How one district overhauled its academic plan

‘We needed to do a better job educating our students’

Gladwin Community Schools has traditionally had very high achievement scores, but we realized in the past few years that we had lost our focus – and it showed. Student achievement had slipped to unacceptable levels. Quite frankly, we needed to do a better job educating our students.

After considering several short-term, “quick fix” options, we decided that we needed a system-wide culture change to be more focused on achievement. In this column I would like to describe the revolutionary process we implemented to do just that. Called QUESTions, the process is built on accountability at all levels.

QUESTions is a K-12 initiative designed to facilitate systemic change in the way we educate our children. The process is an extension of the work on professional learning communities by Richard Dufour, and focuses on answering what have become our five curriculum Questions:

  • What do we teach? – First and foremost our curriculum must be aligned with state standards. Teachers must be given the time and guidance to become intimately aware of the content expectations.

  • When do we teach it? Through the development of pacing guides, our teachers have articulated a focused plan of instruction that will ensure that all objectives are taught at the appropriate grade level.

  • How will we know if the students have learned? – Each core content area at each grade level administers a common quarterly assessment. These assessments test the specific content expectations outlined in the pacing guides. The tests are scored at the district level and data is returned to the teachers and administrators within one week of the test date.

  • How do we teach? – As our benchmark assessments identify weaknesses in our instructional methods, we have responded with direct and focused professional development.

  • What will we do with those students who have not learned? – Following the pyramid of intervention model, teachers and administrators are working collaboratively to institute interventions for those students who do not meet the standard performance level on the benchmark assessments.

Our leadership team met throughout a summer to sketch out this framework for change. We knew that we had a great staff and very capable leadership, but were lacking direction. Our discussions led us first to the Professional Learning Communities concept and, from there, to develop what we call our Curriculum QUESTions vision and process.

This process is unique in that it is a systemic approach to raising achievement. Rather than relying on the trend of the day, or fragmented strategies, our process relies on a change in the way we approach all aspects of the learning process, a true cultural shift.

Teaching staff were given the time to work in content area and grade level teams to study the state content area expectations and to develop pacing guides that articulate when the objectives are to be taught. The pacing guides are common to the particular level.

For instance, all fifth-grade teachers use the same pacing guide in the core content areas, just as all high school algebra teachers use the same pacing guide.

Once the pacing guides were complete, staff was given training and time to develop common assessments aligned with the pacing guide. Each of the assessments was juried by a group of trained staff members prior to being given the first time. These assessments are given quarterly to all students K-12 and are scored at the district level.

Data from the assessments can be accessed, electronically, within one week of the test date. Another unique aspect of our process is our data mining relationship with MiTracker to make our local assessment data available in MiTracker report format.

Our staff can see the results of their benchmark assessments disaggregated according to many different criteria, including all MEAP data fields such as content strand and sub-group. The benchmark assessments provide us with real time data as opposed to waiting for the yearly MEAP reports. We are now capable of making data driven decisions during the course of the school year in response to our students’ actual performance.

After reviewing the data, individual teachers or small groups of teachers meet with their building leaders to discuss the data and make plans for improvement. These discussions constantly refer back to the five curricular QUESTions. The results of these meetings are shared with the building school improvement teams, who are then tasked with developing the student interventions, professional development or curricular adjustments necessary to increase achievement.

Each building-level improvement team brings its plan to the district-level improvement team for final approval and allocation of funds. This ensures vertical alignment and compatibility across the district. Through this process, we can go from idea to implementation in less than a month.

Another unique aspect of this program is that any approved student intervention, professional development or curricular adjustment is evaluated to determine whether or not the change resulted in an achievement increase. Strategies that raise achievement are kept while those that do not are modified or abandoned.

This process is a true revolution in the way we approach teaching our students. The QUESTions have taught us that we cannot increase learning while working in isolation. We must strive to collaborate with and support one another. The teachers in this district should be applauded for their efforts.What they have accomplished in such a short time is truly amazing. The Curricular QUESTions Vision is not a means to an end, but a process that will continuously press us to look at what we are doing and the results that we are getting.

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Rick Seebeck is superintendent of Gladwin Community Schools.