For the past several years, California has been taking aim at improved student achievement in its public schools as the state's singular educational priority using effective accountability tools as the chief means to ensure teaching and learning targets are hit.
Now, one San Diego business organization, committed to sound educational reform measures, is hitting the target squarely by finding better ways to measure improved academic performance through an innovative multiyear plan.
That organization is the San Diego Business Roundtable for Education. Working with 15 charter schools in the San Diego region, the Business Roundtable is now beginning the third and final year of teaching leaders in those schools how to use data-based inquiry; develop more robust but parent-friendly school accountability report cards; and promote communications, collaboration and continuous improvement -- all aimed at finding ways to improve academic achievement and hold schools accountable for doing so. Several of the participating charter schools were organized or assisted in organizing by the Business Roundtable over the last decade.
The 15 participating charters wanted to become more "data-driven" in order to better manage the accountability demands being placed on them for improving student performance and fiscal management. The schools needed a thoughtful assessment strategy to provide continual analysis of the data generated from the school's internal and external measurements.
What emerged was the Data Analysis and Accountability Plan, supported by a grant from the Girard Foundation, a La Jolla-based organization that supports education reform. The plan seeks to move school assessment practices forward by defining the criteria for a robust accountability system and then demonstrating to school practitioners how to develop, maintain and make proactive use of the system they developed -- all focused on improving student achievement at each school.
The charter schools are using the data they have collected to target increased student achievement for identified populations and to make thoughtful decisions regarding purchases of school materials.
The first year of the plan focused on identifying the essential questions, surveying and identifying gaps in existing assessment models, and determining how and what data were presently being used to guide instructional and schoolwide decision-making. Each participating school developed its own data mining and collection system and organized data analysts and a school accountability team.
This past year, the plan focused primarily on teaching school leaders how to analyze and synthesize the data and build an accountability-oriented school culture within each participating charter school. Participating schools reported substantial progress in selecting data collection tools. The development of meaningful assessment tools and calibrated multiple assessment pieces is still in process. Formative data is being used more effectively to monitor whether instruction is effective and the level at which students are learning. Schools are recognizing the power of the inter-school connections that the project provides. Because of the basic project structure, teams can learn not only from the project leaders but also from one another. School data analysts, especially, have found the school-to-school and analyst-to-analyst sharing to be invaluable and unique.
Year three of the plan now focuses on solidifying a schoolwide accountability culture and emphasizes the role of using data to plan improvements in school performance. As the schools become better data-driven organizations, the impact on student achievement will be readily apparent and provide a roadmap for other public and public charter schools to emulate.
Under the Business Roundtable's leadership, the schools using the Data Analysis and Accountability Plan meet three times a year to collaborate and share information. During these sessions, outside consultants train the participating charters' Data Analysts and School Accountability teams. Also, the data analysts meet for more in-depth training sessions while school site visitations by the project coaches provide additional introspective and mentoring opportunities.
This project is but one illustration of the pioneering role charter schools can play in initiating reforms that lead to better ways of educating our children. But, it is as good as it gets in terms of teaching school sites to better handle accountability data and other tools to improve student performance.
By design, charters have more flexibility and freedom to develop and model sound educational practices that can then be incorporated into other public schools. For that reason, school boards, superintendents and principals need to view the innovative work charter schools are doing as relevant and of interest to their schools and feel empowered to act by some of the leading-edge work being done at these schools.
The system of public schools as we know it today will not survive without demonstrating a consistent ability to improve academic performance on the part of all California public school children. To be able to do so will continue to require better tools and methods, many of which are coming out of our charter schools as models for change.
Such resources are not proprietary. Those developed through charter schools are intended to be used by all public schools as Plan A to improve student achievement.
For schools wanting to survive, there is no Plan B.
Hovenic is president and chief executive officer of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce Foundation and executive director of the Foundation's Business Roundtable for Education. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.