Open Practice: Community Progress Monitoring

Openers believe that families and communities have the right to know how their school is performing. Community Progress Monitoring is a system and school level initiative to ensure schools host public forums with families to explain current performance and plans for improvement.  Right now in DPS, with the release of the SPF, schools across DPS are hosting these conversations with parents and families.  Check out your school's meeting here

The Opportunity: How can schools partner to help parents understand performance?

It was the August of 2014 and I had been at Denver Public Schools for barely two months.  As with many folks in their first months, I was still trying to figure out where the lunch room was (and yes, definitely still really trying to figure out what I was supposed to do).  I was tasked with working on community engagement and school improvement initiatives so I was talking to people everywhere about their projects that maybe I could work on. To start to make a difference in the system, I often said "Yes!" to many projects that I wasn’t sure were completely in my domain. 

As fall approached in Denver, the School Performance Framework was set to be released in September.  In previous years, someone had organized different departments to come together to coordinate the effort and this year they had another role that pulled them away. It required providing all DPS schools with materials to host a community meeting about their SPF report and giving them a clear sense of timeline and expectations.  It needed to be sequenced with other materials, outreach, communication roleout and internal decision-making, while promoting greater community discourse about a school’s SPF ranking.  

It required a ton of effort to align all the various departments, timelines and to update the materials but we did it.  It was the building of my first boundary-spanning team and was a great experience to begin exploring how to make change in a district.  I had the chance to learn a ton from folks in DPS about how to roll things out to schools, prepare materials appropriate and build things from a principals lens.  We had a lot of lessons learned (once people found out that we had a slipstream that was heading out to schools, they wanted to put everything and the kitchen sink in it - which would be repeated over and over again) and a lot of great feedback.  This was my first experience thinking through what openings in the system look like.  

Personally, I had the chance to attend a family meeting at Valverde Elementary School, hosting under these SPF Community Meetings (this would be an auspicious start, given how much work I would do with Valverde over the years).  At the meeting, I saw the Instructional Superintendent and the Principal hold themselves publicly accountable for the poor performance of the school.  I was struck by the power of the public leadership and shared accountability in the system in front of the community. I’d seen too many meetings where this hadn’t occurred.  

After this first experience, the thought stirred in others and me - what if we could do this better? It wasn't a new idea at all - school conversations about performance are old hat.  But there was something different about this in an era of common data systems, district wide choice and transparent conversations about school performance. Ideas for improvement percolated. What about even more family friendly documents? What about even more prioritized support from the central office? Better coordination around external advocacy partners. The result could be a whole new dynamic between families and our schools. We could be establishing a new beachhead in engagement system - the regular and clear public accountability commitment of schools and their leaders to the community. 

The power also seemed electric from a social change perspective. You could imagine thousands of parents, all across the city during the same window in time having conversations with other parents about performance: an open network of parents exercising their right to know. Powerful.  

Building it Out: Community Progress Monitoring

Nearly two years later, it was the spring of 2016.  After a year of hiatus given assessment changes (although most schools hosted a community conversation about internal data during the fall of 2015), we were preparing for a much more coordinated and sustained effort that we called “Community Progress Monitoring.”  Not the best name, but dang, we tried.  Two members of the Family Empowerment team - Daniel Houser-Seidlitz and Thinh Nguyen deserve most of the credit for this work.  They did the hard work details below of supporting schools to have strong events.  

In the Fall of 2016, over 120 schools across DPS held events.  We came to realize this was the largest and most focused engagement event across the schools in DPS.  And, it became a more regular part of the work we wanted to do with schools. Right now in DPS, schools across the city are hosting their conversations.  

Lessons Learned: Making it a reality

As I’ve spoken with districts around the country I’ve come to realize that this is really not an expectation in most places.  Most districts don’t hold their schools accountable for this essential conversation about performance.  Too many districts are caught up in battles over what even to measure on any report to begin to make this an expectation. However, as more and more systems build effective and balanced systems to monitor performance, I’ve encouraged many to look into the Community Progress Monitoring model.  Below I’ve tried to tie together some of the big learnings we had from the process.  

#1: It’s bigger than a report card, and it's an ongoing process

While the idea of the meetings originated and revolved around the fall release of our internal school report cards, we realized quickly that this was a much bigger idea around continual data monitoring and tracking with families.  We built the initiative to reframe the conversation around a ongoing process of data sharing and feedback with the community.  We started to see some of our schools who were doing this already feel like they now had a name for their work (along with recognition of it’s impact) and new leaders starting to build a more regular occurrence with parents and families.  Ideally we'd like schools to do this every month or at least every quarter.  Once a year isn't enough and sharing ongoing data can truly help build awareness.

