Albemarle County Public Schools (ACPS) is taking steps to implement the recommendations of an outside consulting firm to address the root causes of persistent achievement gaps.
In the most recent results from Virginia’s Standards of Learning (SOL) tests, released this week, pass rates for students in specific demographic groups were below those for all students in the division, continuing a trend, both in the county and across the state, that has persisted for decades.
Last fall, in response to this trend, the division issued a Request for Proposals for outside firms to audit the division’s instructional policies, practices and resources, to identify root causes of these achievement gaps and to make recommendations on how the division will ensure that every student, from every demographic group, is achieving academic success at the highest level of their potential. Specifically, the division sought to determine why students of color were underperforming not only their peers across the division, but also students from the same demographic groups across Virginia on state assessment tests for reading and math in grades K-5 and Algebra 1.
Bellwether Education Partners, a national nonprofit education consulting firm specializing in improving the academic performance of marginalized students, was selected to conduct the audit. As part of their engagement and assessment process, Bellwether visited 11 schools, conducted 89 classroom observations, and spoke with 361 teachers, division leaders, students, parents and family members, community partners, and others, through focus groups, interviews, and meetings.
Bellwether prepared a series of reports on the holistic and classroom-level experiences of students of color, and the role of systems and structures in their achievement. From the themes outlined in the reports, Bellwether identified five primary root causes for persistent achievement gaps, along with a set of recommendations to address each root cause. The firm presented their findings to the school board on June 8.
Bellwether presented five broad recommendations, each supported by key initiatives and specific actions, to address deficiencies in the areas of instructional tasks, adult learning, curricular resources, strategic alignment, and stakeholder engagement:
- Organize instruction around rigorous tasks that allow all students to deeply engage with challenging, standards-aligned content and demonstrate learning in authentic ways.
- Develop a systematic approach to adult learning that combines workshop-based professional development, job-embedded coaching, and Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) to support staff, at all levels, to develop the skills to continuously improve instruction.
- Invest in high-quality instructional materials to fill gaps in content, including a consistent math curriculum for Algebra 1 and middle grades, a comprehensive system of interventions, and a state-recommended literacy program.
- Clarify how division actions lead to student outcomes; articulate and communicate beliefs about both why and how each role within the division is designed to contribute to strengthening the instructional core.
- Strengthen systems for input and feedback and processes for communicating decisions at all levels to ensure the full spectrum of stakeholders across ACPS are authentically engaged, including students, families, teachers, school leaders, central office staff, and community members.
“These are excellent, action-oriented recommendations that will have a near-term influence on the quality of learning for all students and, most especially, students who have struggled to reach the high performance levels of which they are capable,” said Dr. Chandra Hayes, the division’s Assistant Superintendent for Instruction.
In response to the audit findings, the school division is moving forward with a series of initiatives to put these recommendations in place. For example:
- School administrators will use their quarterly school improvement plan updates to bolster their focus on instruction, professional development for staff, assessments and data analysis, and school climate.
- New this year, and beginning next month, every school in the division will host four meetings per year to engage community members in discussions around reading and math programs, overall curricula, academic support structures for students, multiculturalism, and the social and emotional wellness of students.
- The division will offer two opportunities in October for educators, administrators, support staff, students, parents and guardians, and community members to contribute to the development of a unifying “Theory of Change” document for ACPS that links strategies, activities and resources to student outcomes. The work sessions will take place virtually via Zoom on October 11 and 12 from 5:30 to 7 p.m.
Other initiatives include the development of a strategic communications plan by each school; the formation of teams to update curricula; and the institution of quarterly assessments to measure student academic performance. Further, the division has made improvements to its classroom observation tool for use by principals and assistant principals, as well as its coaching model for teachers. ACPS has also launched a new partnership with the University of Virginia centered around leadership and the development of instructional staff.
Also in support of the audit recommendations, the division has identified more than 20 project proposals that address areas such as professional development in reading, math and Responsive Classroom; additional assessment programs and classroom resources in reading and math; and staffing that will enhance data coaching capabilities and the expansion of staff and student mentors. The proposals total $600,000 and will be funded from the current budget. Assistant superintendents will serve as project sponsors, supporting the recruitment of stakeholder participation and input and providing guidance for the projects and their strategic alignment.
Hayes said each proposal will be tracked carefully to ensure it is having the desired impact and to provide opportunities for continuous improvement. Ultimately, the assistant superintendent said the division will expand these improvements to all of the division’s schools and students.
Division-level administrators have been divided into teams to plan, implement and monitor one or more of Bellwether’s five recommendations. To broaden input on how best to implement the recommendations, the division is forming several steering teams of teachers, parents and administrators, with particular focus on reading, math, professional development, and community outreach. The division is also organizing an adoption committee that will have similar representation.
Community members can learn more about the Bellwether audit on the division’s Instructional Practices Audit web page.
CONTACT: Phil Giaramita, Public Affairs and Strategic Communications Officer