Race to the Top has school improvement teams working especially hard to improve performance. With the New York State Center for Rural School’s official release of the innovative SchoolBenchmarker™, it’s a perfect time to ask:
How can we use benchmarking as a school improvement tool?
Improvement planning involves setting explicit targets, identifying strategies to achieve those targets and allocating resources to implement the improvement strategies. Benchmarking is a process designed to help school leaders complete these tasks.
A benchmark is a higher performing, similar school. The more a similar school outperforms your school, the more compelling that school is as a benchmark. SchoolBenchmarker™ helps you identify benchmark schools so that you can:
- Set achievable academic targets based on demonstrated best-in-class performance.
- Discover the programs, strategies and practices that high performing, similar schools use to achieve their best-in-class performance.
The “planning cycle” shown below demonstrates how benchmarking can support and accelerate a school’s improvement efforts.
Setting school improvement targets is always a challenge, especially because multiple stakeholders are usually at the target-setting table. Some want targets to be aggressive and aspirational; others, achievable and incremental. Getting consensus is even more challenging in the era of annual professional performance reviews (APPR) for teacher and leader accountability for student performance. In fact, the incentive structure of accountability systems, such as New York State’s, often guarantee conflict. The lower the improvement target, the more likely a teacher will receive a high rating. The higher the improvement target, the more likely an administrator will.
SchoolBenchmarker™ facilitates data-driven conversations regarding the setting of school and grade-level improvement targets. School-to-school comparisons create the opportunity to set achievable, realistic targets based on demonstrated best-in-class performance.
The process is simple. Identify a few compelling benchmark schools–that is, schools with both similar demographics and significantly higher performance. (Find your potential benchmarks now by typing the name of your New York State school into the live “Enter school…” box (above right) or by going to the full SchoolBenchmarker™ site.) Then examine the gap between their performance and yours. In light of their higher performance, agree to targets with explicit time-scales. Consider the following examples:
- By 2015, improve our five-year cohort graduation rate from 66% to 85%.
- Reduce our five-year cohort dropout rate from 13% to 5% by 2016.
- Improve the percent of students passing US history from 74% to 80% in year one, to 85% in year two, and to 90% in year three.
- By 2016, improve the percentage of students achieving proficiency on the Gr. 6 – 8 Math assessment from 52% to 75%.
- By 2015, improve the percentage of students achieving proficiency on the Gr. 3 ELA assessment from 42% to 60%.
Identifying best practices
The full value of benchmarking is realized in detailed, school-to-school discussions. Benchmarking identifies both the discussion partners and the agenda. What might our benchmark schools be doing differently to achieve much better results? What can we learn from them about:
- Curriculum alignment
- Local assessment of student performance
- Instructional practices
- Student engagement
- Resource allocation
- Organizing and scheduling for learning
- Professional development
- Parent involvement
- Use of data to inform instructional decisions
- Academic intervention service design
You can can pursue answers to these questions via phone conversations or site visits. SchoolBenchmarker™ includes contact information in order to facilitate dialogue between you and your benchmarks. Here are some suggestions for maximizing the benefit of any school-to-school conversations:
- Always start with a phone interview. A telephone interview with e-mail follow-up may provide you the information you need. There is no reason to schedule a site visit until you have vetted the school first to determine that a site visit is going to return the significant investment in time and expense. On the other hand, if you decide to travel for a site visit, use the telephone interview to narrow the objective and agenda for the visit so that the time spent on site provides maximum benefit to you and to the benchmark school.
- Before contacting a benchmark school, determine a set of key questions. What would you like to know about their programs, practices and strategies? What questions would you ask them regarding how they align curriculum, deliver instruction, design local assessments, organize for the school day, perform academic intervention services, educate students with disabilities, build school climate, involve parents, address discipline, develop leadership, use data to inform instruction, reward and recognize students, provide professional development, etc.
- Using these questions, complete a self-assessment. Thoroughly answer each selected question. To understand what the benchmark school is doing, you must first profoundly understand what you are doing.
Planning, implementation and monitoring
Synthesize what you have learned from your benchmark schools. Evaluate and prioritize their strategies. Modify the strategies as necessary to recognize the uniqueness of your context, culture and community.
Implement the selected strategies into your academic improvement planning process. Your final academic improvement plan should include targets, strategies, and implementation deliverables and timelines. Then follow these steps:
- Develop an action plan. Identify individuals who will be accountable for the implementation of the strategies. Include key deliverables, projected completion dates, and accountability.
- Allocate budget and resources.
- Communicate your academic improvement plan broadly to all stakeholders.
- Implement the improvement plan.
- Monitor and adjust. Have your school improvement team monitor the effectiveness of implementation throughout the planning period. Monitor performance against your targets and against proposed completion dates. Modify your implementation strategies as necessary.
For more information on school improvement planning processes see School Strategic Planning.