Rewinding the Decade: An Essay on Building Coherence in the Olmsted Falls City School District

The purpose of this document is to walk the reader through a brief, 10-year retrospective of certain conditions at both the State and District levels that have led the Olmsted Falls City School District to its current state.  

Part 1: Common Core Standards (Beginning in 2008)

At the State Level

The Ohio Department of Education went through several changes. The Race to the Top initiative was formulated to get Federal reform dollars to finance the shift towards a new set of National learning standards in math and ELA called the Common Core Standards. Ohio signed on with PARCC and quickly put together a testing consortium to measure student acquisition of learning standards that weren’t fully implemented within all of Ohio’s school districts. This testing experiment was met with parent opposition and it failed miserably on many levels.

At the Local Level

Olmsted Falls Schools were engaged in a few, very broad professional development/capacity building initiatives. Specifically, as a school district we learned about the importance of making the learning targets clearer for students, collaboratively creating units of instruction that centered on the most important learning indicators and providing high quality feedback to the learners through the use of formative assessment techniques.

As these techniques became more and more synthesized by the professional educators within our system, Ohio began its pursuit and subsequent adoption of the Common Core Curriculum. The district moved into the curriculum study and adoption phase and began studying the most effective ways to teach reading, mathematics and other core subjects. Our local focus was more on how best to deliver effective instruction to our students as opposed to how we can best align with the Common Core. That notwithstanding, after a few years of delaying specific curriculum adoptions, the district had the financial capacity to undergo several long awaited materials purchases in the four core areas of curriculum (math, ELA, science and social studies).

 

Part 2: Setting Priorities (approximately 2013)

At the State Level: All In On Test Scores

As the district was conducting several course of study adoptions, those in the Ohio General Assembly, the Governor’s Office and at the Department of Education level were engaged with tightening educational policy. The policy decisions that came from Columbus  resulted in a stranglehold on any “real” decision making that could occur at the local level. During this time the State Report card expanded and Ohio went from categorical rankings (“Excellent with Distinction”) to specific letter grades in several areas defined by those furthest away from the work (“A – F”).

While districts could locally determine the materials and instructional methods they would use to educate students, the metrics used to demonstrate how well education was being conducted locally were definitively grounded in the Local Report Card whose grades were based largely on standardized achievement tests. Coincidentally, the metrics and measurements that were contained within the “local” report card where not determined by the “local school boards” or those educators who were in the best position to weigh in on what each community might value.   

While student test scores on exams created and delivered by the Ohio Department of Education were always used as a method to evaluate a district’s worth, the new assessment system under PARCC was unstable at best. This instability was demonstrated by large swings in district ratings from year to year. Some districts went from “A’s” to “F’s” and then back to “A’s” with no apparent changes to their instructional practices.  It wasn’t until the creation of the Ohio Teacher and Principal Evaluation Systems (OTES and OPES) and the assignment of student growth to that evaluation process, that inextricably tied teachers to student standardized test performances. By law, fifty percent of a teacher’s or principal’s evaluation was required to be linked to student test scores. This effectively removed any semblance of local control from a school district and linked the evaluation of educators to an unreliable system.

While a uniform educator evaluation system that generally outlines similar instructional quality components can have an upside, linking such an evaluation system to unreliable student test performances at a 50% level put an undue emphasis on test scores and it set this as the main student outcome. In addition, the growth model (e.g. value added) was never designed to evaluate teachers or principals individually. Its core purpose was to create a data set to enable educators to provide equal opportunities for students.  The creation of the end of course exams at the high school level coupled with the need for a high school student to obtain a certain number of points on the exams to be “graduation worthy” further tied teachers and principals to test scores. Given the instability of the system, it generated even more anxiety at the local and state level based on the projected impact on the high school graduation rate.

