Minnesota revamps the way it identifies low-performing schools, sticks with support model

Once struggling schools are identified, the state Department of Education is planning to stick with its current support model: the Regional Centers of Excellence.

The recent release of 2017 standardized test scores showed fairly lackluster results. Statewide, reading proficiency rates largely remained flat at 60.1 percent and math proficiency rates dipped slightly to 58.6 percent. And the disparities in academic achievement between minority students and their white peers remain deeply entrenched.

The results are, as Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said in a press release, “frustrating.” She then took this opportunity to highlight how under the new federally mandated education accountability plan — the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) — the state is taking strides toward developing a more holistic evaluation system. As outlined in the draft of Minnesota’s proposed ESSA plan, which is currently open for public comment through Aug. 31, standardized test scores will still matter, but the new identification system for struggling schools will look quite a bit different.

Once struggling schools are identified, however, the state Department of Education is planning to stick with its current support model: the Regional Centers of Excellence. The centers are essentially hubs of education consultants across the state who work with schools to identify and implement turnaround initiatives.

The department is so confident in this model that it is asking state legislators to invest an additional $8 million in efforts to expand the centers’ capacity. Greg Keith, the state’s chief academic officer who oversees the centers, shared this price tag at a joint House and Senate Education Policy Committee meeting on July 19 where he helped present the draft ESSA plan.

No more MMR ratings

Since the transition to a new state accountability system is already under way, schools are in a bit of a limbo period. The state Department of Education did not rank schools this year — or last year — using the outgoing Multiple Measurements Rating (MMR) system, which singled out high-performing schools and low-performing schools. And the department won’t begin identifying new schools for support until next summer.

Gone are the days of ascribing schools that received the lowest cumulative ratings a “focus” or “priority” label. Rather, struggling schools will be flagged for additional state support through a “funnel” identification process that includes a series of checkpoints that will be used to determine which schools are faring the worst when it comes to things like academic proficiency, progress toward English language proficiency and school attendance rates.

Additionally, academic progress will be used as a middle checkpoint for elementary and middle schools. For high schools, four-year and seven-year graduation rates will be used instead.

Supporters of the new “funnel” approach say it’s an improvement over the MMR scoring system because it will no longer mask low performance on any single indicator at a school. Critics contend the new “funnel” approach — seemingly unique to Minnesota, at this point — will not  present school evaluations in a way that’s easy for families and the general public to access and understand.

They have also raised concerns over a few ways expectations may be set too low. First, setting school attendance as the final checkpoint sets it up to be a potential tie breaker — a situation that could incentivize schools looking to dodge identification to focus solely on boosting attendance rates, either in reality or simply as reported. Second, as Madaline Edison, executive director of Educators for Excellence in Minnesota, told legislators at the July 19 hearing, the exit criteria for a school identified for comprehensive support is simply “not being identified next time.” That means a school could end up not improving, but still exit from the state’s watch list because other schools have begun performing even worse.

For Kent Pekel, a critic of the MMR system who’s been involved in the development of multiple iterations of state accountability plans, the new evaluation system marks a shift in the right direction. However, he’d like to see more well-rounded measures included, like social-emotional learning; and he’s disappointed the new system drops efforts to shine a light on schools that are beating the odds.

“The process, as it’s been played out, focused more on meeting the minimal federal requirement, which is identification of low performance. I think the missed opportunity, for Minnesota, is a system that would identify those exemplars, maybe with just certain groups of kids, maybe with entire school populations,” said Pekel, president and CEO of the Search Institute, an education research nonprofit.

The Regional Centers of Excellence

While the state will no longer be recognizing schools that may be sources of inspiration or insight for struggling schools, it does have a strategy for connecting these schools with best practices and expertise as they develop and implement a plan to increase student achievement — an expectation written into federal law and enforced at the state level.

When the Regional Centers of Excellence were established in 2012, under a waiver granted to the state to deviate from the No Child Left Behind law that preceded ESSA, they were lauded as a pretty significant departure from the top-down school turnaround approach that most had come to expect. And in 2015, Harvard’s Ash Center recognized the centers as an innovative model.

“The approach was, instead, ‘Let’s identify this together. And our job is to be a critical friend, to guide on the side, to help you identify interventions that will meet your students’ needs and to help you implement those interventions well,” said Tyler Livingston, director of school support at the state Department of Education.

Tyler Livingston
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Tyler Livingston

Originally, there were three centers that had teams of education specialists to support all focus- and priority-designated schools across the state. When the Legislature allocated additional funding to grow the model, the centers expanded to three new locations. Spread across the state, these centers are housed at state service cooperatives in Thief River Falls, Mountain Iron, Fergus Falls, St. Cloud, Marshall and Rochester.

