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In Indiana, Teachers Help Shape State Education Plan

July 17, 2017
Jean Russell
Teach Plus Indiana Policy Fellows seize opportunity to guide debate on school performance, accountability

Every day, teachers are engaged in the legacy-leaving work of shaping their students’ learning experience and providing them with the tools they need to succeed.

The profound and lasting influence that we have on our students is why we must also reach outside of our classrooms to be deeply and meaningfully engaged in shaping the policies that affect them. My cohort of Teach Plus Indiana’s Teaching Policy Fellows is developing a series of recommendations for what should be included in the state’s plan to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). We’re looking at all of the options for what would serve our schools best – and we appreciate the opportunity to share our thoughts with the Indiana Department of Education.

As ESSA takes the place of No Child Left Behind, many educators and other stakeholders are wondering “What’s the big deal?” Well, the big deal is that educators and stakeholders have a say – a real voice – in the process of writing each state’s ESSA plan.

ESSA gives control for much of a state’s plan for education – including assessment, school accountability, teacher evaluation and funding framework – to those stakeholders. Because of that, teachers, parents, administrators and students have the opportunity to actually influence the plan that each state proposes under the law – through focus groups, surveys, meetings with legislators and committee participation.

Teach Plus Fellows led focus groups to gather input from Indiana’s educators on how to improve teacher leadership, communication and accountability. In the area of teacher leadership, we recommend creating hybrid roles to support teacher instruction and impact student achievement. Creating a dashboard for school districts that reports both academic and non-academic indicators will improve communication. For accountability, we recommend implementing a comprehensive school climate survey that will be used as a non-academic indicator in the ESSA formula.

We all know that academic indicators are significant – they help us determine if kids are reading and doing math at grade level. ESSA requires academic indicators and specifies that state testing be a significant component. But one of the most exciting opportunities for states to individualize their education plan is the chance to decide on a non-academic indicator to be used as part of the formula for school accountability. While some things like student achievement, growth and graduation rates remain variables in the formula, states can, for the first time, decide what other information is valuable to include when reporting about a school’s success.

This is a big deal. Almost every education stakeholder feels strongly that test scores do not tell the whole story. Finally, information that holds meaning and importance to educators and communities can be included to provide a more complete picture of a school.

States can, for the first time, decide what other information is valuable to include when reporting about a school's success.

My sincere hope is that many states will decide to include a climate survey to clearly show a more comprehensive look at our schools. The very stakeholders that want desperately to be included in the creation of a state ESSA plan will be included every year in providing schools and districts with the kind of data that can truly result in improvement. Asking students, parents, teachers, administrators and other school personnel to answer questions about a school’s climate is an opportunity we cannot miss. With an annual climate survey, I can picture educators waiting with bated breath for the results and getting into problem-solving mode as soon as strengths and weaknesses are identified.

As the 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year, I have had the privilege of working with schools from all over my state. I have provided professional development for instructional coaches, teachers and administrators. My work has included schools with ratings from A-D. With each school, I was struck by how incredibly different the culture of schools could be even though their rating was the same. While a school’s student population may score similarly on standardized tests, the “feel” of a building varies greatly. Some are full of teachers who work collaboratively, while others seemed reticent to share what they are doing with others. Some have supportive and engaged administrators. Some administrators just want to be liked by everyone. Others have a school full of teachers completely unaware of their leaders’ goals and visions.

Jean Russell is a Teach Plus Indiana Teaching Fellow.

Jean Russell is a Teach Plus Indiana Teaching Fellow.

Interestingly, there is not always a clear relationship between school culture and school rating. Some of the schools rated a D have a school full of engaged, compassionate adults who would do anything for kids. So do some of the A schools. Sometimes though, a school with the highest rating has frustrated teachers and visionless leaders. This is why an annual opportunity for honest, anonymous feedback from a school’s stakeholders would be so incredibly valuable to school improvement. Just like the students in a classroom, every school has different needs, resources and capacity. Climate surveys provide this individualized, personalized information from stakeholders for stakeholders to act as a catalyst for growth.

Understandably, digging through information from stakeholders can feel a bit scary. I mean, what if the news is not what we want to hear? We must be bold and fearless when asking for accountability feedback. Climate surveys can save us time and frustration and provide a laser-focused vision for moving forward. While it feels risky, this opportunity through ESSA to make a purposeful, meaningful, intentional change to our formula – one that results in improvement and speaks to the “whole” school – means we must not only accept what our stakeholders are thinking, but embrace it.

ESSA opens up a new door to stakeholder feedback in drafting each state plan. But this invaluable feedback doesn’t have to end with the plan. Including the data derived from annual climate surveys ensures that the ESSA door never closes because students, parents, teachers and administrators will continue to be an integral part of ongoing input that leads to continuous improvement.

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