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Improve Programs Over Time
Districts with strong choice programs have invariably worked hard over time to perfect them. Several of the districts in this study began to implement choice decades ago. An earlier study of districts that won a national award for model professional development found the same thing—the districts took years to move from early versions of choice to more evolved and comprehensive ones.20
Time alone is not enough, of course. Nor does change necessarily follow a steady developmental course. Buffeted by changing policies and pressures, modern school districts may find themselves changing simply to be responsive and to do something (Frederick Hess's "policy churn"21). They don't have the luxury of constancy; but neither do they improve in steady and deliberate ways.
Progress is possible, however. A strong sense of purpose and vision, and stakeholder involvement in a well-managed change process, can pay off in improvement over time, not only for schools but also for programs and districts as a whole. A key is looking at data to gauge progress and guide successive steps.
Track Parent Choices and School Enrollments
In the area of choice programs, the data that matter most have to do with parental preferences, the choices they make, and the reasons for those choices. The innovative choice sites use quantitative data (i.e., parent requests for transfer, student persistence, teacher turnover, student achievement data, and student demographics) in order to make decisions about their school choice programs. They typically have in place, or are planning for, a secure centralized database system that houses individual student records so that district and school administrators, along with community advisory committees, can make informed decisions.
The Cambridge Public School District has a process to identify the most- and least- chosen schools. The district then works with principals of underenrolled schools to create recruitment plans. The district also intends to implement a database system to disaggregate student achievement data, within and across schools. Better data will support better decision-making and help the district address achievement gaps. The database system will be essential for teachers who are measuring their students' achievement more frequently.
As noted earlier, an integrated student database affords Miami-Dade the opportunity to closely track its students and ascertain patterns and trends in student movement from the district to local charter schools. All charter schools in Miami-Dade are linked to the district's mainframe computer system, so they are able to simply register the students rather than transfer them. When a student is registered at a charter school, he or she is immediately dropped from the roll of the traditional school. This key registration data informs the district's authorizing and program-creation decisions.
With data about districtwide student movement in Miami-Dade, the school choice advisory committee is able to create transportation zones that reduce district costs of transporting students from one school to another and also reduce the time students spend commuting.
Survey Parents About Satisfaction and Reasons for Choices
To get a fuller understanding of choice patterns, districts go beyond analysis of the numbers and ask parents and students questions: How satisfied are they? What features do they value? What do they think about their school's programs and services?
Miami-Dade surveyed charter school parents informally about why they left the traditional schools. Parents listed the following factors as influencing their decision: Reduced class size, small schools, a safe learning environment, and convenience. With "I Choose!" and other initiatives, the district is trying to reproduce these qualities in new programs and schools.
Local surveys are important to understanding the knowledge and preferences of local parents. When a district conducts surveys regularly, the surveys can also contribute to a better general understanding of parents as choosers, how they access information, and the priorities they weigh in making decisions. Two recent studies of parents as choosers22 both conclude that low-income parents look first and foremost for a solid academic program, just as do more advantaged parents, but they have less information on which to base their decisions.
According to Miami-Dade survey results, parents leave a school for two reasons: they are attracted to another school, or they are unhappy with their current school. The district believes that it is a mistake to concentrate solely on providing wonderful options that attract students without focusing on the root causes of attrition in schools that are losing students. The Miami-Dade district takes a hard look when a school has a high attrition rate.
Desert Sands and Mesa routinely survey parents, students, and staff. Desert Sands, for example, annually distributes a parent survey, a student survey, and a teacher survey. The district gathers the answers and an outside evaluator analyzes the results. The survey does not have any open-ended questions, but respondents have taken to adding comments in the margins. Both districts report increased parent satisfaction as a result of choice. Parents and students especially value and take pride in distinctive schools that they have chosen, such as the Benjamin Franklin schools in Mesa.
In Mesa, during the spring of each year, the district sends a parent survey home with every student and collects survey information from selected fifth-graders and secondary school students (see figure 14). Mesa also administers an annual employee quality service survey. The district tracks the data for five years and shares the results with members of the public who are interested.The Mesa survey asks parents to give the school an overall grade, reflecting their satisfaction with their child's achievement. It also asks parents whether they feel welcome at the school, how well the school is preparing their child for the future, whether the staff has the best interest of their child at heart, whether the staff treats their child with respect, whether the school provides a positive learning environment, whether the staff listens to concerns, and whether the school encourages their child to learn.
The Mesa students who are surveyed also give their school an overall grade and report whether they are proud of their school, whether their teachers care about them, whether their principal and office staff are helpful, and whether they think they are receiving a good education.
Learn From Results
Besides looking at enrollment and satisfaction data, districts need to look at student achievement results. Programs may be popular for a variety of reasons, as suggested above, but do they produce the learning gains that are also required? New programs and individual school improvement plans aim to improve results. Do they? What lessons can districts learn and apply to new challenges?
Desert Sands, for example, uses an automated student information system to measure increases or decreases in student scores as students move from one school to the next. Connected by a student ID number, each student's records include all their test scores. The school board examines the scores for each magnet program and isolates scores of various groups. It compares how students were performing before entering a program with their performance after entering the program. Desert Sands has determined that test scores in receiving schools increased over the past four years, even though there had been concern that they would decrease.
Desert Sands also benchmarks against other districts. When they want to improve a process, they find out which other districts have promising practices and learn from them. Needing more efficient transportation routes and procedures for students, they benchmarked against other districts and found some especially helpful ideas in Hillsborough, Fla., as described earlier.
The numerous magnet schools in the Miami-Dade district are dependent on grant funding as well as on funding from the district. When outside grants expire, the district examines a magnet's performance in promoting student achievement and attracting enrollment and decides annually whether to continue supporting the school.
Follow a Strategic Plan
Desert Sands echoes the approach of each of these districts when it cites the importance of a coherent overall plan. The district does not develop any school in isolation; every school is part of a complete K-12 strategy. All of the district grants have targeted kindergarten through grade 12, not a specific level of student. The district does not create a primary years program unless it has a way to support the students through the middle and high school years. It never creates a high school program before planning to prepare students to feed into it.
Mesa emphasizes that a comprehensive approach must address not just choice programs but a broader range of issues. Mesa has developed plans, procedures, guidelines, and steps for practically every situation and considers parent input essential across the board. For example, the district systematically collects feedback from parents and other stakeholders through small focus groups and curriculum review committees. Cross- functional groups come together when needed and disband when their missions are accomplished. The district studies data, listens to parents and others, and then acts to meet the needs of its diverse population. Using this approach, Mesa has engaged stakeholders in implementing character education and developing the district's mission statement.
In Miami-Dade, the district's current strategic plan will expire at the end of 2004, and a revised version of it will be implemented in 2005. The district is currently conducting community meetings to collect input from key stakeholders on the new plan. Increasing school choice by building capacity and creating additional options is specifically part of the plan.
Summary for Improve Programs Over Time
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