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NC: Using data and two-way communication promotes district improvement


 Teacher goes over with students how class will tackle next unit.

Summary: In 2002, the administration of Iredell-Statesville Schools made a commitment to broadly improve academic performance while keeping costs in check. They achieved their goal over the next five years by being in the top ten schools academically in the state using a variety of measures, and in the bottom ten for costs per pupil. The district also won the federal government’s Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award for Education. Administrators attribute the success to two-way communication with teachers and students and acceptance of the skillful use of data as tool to improve education.

At a time when data is king, the numbers that Iredell-Statesville Schools (ISS) has been reaching are a crowning achievement.

•Graduation rates have jumped 20 percent in the district over the last seven years, and attendance is at 96.3 percent (the third highest in the state), while the drop-out rate has plummeted to the lowest in the district’s history.

•Reading proficiency is up 15 percent and average SAT scores are more than 60 points higher, moving the district from 57th to 7th in the state. Math, writing, and computer proficiency scores have all risen and 90 percent of AYP goals for ISS have been met, topping the state.

•Costs are down—the district even was in the top 5 percent of school districts in the nation for energy savings.

District characteristics
Name: Iredell-Statesville Schools
State: NC
Type: Suburban
Grades: K–12
Enrollment: 21,023
Students per teacher: 14.1

Enrollment characteristics
Economically disadvantaged: 34.6%
English language learners: 5.1%
Students with disabilities: 12.3%
White: 72%
Black: 14%
Hispanic: 8.1%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 2.7%
American Indian/Alaska Native: n.a.
Other: 0.2%

At the same time, prior to the recession, ISS had made several enhancements to staff benefits and salary and teacher turnover was at record lows. All staff jobs were filled by the first day of school and there is a waiting list for already filled positions. Working conditions and climate survey data is rosy. Parent conference numbers have risen by nearly 25 percent and volunteerism is up.

But one of the most important data milestones ISS has achieved, says Pam Henderson-Schiffman, ISS associate superintendent of accountability and technology is “being in the top 10 of districts academically in the state, but in the bottom 10 for spending. That was a key strategic goal. We’ve done that now. We do a lot with a little.”

Doing a lot with a little is one of the main reasons the central North Carolina district won the 2008 Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award for Education, the highest presidential award for “organizational innovation and performance excellence.”

But just as impressive are the stories you hear beyond the numbers.

  • There is the parent who is surprised when his high school son—after years of one-word responses to school queries—offers a detailed review of one of his class’s goals and effort.
  • There is a third-grade class that is handily coming up with seven strategies for a math unit (including homework, despite some debate about completion rates) and is eager to try them out and make necessary adjustments.
  • Then there is the teacher, who, when pressed by a board member about her feelings regarding the over-use of test results in teaching, tears up as she talks about her students succeeding as she learned how to use their assessment data.

“I think everyone feels this. It starts with the student. If you’d asked them what they were doing before we made these changes, they could not have answered. Now they know their goals, what they are learning and why, and what they need to do to get there,” says Melanie Taylor, associate superintendent of curriculum and instruction. “It [using data to assess progress] has made everyone better.”

Lessons learned
  • Use straightforward rules that everyone understands as guiding principles for change in the school system. ISS has a four-word PDSA (plan, do, study, and act) approach to all its academic activity, and five questions it asks concerning any initiative (What do students need to know? How will they learn it? How will we know they have learned it? What will we do if they already know it?).
  • Define one clear academic strategy every semester as classroom priority. For example for each semester focus one thing like, homework, using learning groups, or setting objectives.
  • Use good data effectively. Make it easy for administrators and teachers to access, good, specific, current data based on end-of-year tests, periodic predictive assessments, and baseline assessments in fall. and help them be comfortable with it, making sure they know it is not an evaluative tool.
  • Make sure there are clear avenues in both directions for communications throughout the school system. Include learning communities and instructional facilitators with credibility on both sides.
  • Allow students at all levels to understand classroom goals. Also provide input into the process for achieving them.
  • Enhance teacher benefits and reward them for success. Consider key workplace issues that can be improved to heighten morale and make positions more desirable.
  • Tackle attendance issues and develop creative ways to improve alternative education.