Opportunities: How can we get schools to really think about high-quality adult learning in these opportunities? Sit and get with a powerpoint is not an effective way of learning for anyone, let alone parents coming from multiple perspectives.  Also, how can we get schools to think about the work of progress monitoring intersecting with other aspects of their school operation? It would be powerful to see principals walk parents through how they evaluate teachers, how they expect high quality instruction to look like, etc.  The opportunities are endless - as long as there is a clear connection and action steps for parents. Information for information sake is good, but not sufficient to truly open the system up.  

#2: Partnerships and publicity matter

One of the big developments was making the schedule of the meetings public.  We wanted to work with our advocacy partners on the group to make sure they could attend and support meetings when they were occurring.  Groups like Padres y Jovenes Unidos and Together Colorado would rally parents to attend meetings and create another front for public accountability.  

Opportunities: What if schools could think about these external partnerships in much broader ways? This past year we saw groups like Stand for Children host Data Equity Walks with parents.  Schools are often strained for capacity and need help to mobilize parents. True co-creation and development would be groups working directly with schools to truly help parents understand and then act in concert.  It could create a lasting push/pull partnership for openness.  

#3: Lending capacity to schools is a critical priority

The reality is that many of our schools struggle with parent attendance or given other constraints have little bandwidth for this.  In DPS, we have a tiered schools framework that prioritizes schools.  For Intensive and Strategic support schools (about 35) we scheduled child care and interpretation for them if they wanted it, to reduce the logistical load.  This was a major lift for our central office team, but it was a huge opportunity to build credibility and partnership with our highest priority schools.  

Opportunities:  The next stage of the work is thinking through how schools can go deeper in terms of openness.  There are some schools who are ready to really dig in and help parents understand deeper content knowledge. For some schools this year, they added discussion around the academic standards to enable a clearer knowledge base around what families should expect.  Openers everywhere could get even more creative with this idea to support schools in new ideas.  

#4: It’s about public leadership mindsets

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Jesse Tang - "No Stopping Now"

Having a meeting is one thing. Ensuring that it is truly an open experience for parents and families centered around shared values is another. The ability for the instructional superintendent and the principal to exercise public leadership and accountability in the process is critical. I’ve seen principals like Drew Shutz of Valverde, Karin Johnson of Harrington, Jessica Ridgway of Goldrick and Jesse Tang of Schmitt Elementary (pictured here) excercise incredible leadership.  They stepped out in front of parents and in clear and focused language, held themselves and the school accountable to lower rankings and then invest all parents in the process moving forward.  Sadly, I’ve seen other leaders blame the test, evade questions and not provide a way for parents and communities to get involved.  The difference, in my estimation, is whether the leaders have a public leadership mindset.  Leaders with this mindset realize they are running multi-million taxpayer community hubs where there leadership and coalition building matters.  This mindset moves mountains.  

Open Opportunities:  How do you instill the public leadership and accountability mindset into leaders across the system?  This is the major question. Instructional Superintendents and leaders of education organizations need to take the inculcation of this mindset seriously to truly build out the open system.  

#5: Dynamic online resource sharing matters

Moving into the next phase, we moved beyond sending a “toolkit” to schools.  Right around the same time, DPS invested in an intranet called the Commons.  We were able to jump onto this slipstream and create a multi-point access point for Community Progress Monitoring.  We decided against “the one best deck” (a major, major system problem) for every school and instead created an a la carte deck menu principals could pull down, customize and adjust. We also created a “master deck” where it was all together.  We approached it from both ends.  In that Commons space was a ton of resources, guiding questions and links to register the event.  Too often in our systems, supporting schools to be open means “do it this way” - instead we tried to create

Open Opportunities: Getting beyond one single "toolkit" is critical.  The next stage is getting folks to adapt materials and then resubmit then to the central hub. Imagine a dynamic web of interconnected materials, innovating at all areas of the system.  This will really be the promise of the online resource sharing.

Bringing "Community Progress Monitoring" to your open system

As you can all see from this post, I'm a serious fan of this approach. There are two main questions folks usually ask me about the idea.

First, they ask if they need to accept standardized tests and uniform report cards.  Not at all (although I'm clearly a fan of well-balanced and thoughtful reports that help parents establish baselines across systems).  The main idea is that we need school leaders to communicate consistent and clear ideas about the "school performance" - this is a different level of interaction than individual student performance. I've heard that many school leaders center around the "A-B-Cs" - attendance, behavior and credits (or academic progress). 

This leads to my second question - what about programs like APTT that help parents understand individual performance in teams?  I'm a fan and have no complaint about these programs, but think they operate at a different level of academic partnership.  Helping parents understand the individual level of the student performance is essential (and according to data, needs to happen first). However, working at the school level is another question entirely.  The leadership and partnership questions of school level improvement are fundamentally different than the student level questions.  We will explore these in future posts but I encourage you to think about these as separate opening activities.  They are fundamentally different levels of abstraction and focus. 

Now try the process yourself - let us know how it goes.  This is major effort and essential to opening.  It'll be hard and there will be tons of issues.  Focus on the lessons learned and innovate! Share your learning and the whole network will learn from you.