Nationwide, practitioners and researchers are tackling persistent problems in education by pooling their knowledge and leveraging data to identify areas of improvement and make informed decisions. Two prime examples of these partnerships are in Idaho, where REL Northwest researchers have been collaborating with representatives from the state, districts and schools, and higher education to use data to evaluate and improve state-supported programs.
Using school leaders’ perspectives to enhance support to struggling schools
In 2012, REL Northwest teamed up with the Idaho State Department of Education (SDE) to form a research alliance focused on boosting supports for low-performing schools. The goal of the Idaho State Recognition, Accountability, and Support Alliance is to build members’ capacity to design and conduct evaluations of programs within the Idaho Statewide System of Support (SSoS).
Recently, REL Northwest’s Caitlin Scott, a nationally known scholar on school turnaround, helped the alliance design and administer surveys to superintendents and principals participating in three SSoS programs that provide leadership and improvement coaching to struggling schools and districts. After synthesizing survey responses, alliance members examined the results and are using them to make program improvements—from choosing topics for professional development to deciding on the format for future trainings and networking activities. “I’ve been impressed by the alliance’s commitment to gather data from superintendents and principals and to use that data to guide the state’s work,” Scott said. “This is a group that cares about providing high-quality services to education leaders.” Alliance members now have the ability to conduct annual surveys and continue to use the findings to inform school improvement decisions.
Using teacher observations to improve mathematics instruction
When districts sought assistance in evaluating the implementation fidelity for the Idaho Core Mathematics Standards, REL Northwest and its Educator Effectiveness Working Group stepped in to help. The working group, which includes partners at Boise State University (BSU), is facilitating a pilot project for districts and schools on using a teacher observation tool and protocol that share information about how teachers are implementing instructional strategies in math. As the curriculum director in Homedale explains, "As a district, we believe this tool will help our principals give more valuable, content-specific feedback that will encourage instructional growth.” In addition to learning how to use the observation tool and protocol effectively, pilot participants are interpreting and using the data collected to ensure instruction is aligned with the more rigorous standards.
This fall, REL Northwest and BSU staff are conducting two professional development workshops, as well as site visits to participating schools. “It’s wonderful to see administrators and other school staff members work with the observation tool,” says workshop facilitator Shannon Davidson of REL Northwest. “The idea is to empower them to understand and interpret instructional strategies in math classrooms, even if they lack much prior experience with math as a subject.” The project will culminate in a guidance document intended to increase districts’ capacity to implement the observation protocol and effectively use the data that it generates across the state.
“Education is overwhelmed with data, much of it meaningless, but some very valuable,” remarks Chuck Zimmerly, SDE’s community relations officer. “An educational leader today must have the ability to ask for and recognize good data from all the chaff.” REL Northwest projects in Idaho are aiming for just that result.