Last week, the CSBA blog highlighted the findings from Curriculum Associates analysis of reading and mathematics data gathered from nearly 2 million first- through eighth-grade students during the 2021–22 school year via the company’s diagnostic i-Ready Assessment. That report found that while younger students are falling behind in foundational reading skills, older elementary and middle school students’ reading progress is on par with progress prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. In math, however, student achievement in all grades is still below pre-pandemic levels.
Researchers from Curriculum Associates identified 301 schools at which students are exceeding learning expectations and conducted research to understand what strategies and policies are leading to this success. The resulting report, Keys to Unlocking Success, used a pared-down list of schools intentionally selected for representativeness across region, locale, school type and size. Ultimately, 31 district leaders participated in the interview study.
Researchers identified six major themes related to leadership practices shared by the identified schools.
Cultivate educator mindsets that support student success
Leaders in these school districts emphasized the importance of developing a culture in which educators have high expectations for all students — particularly students who are behind in their learning or experiencing other challenges. Research participants said professional development plays an important role in cultivating this mindset. In addition, high expectations must be paired with the proper supports, as determined by the teacher.
“It is honestly an overall culture. And we say ‘a culture of high expectations with an abundance of support.’ When [students] walk through that door, they know that they are loved. We go over and beyond to take care of their personal needs. But they also know that, by golly, we’re going to hold them accountable. That education is their way out. And we love them enough to make them do it,” said district leader Julie James of Carlton City, Minnesota.
Create a culture of data
Nearly all of the district and school leaders interviewed described using data, whether it be in the form of classroom observation data that assessed instructional practices and student engagement; teacher evaluation data; perception data that revealed opinions from students, teachers and parents; or student data (e.g., demographic data, test scores, grades, graduation and dropout rates, etc.) that provided deeper insight into student growth and achievement outcomes.
In addition, many of the identified schools used data regularly and in systematic ways, with a specific focus on using data on student learning to drive decision making that would shape instructional practices, instructional program adoption, curriculum mapping and professional development offerings. District and school leaders prioritized cultivating a strong data culture in which both educators and students regularly discussed student data, and educators made timely instructional modifications based on these data.
Prioritize meeting the needs of the whole child
District leaders in this study took a broad view of student success and how they support students. Many noted an increased focus on social-emotional learning and investments in new curriculum and tools to support students’ needs. Additionally, many districts hired counselors, psychologists and other specialist staff to provide supports to students. Districts also utilized Multi-Tiered Systems of Supports to provide focused support for students in need. While tending to students mental and social-emotional wellness, the districts did not forget to also help students and families meet basic needs, such as providing clothing, food and hygienic products, to name a few.
Create a school environment that engages and inspires students
Many school leaders spoke about the importance of caring relationships between students and teachers (or other trusted adults at the school) in their school’s success. One leader from a middle school in the Midwest emphasized the connection between building relationships with students and being able to meet student needs since teachers with these strong relationships can more readily identify and address barriers to students’ success.
In addition to strong relationships, school leaders in this study encouraged teachers to use a variety of strategies and pedagogical practices to increase student engagement in the classroom, and some used student incentives (certificates, school announcements, newsletters, etc.) to encourage that engagement.
Enhance teacher practice with more resources and support
District and school leaders in this study promoted teacher effectiveness by providing targeted professional development, instructional resources, ample time to meet and collaborate with fellow educators, and support from instructional coaches — all with the goal of enhancing content knowledge, shifting mindsets, and improving pedagogical practices and classroom management skills. Many of these districts also provided additional support to new teachers.
Strengthen connections with families
In addition to strong relationships between adults at school and students, leaders in this study recognize the critical role families play in their students’ success and strive to build positive relationships through open and frequent communication, providing resources to support student learning at home, and creating opportunities for families to be involved in their child’s learning. These priorities were especially important during the first year of the pandemic, when many schools turned to remote instruction.
Suggestions for involving families included family nights, school events, volunteer opportunities, and sharing information and activities that can be implemented at home to help increase mastery of skills and improve knowledge of concepts that their child may be struggling with at school.