Perhaps most important is this fact–a teacher evaluation system that links a teacher’s evaluation rating to the performances of his or her students’ test scores, coupled with a graduation system that links a student’s test performance to his or her ability to graduate is a recipe for disaster if the goal of the district is to inspire and empower students. An accountability system such as this forces only one plausible outcome–increase student test scores by any means necessary.  When there is a lack of sufficient evidence to suggest that a simple test score is the best predictor of long term student success, a school district is left with a choice to make. Take the paved road to perdition and go “all in” on increasing standardized test performances, or choose a different path.

At the Local Level: Imagining a New Pathway for Students

Meanwhile at the local level, the district’s central office underwent a change in leadership and it was at this time that the district chose to create its first Strategic Plan in an effort to imagine its own path. Members of the strategic planning writing committee analyzed former plans that were in place and sought to refresh the vision and mission of the district.  The new vision statement was strengthened and more focused– “Empower and Inspire students…”  We made a more definitive commitment to educate the whole child through a district re-branding process and created the “Triple A” moniker–Academics, Arts and Athletics.

After the creation of the plan the district immediately took action and aggressively implemented it.  Many parts of the plan called on the district to create structures and processes, or hire people to perform the duties outlined (e.g. College & Career Readiness Counselor; Technology Integration Specialists, etc.). Moreover, using our communication structures such as the School Report and Weekly Blog, we started to more thoroughly report on the four ways that we would use to communicate the district’s renewed focus–Student Success; Technology Enabled; Aligned Resources and Community Partnerships. Ohio became obsessed with aggregated metrics and expanded the A-F local report card system. Olmsted Falls Schools began to de-emphasize the very metrics that were being used by the Ohio Department of Education to measure district success and sought to emphasize items that it deemed important to fulfill its mission. While the district had been able to demonstrate “success” on the metrics designed by the state, the over-emphasis on accountability grades ran counter to the district’s locally created mission and vision. As a result, we created our first Quality Profile as a method to demonstrate that we were choosing something different.

At the Local Level: Forging a New Pathway for Olmsted Falls

After approximately three years of strategic plan implementation, during the 2016-17 school year another group of stakeholders sought to re-calibrate the district’s strategic plan. The process of re-calibration included the team determining which parts of the plan had been fully implemented, which components needed further work and what might need to be added. This team also began to identify a draft set of skills and dispositions that Olmsted Falls Graduates might possess (click here for that draft); skills that would help students be successful in whatever they chose as their next step beyond high school.

While curriculum studies and adoptions continued, the district became involved with two, multi-district consortiums as a way to begin to more formidably engage in the creation of an  environment that would indeed Empower and Inspire Olmsted Falls students as the strategic plan called for. Through a consortium of educators in Northeast Ohio, we were invited to become part of a network of six school districts who had an interest in creating more engaging work for students by becoming more of a learning organization and less of a bureaucratic one (e.g. the Schlechty Network).  At the same time, multiple districts were wrestling with how to create learning environments that would allow students to more thoroughly develop their skills in the areas of creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration. In order to create an instructional environment that would more purposefully and consciously include these important skills in the learning environment, teachers needed to learn more about the importance of them and how they could be infused into their daily lessons.  Professionals from EdLeader21 and the University of Chicago provided professional development to those trailblazers. We were concerned that our staff didn’t see the connections between these professional development opportunities so the need for coherence emerged.
Part 3: Establishing & Building Coherence (approximately 2016)

At the State Level–Splintering

Over the past two years there has been a significant amount of splintering on a number of fronts by state policy and law makers. The State Board of Education has continued to struggle to determine exactly what it will require of students seeking a high-school diploma (other than graduation points) and to this day remain encumbered by the stringent laws that were put into place by the Ohio General Assembly. The graduation point system that was created demonstrated that many from the Class of 2018 would fail to meet the arbitrary graduation target, established through point acquisition, set by the State Board of Education. In addition, the ODE fumbled with the creation of its ESSA Plan and did not effectively include feedback from constituents in Ohio who demanded that the state reduce the required number of assessment and thus put less emphasis on a student’s standardized test scores. Frustration with an ineffective system provided a catalyst for educators at the grassroots level and they began to slowly organize to put additional pressure on the State Board and the Ohio General Assembly to create an accountability system that has more meaning and more local control.  