The district serves 21,000 students who come from small towns filled with rural poor and bedroom communities with wealthier students whose parents travel forty-five minutes to Charlotte or to Winston Salem along two interstates that slice the rectangular district in quarters.

ISS’s historic move forward began about seven years ago and has been driven by a four-word mantra (plan, do, study, and act) and five questions (what do students need to know; how will they learn it; how will we know they have learned it; and, what will we do if they already know it?).

The staff and students use the mantra for actions they take—from broad district initiatives to class-generated ideas about how they’ll tackle a new unit. This model requires planning, trial, data-driven review of the activity in the “study” phase, and then full implementation.

The five instructional questions are used through the school structure, which helps answer them with collaborative teams, a teacher-driven curriculum, and a non-threatening emphasis on data that, according to chief strategic planning officer Mathew Fail, now has teachers mostly comfortable with its value as a way to improve their instruction.

“I think that since we just started off expecting the use of data, teachers are comfortable with it now. They know what reports they need, how to run them, analyze them, and use them. And they see data as a helpful tool,” said Fail.

The data comes from a baseline assessment for every student each year, two predictive assessments, and end-of-year testing. Teachers can access the data warehouse to get custom reports that compare information in various specific ways, Henderson-Schiffman says.

“It is not evaluative in any way,” says Jed Stus, executive director of professional development. He explains that professional learning communities (PLC) do “gap analyses,” looking for problems in mastery of topics or mastery by a set of students—then collaboratively develop strategies.

“It has credibility because they see gaps along with what students have mastered,” says Stus. “That gives them a map about how to dive deeper. How can a teacher argue when their class had a 40 percent proficient rate and now has 80 percent,” he asks.

Stus says there is now a “critical mass” of staff that understands data usefulness and believes the ISS administration wants to support them in using it.

Beyond numbers, the new approach at ISS really begins in the summer, before the school year starts, according to Taylor. About 100 teachers are paid to spend a week developing curriculum, based to a large degree on information gathered the previous year. Working with PLCs, teachers customize the curriculum, share ideas about instruction, and provide feedback, which is part of the two-way communication structure that the ISS administrators trumpet as a key to the district’s success. Teachers also are key players in each school’s improvement plan for the coming year, Fail notes.

As the year progresses, a single priority strategy is promoted district wide each semester—approaches such as “setting objectives and providing feedback,” along with “ homework and practice.” Instructional facilitators, like Kim Rector, provide teachers with development around those themes and other district objectives—again, based on data. Facilitators are top teachers chosen for their teaching and interpersonal skills who are charged with helping their peers develop skills for the classroom and talent for examining data and making adjustments.

“We have a strong tie to the district and the individual school. We then create staff development and follow-up with coaching and [then we] receive the feedback. Facilitators have been an integral part of the success ISS has experienced,” Rector says.

Fail highlights other ways communications travels upward—from satisfaction surveys to key involvement in school improvement plans to informal meetings with administrators. “It really is one of the things we are proudest of,” he says, recalling one case where teachers expressed a desire not stay after school for professional development and, as a result, were given six new early-release days.

Teachers are also encouraged to do their best by a district contribution that enhances statewide salaries by about eight percent, by bonuses for teaching in at-risk schools, signing bonuses, and school-wide bonuses for student improvement.

Communication with students also involves extensive two-way cooperation—understanding goals, examining the results of their efforts, and making adjustments. The school is developing more individual study plans for students, Fail says, which allow them to work more independently at their own speed. The goal is for each student to have a detailed plan.

An alternative education program also has been expanded and enhanced. It now offers classroom work during suspensions, extended absences, and class work at a day treatment center. Virtual courses have been added along with virtual recovery courses. A differentiated diploma program is also offered that allows some students to graduate by meeting state requirements but not the more extensive ISS graduation standards. All of these efforts contribute to ISS’s low drop-out rate.

“This started with one school,” said Fail, “and it gained acceptance, spread, and it worked. Now this new approach affects everything we do.”


Mathew Fail

Chief Strategic Planning Officer



This story was written by James Paterson, a writer, editor of an education magazine, and a school counselor. Paterson lives in Olney, Md., with his wife and teenage children.

Posted: January 22, 2010

©2010 Center for Public Education

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