A weekend interview with Nikolai Vitti, deputy chancellor of school improvement for the Florida Department of Education
I agree with you. I think your analysis is right. This past spring we had our regional directors and their teams provide training to all districts on the school improvement plans, not only the makeup of the plan but also what a good plan should look like, what the leadership team should be doing to create one, and how you should monitor it. I don’t think it would be incorrect to say they’re not all compiled with a lot of thought and quality. Here at the department, our struggle is that we have thousands of schools that submit plans. We don’t have the resources to read every one and follow up. That’s why we have tiered the approach. The lowest performing schools, we’ll look at them very thoroughly. That’s what the regional directors do.
But after that category of schools, the onus falls on the districts and the SACS to make sure they’re creating quality plans. Your school improvement plan is you road map to success. It shows how you’re going to take your school from a C to an A. If you don’t have a road map, you’re going to get lost. If you only have 4 percent of your students on grade level for science and you’re doing the same things you did last year, you’re going to get the same results. You really have to identify strategies and also look at the type of professional development your teachers will get in order to be able to implement those strategies. You have to look at what that training will look like. The plan will sit in the principal’s office and collect dust unless the district is actively monitoring it.
You mentioned peer review; do you really think that having principals weigh in on the plans of other principals is a reliable way to monitor the plans?
If done correctly, it can lead to some good conversations and some good changes in the plan itself.
But wouldn’t it ensure a higher quality plan if there was a higher authority, like the state, saying if the plan was good or not?
When you’re talking about the role of the state, outside of the lowest performing schools, you don’t want the state to get involved. We only want to get heavily involved in schools that don’t seem to be doing the right things on their own. That’s why we’ve become very involved with those schools we mentioned already. These other schools, the A schools that are making AYP, or the B and C schools, the ownership has to be with the district. I think your questions are very accurate and I think you’re on point. I can’t say that this is a thorough process because it’s not. Unfortunately, a lot of people look at the school improvement plan as a compliance document. They say, ‘The state makes us do it.’
In our training, we talk about this all the time. If you look at the school improvement plan as a compliance issue, that’s how you’ll approach it. You’ll just fill in the spaces to be able to turn it in rather than creating a document you’ll use to drive reform. A lot of low performing schools are not strategic in their thinking about improvement and that’s why they don’t improve. They do the same things year after year until someone goes in and says, ‘You need to do this differently.’ That’s why it’s called a school improvement plan. Unfortunately, people look at it as a compliance issue. It really depends on the vision of the principal and the vision of the district and how they’re going to use these plans.
The template is there. The school improvement plan will help you to think differently if you want to think differently about what you’re going to do. But the department of education can’t write a plan for a thousand schools. It’s the role of the district to make it purposeful. It’s not a perfect document but the nuts and bolts are there if you take the right attitude and approach. I agree that we have a lot of work to do in this area. It’s about planning. It’s about strategies. Then it’s about improvement and monitoring. A lot of those pieces are missing in our districts. That’s why we have failing schools. Unfortunately, good plans are more the exception than the rule.
What kinds of things do you see in a good plan?
I think the framework of the template leads you to think about what went well and what didn’t go well. If you see your science scores are at 4 percent, something is wrong. That leads you to ask, ‘What did we do last year? Most of the things we did didn’t work.’ Let’s ask ourselves, ‘What are other schools doing that have the same population we have but have higher scores? When we walk into our science classroom, what are we seeing? Are students doing labs? Are they seeing the science process come alive? Are you using technology to make science come alive?’ Virtual labs have been very effective in low performing schools. And then, ‘Are you teaching to the benchmarks? Are we asking students to write in science? Are they asked to explain their answers?’ This is what you should see, and then beyond that, and this is a key, are you using assessments in science to know students aren’t understanding what they’re being taught after two or three weeks? If not, what are your interventions? Are they coming after school? Are you pulling them out for individual work? These are some of the strategies that should be in a school improvement plan. Once you identify the strategies, you have to talk about professional development. If teachers don’t understand the benchmarks they need training on that. If they don’t know how to organize a lab, they need to be trained in that. You need to determine who’s responsible for implementing the strategies? Who is responsible for monitoring them? What’s the system for doing that? What is the follow-up? How do you know if the students are using what they were taught? These seem like simple questions. It seems like a simple process. But it’s not happening in many of our schools. The schools that are turning things around are the ones with the good school improvement plans.
You mentioned attaching someone’s name to the action plan. I noticed that in many cases, the person responsible for a particular action plan is ‘school staff.’
That’s true. In the training, a question came up about the legality of inserting an actual name. We told them that’s not a problem. I have to commend you. These are all very good questions. You’ve identified a lot of the concerns we’re seeing with schools that aren’t improving.
How would you characterize the random plans you’ve scrutinized? Will you be doing more training?
Right now we’re focused on the low performing schools. That’s the thrust of our work. After FCAT we will continue to provide more training on the school improvement plans. We will follow up more with districts. There can be a lot of difference from one plan to the next in terms of quality. The school improvement plan can be a valuable tool. But it’s like when we were in high school. You can look at a homework assignment as just another homework assignment or you can see it as purposeful and valuable. Unfortunately we have not changed the perception of the school improvement plan. It’s still seen as more of a compliance document. There are people out there who do view it as a way of changing the way of work. But we haven’t gotten to the point where that’s the rule rather than the exception.I’ve seen exactly what you mentioned: very vague statements about strategies. When they identify their lowest 25 percent, a common action plan we hear is that they’re going to implement Read 180. Okay. But what are you doing differently from what you did the year before when you used Read 180? The point is to get to the level of detail. What particular strategy will you use? Some other good strategy would be to include higher level questioning in the lesson plan. They could name five questions the teacher will ask. That’s a solid plan of action. Move away from the vagueness. I see vagueness and I see programs. That doesn’t lead to change. You have to be methodical when you’re trying to improve a low performing school. The key is moving away from it being a compliance issue to it being a document that is a change agent. If I do it as a compliance document it will sit in the office and collect dust. The next year, I’ll barely tweak it and turn in the same plan. That is not school improvement. You won’t see change that way.