At the Local Level: Building Coherence By Investing in People

While it would be comforting to hear that our road to this particular point in time was planned, sequential and even linear; saying that was the case wouldn’t be truthful. As Ohio continued to define district success based on student test scores, the Olmsted Falls School District purposefully used the district’s strategic plan as its GPS to follow an alternative path and sometimes that path seemed to be in the middle of the wilderness.  

Over the past two years we have provided development opportunities for a small set of trailblazing professional educators to learn more about the components of designing engaging student work, the importance of the 4C’s (creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration) and how these ideas interact with one another. We believe that at the interaction points of these concepts, students have a higher probability of being empowered and inspired which in turn will increase their probability of success beyond high school. As we learned more about their synergy, it became clearer that we needed to establish a common professional language.

The only way to ensure that students are inspired and empowered is to provide opportunities for teachers to become more adept at learning how to create the classroom conditions to allow for this to happen. Much like the common instructional language that we established with our commitment to clear learning targets for students and high quality feedback strategies to learners, we now have a need to establish a similar language with designing engaging work and the 4 C’s. It seems logical that those that have gone through this professional development should serve as the spokespersons for the value of the work.

During the past two years, those that have faithfully followed, have traveled along a very overgrown hedgerow. As the superintendent of the Olmsted Falls School District it became clear to me that we needed a defining moment at precisely the right time to publicly reject an accountability system that we had been forced into, however it would be irresponsible and reckless to not have the first generation of a more clearly defined system of student success in place to act as a replacement. In September of 2017, this School Board  Resolution effectively gave those within the district the permission necessary to go down the road less traveled. This resolution serves as our Aegis Shield and it provides the kind of cover teachers and administrators need to conduct this work.

While Ohio Law requires us to abide by its accountability system, we have philosophically rejected (in full) Ohio’s Local Report Card and are replacing it with our own locally developed system that focuses on the components of our strategic plan–Student Success; Technology Enabled; Aligned Resources and Community Partnerships. While our locally developed Quality Profile is a broad representation of our success, we are currently working on creating a real local report card for the district and each school (example is here) that will be used to report to our community what we are committed to and how we’re doing.

As we move forward, we will continue to learn more as an organization and how to engage in this work. It won’t be perfect and it certainly will not be easy, but it is the right thing to do. Our next steps are:

  1. Build on the DRAFT of the Profile of a Graduate by further engaging our staff and community.
  2. Increase the capacity of everyone in our organization to know and be able to implement the instructional design qualities and the 4 Cs.   
  3. Provide real life examples and tell our story through pictures and words.

Throughout our journey we will engage the community in the process. A recent survey (November, 2017) of our community (300 voters randomly sampled; 30% with children in the school and 70% without students in the system) provided reassurance that we have been heading in the right direction.

 

  • 79% of respondents indicated that it is more important for the district to concentrate on coursework to provide a broader education that will provide more enrichment for the benefit of the whole child over coursework to give students more exposure to subjects that will affect test scores.
  • Only 56% were aware that the State of Ohio released the state report card for Ohio’s schools and those that were aware do not put much stock in the results.
  • 67% of those polled indicated they believe the district’s Quality Profile is a better indicator of the performance of Olmsted Falls City Schools compared to the State Report Card.  

Our community (those with students in the system and those without) appreciate our locally created quality metrics and are calling for a more accurate and meaningful set of district performance indicators; indicators  they are not getting from the current system designed by Ohio’s General Assembly. We will stay the course and deliver the kind of meaningful feedback to those that are most impacted by our local decisions–the people of the Olmsted Communities and the students that attend our schools.
Thanks for reading.

Jim Lloyd, Superintendent

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s