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While teachers can do an excellent job on their own, the entire system becomes stronger when educators all work together. At Moscow School District in Moscow, Idaho, our test scores regularly beat state averages. However, our “students-first” culture drove us to keep looking for ways to keep building supportive learning environments.
In 2013, our district embarked on the accreditation process offered by Cognia, a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization that focuses on continuous improvement and accredits primary and secondary schools globally. To gauge our overall effectiveness, Cognia assembled an Engagement Review Team that evaluated our district’s performance against its research-based performance standards. The team then helped us determine improvement priorities.
Here’s what we learned.
One of our overarching goals was to break down the silos in which our teachers and administrators were operating. We found there was little to no collaboration among the educators of the seven schools in our district—four elementary schools, a middle school, a high school, and an alternative high school. The grade-level teams within each building also tended to remain separate. As a result, teachers found that a portion of students were entering a new grade without mastering some of the concepts or skills essential for success with the new grade-level standards. While teachers did a great job assisting the students who needed additional help, doing so meant extra work for the teachers and a less than smooth transition for the affected students.
Align at every level
The Engagement Review Team provided district leaders with diagnostic reviews and helped us determine improvement priorities. MSD educators also received a substantial amount of professional development on instructional best practices and improvement planning.
To foster collaboration, we held “K–12 conversations” with teachers within each content area. The aim was to help teachers move beyond thinking only about goals specific to their grade level. For example, fourth-grade teachers need to think about how integral their current subject matter will be to the efforts of the fifth-grade teachers who will be instructing their students the following year, and to the ninth-grade teachers who will have them a few years later.
Develop an assessment system
We set a collaboration-related goal of creating a comprehensive standards-based K–12 assessment system. We recognized that certain standards were essential for students’ success at subsequent grade levels. Of course, our teachers covered all the standards for their subject and grade level, but through the review process, we now knew that some standards required special attention. So, district leadership came together to identify the standards that were most crucial, which helped us build common assessments and a common report card. The process yielded clarity and direction for teacher teams and professional development.
Engage in professional development
We also combined professional development for our elementary teachers and our grade-level teams more often. After working as a team during a session, teachers would return to their own school buildings and put what they’d learned into action. The same process applied to conferences. We’d attend as a K–12 team, and team members would use the knowledge and the tools they gained to move closer to their accreditation goals at the district and building levels.
Balance alignment and autonomy
It should be noted that although we are all working toward district goals, our process allows for some autonomy. That way, educators can adapt their approach to the specific circumstances within each building. For example, some of our elementary schools run a schoolwide Title I program, and others have a targeted assistance program. Those differences necessitate different approaches for meeting our district-level goals. But building leadership maintains alignment by periodically meeting and sharing ideas and resources as well as information on each school’s progress.
Review and reflect
MSD administrators now also meet to do a review at the end of each academic year. At the administration meeting, we look at our student performance results, engagement surveys for families, and staff and student surveys so we can get a view of where we currently are. Cognia’s training and the priorities provided by its review team have helped us to better analyze what’s working in our district and discuss opportunities for improvement. We also consider how we can alter current goals if the need arises.
Working through Cognia’s accreditation process helped us achieve many goals, but one of the most gratifying results of our efforts has been that the percentage of career and technical education students who graduate with an industry-recognized certification has risen from 20% to 70%.
Although our students were already doing well on state tests, we have seen gains. From the 2014–15 school year to 2019, the percentage of students scoring as advanced and proficient on state English language arts and math test climbed from 63% to 68% and 52% to 56.5%, respectively. This means even less students are falling through academic cracks.
The entire process has also allowed MSD educators to learn a lot about each other and see themselves as a K–12 team. All our buildings are now on the same page, speaking the same language, but this is a process that should never end. Every year, some teachers leave, and new teachers are hired. Having grade-, building-, and district-level teams provides a powerful structure for acclimating new teaching staff.
There’s still work to be done on our comprehensive K–12 assessment system goal. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic may make it necessary to reassess the timelines for many of our goals, but we have a great foundation for doing the work. We were already a high-achieving school district, but until we get student achievement to 100 percent, we’ll keep pushing our practice forward.
Carrie Brooks is curriculum director for Moscow School District in Moscow, Idaho.
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