to EQS to track our progress towards being successful at implementation of the state policies.

Vermont is a small state, with its own unique challenges that may not be relevant to the challenges of California or Texas. But its process and approach, aimed at quick, informed decision making, can be adapted for states with different populations of students at a larger scale. What unites states is the need and desire to engage with local stakeholders to build a new definition of school quality for the ESSA era. CCSSO is committed to supporting states throughout implementation of ESSA, focusing on supporting schools through improvement processes and engaging with stakeholders in new and authentic ways.

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