Walk Throughs: How A District Maintains Quality Control of Reforms While Producing Worthwhile Debate and Creative Tension

One of the weakest links in the policy-to-practice chain is the district insuring that new policies–state standards, accountability requirements, or new types of schooling–are fully implemented in schools. Mapleton (CO) is a district where parents can choose any school to send their children. Against the Odds (2010) describes this district of choice and its use of School Support Teams (SST). On May 22, 2011, the Mapleton assistant superintendent confirmed that the SST process described below is still in place.

A typical SST includes one or two central administrators, possibly an educational consultant, the school director, the school’s instructional guide, a lead teacher, and a parent. The director can invite students and other teachers to be part of the meeting with the team, especially the debriefing at the end of each visit. “We try to structure them so that the school’s [staff and stakeholders] outnumber the central administrators. It all happens in their turf and territory.”

Each team is assigned schools and on monthly visits collects evidence from its “walk-throughs….” In addition to observing classrooms and hallways, the team members talk with teachers and students. The data they gather are then shared with the director and teachers during the debriefing. In 2006–07, for example, the teams gathered data at each school on a “critical question” that had been articulated by the central administration for the entire district. For December 2006, the question was, “What are your daily walk-throughs and test data telling you about teaching and learning in your school, and what adjustments are being made to instruction based on that data?”

After each walk-through, the team convenes and the team leader completes a log sheet with the headings, “What’s Working, “Current Focus,” “Challenges and Concerns,” “Director’s  Next Steps.” The team’s comments and observations are discussed with the director and whomever he or she has assembled to meet with the team. District administrators say that the SSTs are as committed to upholding model fidelity as they are to ensuring that standards-based teaching occurs. In short, the SST is a central office vehicle for maintaining quality control at local sites.

Although the SST process is mandated by the district, the process strives to be collaborative. The visiting team calls immediate attention to both strengths and weaknesses…. Recalling an experience at one of the schools, an executive team member highlighted an incident in which she felt that a teacher was not adhering to the model’s instructional approach: “It was at an Expeditionary Learning School and . . .  it’s just worksheets, packets of worksheets for these little guys. Just packets and packets of worksheets. [I asked,] ‘Is that what you’re about? Is that what this school is about?’”

Another executive team member suggested that the SSTs have improved district administrators’ understanding of the different school models. This administrator also believes that the inevitable tension between district mandates and fidelity to school models is healthy:

By being in the schools . . . [we] understand the models better than [we would] sitting up here and reading about them and hearing them tell us about them. They, by having to deal with us every month and [with] our rubrics, understand why this is important and where we are going . . . There’s sometimes push-back and arguments and sometimes disagreement, and sometimes a certain amount of frustration—probably on both sides. But you have to have that if you’re going to produce the tension for change….

Not all school directors agree that the SST visits are worthwhile, or that the district is as receptive to their concerns as the above quotations suggest. Some believe the teams are an attempt to control what they do and indicate a lack of trust. But some of the experiences related to the SSTs turn out to be more nuanced than a stereotypical “district office versus school” characterization would suggest.

For example, one executive team member spoke of an Expeditionary Learning school whose students did poorly on the MAPS tests. The executive team member recalls meeting with the school director, who had written a draft letter to his staff about the MAPS results:

He pulled out his letter and said, “OK, I looked at my results, and here’s what I want to tell my staff, and I want you guys’ opinion on this.” And the letter reflected an approach . . . that was testscore focused and very inconsistent with their … model and very inconsistent with the energy that he had created amongst his staff and his community and his kids. But it was based on an administrator’s [concern] about his test scores going down. And so the advice at that point was, “Stop. How do you do this within your model?” not “How do you start cramming kids with CSAP information into their heads so they’ll pass the test?”

To the executive team member, this was a case where the district promoted model fidelity. On the other hand, this same team member related another anecdote that revealed the district’s concern about teaching to state standards. This case involved a Big Picture school:

One of the things that we have constantly been talking with them … is, “Where are the standards? Where are the learning outcomes? Where is the advanced thinking, as an individual student, about what you know and what you don’t know and where you need to go? And why are the internships and the apprenticeships not starting with that?” They push back, understandably, and say, “Because the kid has to have a passion.” We’re into the passion. Great. [But] they’ve got these things they need to learn . . . So, how does that conversation happen? And so the push-back is the other way—about, “Where is the accountability?”

Certainly a tension has arisen between district administrators looking for certain constants in the curriculum, and school directors who believe that their school models and philosophies resist standardization. District administrators themselves wrestle with how to reconcile standards-driven education and constructivist principles. The SST visits have triggered open debates, so the issue is not abstract.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Walk Throughs: How A District Maintains Quality Control of Reforms While Producing Worthwhile Debate and Creative Tension

  1. Bob Calder

    How do college outcomes compare to what the SST predicts and how do both of these compare to the state’s standardized testing regimen as a predictor? It seems to me that a school model that crams facts into students will score highest on all measures except the softest ones (school model). Am I right that this is the essential tension?

    There is also the problem of authenticity in the school model with respect to whether it is an illusion created to engage students or garner community support. In both cases, the number of students that are highly engaged AND who will achieve singular success is so small that justifying an entire school “model” on that basis could be considered an expensive fantasy. This is not to say I’m against it, but the way we insist on measuring the achievement of an institution that can turn out at most a handful of high performers a year in a given model seems odd. Mapleton seems to want to measure two different (maybe conflicting?) things and the SST is their solution. (see last graf)

    One of the difficulties is measuring the creative behavior that is part of the productive component of every person. We aren’t really interested in measuring growth, but outcome. What I see in some models is a sort of a proxy system that claims to measure but on close examination may not perform the function of a “one man show” in the arts. In the arts, a social group of public, parents, professionals, and journalists grants the appropriate social imprimantur at a singular event. This event carries no academic stamp or may be post hoc, but process is entirely community generated.

    Finally, let me qualify what I have said with the observation that a good arts teacher is able to identify success with no difficulty at all. Yet an ordinary member of the school community (managers, teachers, staff, parents, other students) cannot without guidance. My own students that are high achievers are not recognized in the k-12 arena and must get to college before anyone realizes the utility (of owning one or more in a department.) The community that they want to join is very thin, but that’s a major reason I want them to join it.

    While writing, I realized it was the kind of decision research problem that is being grappled with by government transparency groups spawned by the EFF and worked on by the likes of Cass Sunstein. On one hand you have an expert opinion (teacher) and on the other you have a group opinion. The expert opinion is vulnerable – just look at school models that claim replicability, but are at best a cruel joke. The group opinion is vulnerable – Concordet Jury Theorem up to current research on diversity in the group and whether there is communication inside the group and how that communication is characterized by revelation of knowledge and debate. Also useful is Actor Network Theory – network analysis needs to play a part here as well… The folks that presented at this meeting:
    http://aaas.confex.com/aaas/2011/webprogram/Session3095.html
    offer a good example of what I am talking about.

    Also, this demonstrates some cross disciplinary work with promising results:
    http://www.bsos.umd.edu/socy/people/publications/Social%20Network.pdf

    • larrycuban

      Bob,
      Comparisons between college outcomes and standardized test scores in high school do not occur in either Colorado or Mapleton.

      The Sschool Support Teams make no predictions on outcomes for each school.

      Thanks for the references.

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