Basic Information for District and School Accountability Committees

The Colorado State Legislature provided parents and the business community with a potentially very powerful lever to drive continuous gains in K12 achievement results when it created District and School Accountability Committees.

Unfortunately, implementation of this law has been, to put it mildly, unenthusiastic and incomplete in too many districts and schools (one SAC was chaired by a 7th grader).

We very strongly believe that if more business leaders and parents would get involved with these committees, and force their districts to follow the Accountability Law (perhaps with some help from the legislature, in the form of tougher penalties -- say state funding cuts -- if it is not) we would very quickly see accelerating progress on the achievement improvement front. And from a business/career development point of view, serving on a School Accountability or District Accountability Committee provides business leaders with great board experience (HR Directors, please take note!)

With that in mind, one of the key purposes of this site is to provide people serving on DACs and SACs with information they need to maximize their effectiveness and impact.

An essential starting point for a DAC or SAC's work is your view on the adequacy of your district or school's current achievement results.

When they graduate from high school, our children will face a global economy in which they will have to compete not only against other students from around the world, but also against rapidly improving technologies that can increasingly perform sophisticated activities that once required human beings. It is clear that the bar for college and career readiness is rapidly rising, even though our teachers and schools still have just 13 years to meet it. However strong your district’s or school’s historical achievement results have been, in today’s world if they are not improving your students are falling behind.

It is essential that DAC and SAC members familiarize themselves with different measures of achievement performance, and especially the difference between measures of proficiency (e.g., how well did a student perform versus an absolute standard) and growth (e.g., how well did a student perform versus a peer group).
Here and here are two good pieces from Education Next about the arguments in favor of proficiency and growth.

If you are curious about how Colorado’s state standards compare to those in other states (i.e., are they more or less rigorous?), you can find the answer in
this report.

A key issue about assessments is this: What is the appropriate metric to use at different levels of the system?  A district’s primary goal is to graduate students who are ready for college and/or career (a bar that is rapidly rising in today’s world).  Districts control vastly more resources than individual schools, and make broad and far reaching decisions that have a significant impact over children’s education during the 13 years they attend district schools. The most important metrics to measure district performance are therefore absolute ones — the number and percentages of students who meet or exceed CMAS standards as well as the college and career ready standards on the ACT or SAT that every 11th grader takes.

In contrast, a school teaches children for a shorter period of time, and has far less control over decisions and resource allocation.  The fair metric for measuring school performance is therefore growth — how much does a school raise kids up from wherever they are when they arrive?  Of course, that raises the issue of just how growth should be measured.  

It is also critical that members of District and School Accountability Committee’s test their intuition about achievement results against the evidence. As Mark Twain famously said, It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.” For example, here is a recent article on the shocking percentage of high school graduates who aren’t prepared to do college work without first taking expensive, non-credit remedial classes. And here is an excellent guide from the UK on the effective use of evidence in K-12 education.

To help you assess the adequacy of your district and school’s achievement results, we offer a variety of data and analytical resources.

Each year, every school and district in Colorado prepares a Unified Improvement Plan. These “UIPs” are intended to drive a continuous student achievement improvement process, within the context of the district’s overall strategy.

Each UIP has three main sections: (1) a discussion of the previous year’s results and identification of key achievement problems; (2) discussion of the root causes of these problems; and (3) a detailed description of the major improvement initiatives that will be undertaken over the next 12 months to address the identified root causes, as well as clear metrics and goals that will be used to evaluate these initiatives. DACs and SACs provide advice as to the contents of these UIPs, which ultimately must be approved by the local board of education before being submitted to the Colorado Department of Education.

While not an explicit duty in law, another logical (and critical) function performed by DACs and SACs is to assess the implementation and results of the major improvement initiatives contained in previous years’ UIPs. This critical feedback loop should precede work on the current year’s UIP.

The major improvement initiatives are also a critical link between the UIP and DAC’s and SACs’ advisory duty with respect to district and school budgets; if these initiatives are not adequately funded, they will almost certainly fail.

Looking for your District's or School's Unified Improvement Plan? You can find it here, on CDE's website.

Here is CDE's basic Accountability Handbook, and here is the 2015 CDE Accountability Guide (which will change as we transition from the No Child Left Behind law to the new Every Student Succeeds Act). Members of District and School Accountability Committees should also be familiar with the CDE’s Quality Standards for Unified Improvement Plans.

This is CDE's guide to interpreting the District and School Performance Framework reports (DPF and SPF). And here is a short guide to the terminology used in SPFs. There is a good argument that the criteria and weights used by CDE in these performance frameworks are wrong, and place too little weight on student achievement growth, and too much weight on demographic factors that are beyond a school or district's control that make a strong contribution to achievement levels. This risks confusing being born on third base with hitting a triple.

To be sure, as they are implemented in practice, many UIPs suffer from common shortcomings, including overly generalized root causes, and/or root causes that are not under the control of the school or district; major improvement initiatives that have a weak logical link to the root causes they are meant to address; and failures to link the UIP to the school or district budget. In addition, too many SACs and DACs fail to track implementation of the previous year’s initiatives. All that said, with better management and governance, Colorado’s UIPs can and should be a powerful driver for improved student achievement performance.

Here is a recent article on how more school districts are trying to do just what the Colorado State Accountability law mandates: More closely link academic achievement programs to multi-year budgeting. And here is an overview of how school districts can integrate experiments and the measurement of their results into their day-to-day processes (here is the full report). Finally, here is a new report from the Department of Education on the importance of strong cost analysis when making K12 decisions. Unfortunately, cost analysis (e.g., activity based costing that ties goals to activities to operating and capital costs) is usually exceptionally weak (by private sector standards) in most K12 districts.

CDE's short course in root cause analysis is a helpful overview of a technique that should be a key part of a DAC or SAC's process.

If you'd like to see an example of a teacher performance evaluation rubric that was developed to comply with SB-191, here is Jeffco's. And here is the Colorado State rubric for evaluating principals’ and assistant principals’ performance.