Each center is staffed with content specialists who are matched with struggling schools for a three-year period. First, they are tasked with helping these schools develop a turnaround leadership team that will dig into school data with them to identify root causes of poor student performance. Then they work together to identify and implement evidence-based interventions.

There are about 35 total so-called “advocates” working for the centers, specializing in everything from reading and math to special education and English language learning. According to Livingston, their division of labor breaks down into three pretty equal buckets: time spent supporting schools (both onsite and remotely), time spent building their own capacity, and time spent on the road.

“We try to assign advocates based on relationships, expertise and addresses, from driveway to driveway, to ensure they’re not crossing each other on the highways,” he said.

Under ESSA, the center’s collaborative, on-the-ground model will largely remain the same. Department of Education leadership, however, are preparing for a number of significant changes.

Highlighting a few, Livingston explained the centers will, for the first time, be supporting high schools. Any high school that doesn’t graduate at least two-thirds of its students — or at least two-thirds or students in every student subgroup — will be identified for comprehensive support. The department estimates that’ll add about 180 new schools to the center’s caseload, a number of which serve as alternative learning center or dropout recovery types of programs.

Also, moving forward, center liaisons will no longer go straight to school leadership as a first point of contact. Rather, they’ll work directly with district leadership to get things up and running.

Testimony from Aitkin

While all identified schools are required to create and implement an improvement plan, there’s no requirement stating they must utilize resources offered through the Regional Centers of Excellence. In fact, two of the districts with the highest concentration of under-performing schools — the Minneapolis and St. Paul public school districts — have opted to offer similar supports in-house. Livingston says they still work with center staff to share ideas, but they largely run their own turnaround initiatives.

Other schools may decide to work with an outside consultant that specializes in leading school turnaround initiatives, or invest in training their own staff members to become experts in leading things like math or reading interventions.

Either way, schools that are identified are monitored for three years, at which point they are either exited from the state’s watch list, or re-identified.

Jesse Peterson, principal at Rippleside Elementary, a preK-6 school located in the Aitkin Public School district, north of Mille Lacs Lake, knows the process well. His school, which services a largely white student population with roughly 68 percent eligible for free-and-reduced-price lunch was identified as a “focus” school in 2014. The notice from the state Department of Education came in the mail, he said. But it was quickly followed by an email, a phone call, and then an in-person conversation with a director at their regional center.

“That first meeting set the tone,” Peterson recalls, noting it put any initial anxieties he had about an outsider coming in to shake things up at ease. With 11 years of teaching experience but just three years of leadership experience as principal under his belt, Peterson says he was eager to have a partner help guide him and his school leadership team along.

Principal Jesse Peterson
Principal Jesse Peterson

Over the course of many on-site meetings, where they dug into student data, they realized they needed to step back from the piecemeal interventions they’d been trying and administer some more comprehensive overhauls. According to the data, they’d reached a point where over half of their students needed academic interventions, he said. But they needed a fresh set of eyes, along with the promise of continued support, to come to this realization and commit to the rather intimidating task of overhauling the way things were done. These changes included the adoption of a new reading curriculum, combing through all math and reading targets to ensure alignment with state standards, and training teachers to post learning targets to guide student expectations in the classroom each day.

So far, test scores haven’t improved, Peterson says, but they’re still settling into the new changes and implementing one more this year. Given the delay in the state’s school evaluation process during the transition to ESSA, he says his school will continue to work with the center for at least another year. He’s become a huge proponent of the center model and he’s hopeful student outcomes will begin to improve in the near term.

“Their training has helped me more than nearly all of my schooling put together, because it’s on-site,” he said of center staff involved in the turnaround effort at his school. “They’re like family right now. I mean, our goal is to force them out of our building, but my appreciation of them is deep.”

Livingston says that, according to recent satisfaction survey data collected from school leadership teams that work with center staff, Peterson’s sentiments are widely shared. Ninety percent of schools agree that the so-called “advocates” have enhanced their school’s continuous improvement and 93 percent agreed that advocates introduced new ideas to advance continuous improvement.

The measures for tracking just how effective the centers are at improving academic outcomes, however, remain a bit more opaque. According to the state Department of Education, schools served by the centers from 2014 to 2016 saw an uptick of 3.9 percentage points in reading proficiency rates and an uptick of 1.5 percentage points in math proficiency rates.

It’s a sign that something’s working. And some of the impacts of these turnaround efforts, no doubt, will take a few more years to gain traction. But it’s still hard to pinpoint, exactly, which changes can be directly attributed to the centers.

Cautiously optimistic, Pekel has in the past called on the department to provide more information on the impact the centers have had on school improvement, to show whether schools that have opted to work with center staff have improved more than a comparison group of statistically similar schools. He’d like to see the state invest in an external audit of the centers.

“I think the common-sense idea of Regional Centers of Excellence is appealing,” he said. “But if we’re going to double down on that structure, it’s time to get out the checkbook and make sure it makes sense.”

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