Systems are Key to School Success

We recently sat down with Mark Dunetz for his thoughts on the systems that are critical for school success. Mark oversees our efforts as a Partnership Support Organization, providing operational and instructional support to a network of 79 public district schools citywide. He was the founding principal of the Academy for Careers in Television & Film, a small Queens high school that opened in 2008 and boasts a 97 percent four-year graduation rate.

Q: We hear a lot about the need for schools to make data-driven decisions. What are the challenges schools face in using data?

Data are often fragmented and organized in a manner that makes it difficulty to combine data from different sources or to conduct more nuanced or longitudinal analyses. The limitations in how we collect and organize data is compounded by the sheer volume of information which must be tracked and considered in decision making. Even in a typical small school of 425 students, every year school leaders and their teams are managing accounting processes involving hundreds of course codes and titles, 2,500 marking period grades and thousands of specific credits students must earn toward state-mandated graduation requirements. With average attendance there are 10,000 full day absences, more than 20,000 latenesses and thousands of incidents of class cutting that must be monitored and addressed simply to create the conditions for continuity in instruction. Educators must address thousands of behavioral incidents ranging from minor disruptions to serious incidents. This list is just a fraction of the things which educators must plan for and respond to simultaneously and under tremendous time constraints.

Q. How do schools keep track of all of this data?

That’s often the challenge. Most schools do not have clear systems or thoughtfully integrated technologies that enable them to design, track and evaluate programmatic interventions aimed at improving student achievement. How do we know if a new tutoring program is working or an online remediation course is worth the investment? Which students require attention this week? The most important questions are too often answered based on incomplete information as existing instructional initiatives and programs sit on top of a hodgepodge of unaligned operational structures. Comprehensive and systematic responses to student need become nearly impossible to achieve or unsustainable to maintain. We have historically made an unreasonable set of demands on educators given the systems they inherit. Paper and ad hoc responses to everyday, predictable problems remain the norm in a world where educators and students have discordant data systems and lack tools as fundamental as email distribution groups and coherent document management platforms.

Through our work with schools we are learning that students at all levels are achieving below their potential as a result of weak systems that undercut even the best instructional strategies.

Q. What’s a potential solution to this problem?

Educators require inexpensive, lightweight tools that routinize simple tasks, allowing them to focus on the more demanding challenge of differentiating instruction and supports for students.  Assignments, grades, and other administrative responsibilities are usually completed through rudimentary paper-based or single-function electronic platforms and cannot be easily managed or tracked over time.  This incoherence is magnified at the school and district level. 

Faulty or incomplete systems allow some students to miss opportunities for success and others to fall through the cracks entirely.  We see this dramatically with student scheduling.  Opportunities for students to prepare and retake exams to meet college readiness criteria or to meet the criteria for advanced Regents diplomas are missed in many cases because of the absence of comprehensive analyses which highlight where these opportunities exist in time to take advantage of them. Scheduling courses and assigning students is among the most complex and time constrained tasks of schools and it is also one of the places where the weakest systems exist.

Q. What are the three most important systems schools need to get right?

We invest tremendous energy in improving our core curricular and instructional systems and have made significant  gains in ensuring that what is happening in classrooms is aligned to the learning needs of students. Nevertheless, there are systems which surround and support the classroom which tend to receive far less attention and the weaknesses in these systems fundamentally undermine the potential impact of improved instruction. Three of these systems have a particularly direct impact on the conditions for success.
The first of these is a school’s intervention system which involves the coordination of all the things to keep a student on track. This system determines what actions are taken when a student is failing a course mid-semester or fails a Regents exam. Our schools look different in how they approach these events. At the best schools, when a student falls off track, it routinely triggers a comprehensive school response that is not idiosyncratic and dependent on the faculty members who happen to be involved.

The second system that is critical is the one that determines the scheduling of students and teachers -- a prerequisite to everything else in the school. Schools traditionally problem solve the tremendous challenges associated with student scheduling largely in isolation with limited opportunities to learn from colleagues. Within schools, decisions with global implications tend to be made by a few or even a single person with no guarantee that resources are being maximized and aligned to schoolwide priorities.

Finally, the quality of a school’s attendance system is a critical determinant of the impact that instructional systems can have, particularly for those students at risk due to prior patterns of low attendance. Inconsistent attendance constantly disrupts the continuity of instruction undermining the integrity of the experience. Current attendance systems often do not clearly delineate who is responsible for outreach, don’t match records of outreach to specific incidents of absence, don’t provide those doing outreach with the most up-to-date contact information for families, dont’ provide administrators with an ability to assess the consistency in the application of policy and do not automatically flag for intervention those students whose pattern of absences suggest that they need attention immediately. If a student misses several days in a row, what is the adult response? Who is responsible for it, and how do we know the agreed-upon response happened?

Q. Our colleague Brad Gunton used the words constant awareness to describe schools that do a great job of monitoring student performance at all levels. How do you interpret the phrase?

For years we have followed a body of research on “early warning” systems by the Consortium on Chicago School Research--the notion of identifying student data that are predictive of things like grade promotion and college readiness. Students who are not meeting benchmarks are flagged for an intervention. 

Our work builds on the framework of “early warning” systems digging deeply into questions of how you organize adults in buildings to respond to indicators of student need and support them at the level of daily workflow. We can create lists of students who are at-risk, but for almost all of our schools with the exception of some of the high flyers, the sheer volume of at-risk students is overwhelming. Schools as currently organized often don’t have the capacity to consistently act on this information. The idea of “constant awareness” represents a connection to systems design that answers the question, “So now what?”

The data that inform “constant awareness” are the everyday data.  Students attendance, attendance in individual classes, when students attended those individual classes, when they walked into the building, behavioral information, information about work completion, status of work in classes, information coming out of class assessments that are being given, participation in anything that’s happening outside of the regularly programmed classes, academic intervention services, after-school extracurricular activities, communication with families… there’s just a tremendous amount of information that’s generated  in any one of these areas on a daily basis.  That’s the type of data that allows you to prioritize day-to-day actions, at any level in the organization, and to make sure that those are informed and structured in such a way that they have the best chance at success.

Constant awareness is inseparable from continuous improvement. You can’t just import prescriptive solutions into archaic organizational structures and expect educators to get better at meeting challenges. There needs to be a mechanism for problem solving that integrates the steady stream of student and organizational information into the tremendously constrained workday of teachers, administrators and counselors in a way that allows them to develop informed plans and to coordinate hundreds of responses across schools in consistent and efficient ways. This is a design challenge that must be addressed forthrightly if we are to move beyond endlessly imploring those in the toughest jobs to work harder and elevate their expectations and instead move our schools towards modern organizational systems which can translate ambitious expectations into sustainable practice.

Mark Dunetz is vice president, school support, at New Visions for Public Schools.


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