November/December 2013

Whitney Pickels and Emily L. Modlin are Master of Public Policy candidates at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. Pickels previously worked as a principal consultant at PA Consulting Group doing strategy and policy analysis for the federal government. Modlin previously worked in family and child policy research for MDRC, a nonprofit social policy research firm in New York.

Test scores alone are not a holistic measure of school health. The recent survey taken by Illinois students and staff, called the “5Essentials,” will provide superintendents and board members with a more robust picture of school climate. By making good use of the data from 5Essentials, school boards should be able to move their schools from good to great.

The survey, administered by Illinois schools from February to March this year, provides insight into how schools perform across five critical components: school leadership, staff collaboration, family relationships, school environment and classroom instruction. The survey pulls information from several perspectives — students, teachers, and parents — and offers administrators and school boards a clear structure to interpret the results.

Reports could be accessed by district leaders and principals starting in June. A summary of each school’s results on the components were released publicly online in October:

Why is this a useful tool?
The 5Essentials is an early indicator of later student achievement. Schools strong in three or more of the 5Essentials are 10 times more likely to improve student learning in reading and math compared to schools weak in three of the 5Essentials, based on more than 20 years of research by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research on schools and what makes them successful.

Strong school boards want to monitor a small number of meaningful measures to gauge the health of their districts. But, as Tim Knowles at the University of Chicago notes, “Schools are awash in a sea of data, but not much of it is useful for driving improvement. So, what is useful about the 5Essentials is that it provides teachers, school leaders and parents with really good, fine- grain information” to help schools improve.

Specifically, the survey’s five components break down into 19 measures of school climate. The results can be viewed at the aggregate level or in detail, depending on how a principal, superintendent or school board member would like to examine the data.

Survey results from this year can best be used as baseline information, a look at the current learning conditions in schools. Future surveys, proposed to be administered annually, will allow principals, superintendents and boards to identify progress against this baseline.

How to apply the data
Data from the 5Essentials survey can help districts develop long- and short-term strategic plans targeting student learning and organizational effectiveness by informing which goals to set and which indicators to use to assess progress.

As Knowles indicates, “The [5Essentials] framework is … designed for people who have a broader set of lenses. If I’m responsible for a set of schools, or if I’m responsible for the whole district, I can detect what the levers I should be pressing are.”

Once the results are received, it is critical to review the data with key stakeholders and develop a strategic plan to determine focus areas. While it may be tempting to tackle everything at once, a realistic plan would devote enough time to a specific area in order to see growth the next time the survey is administered.

The survey will give district leaders informational indicators that should provide a great entryway for meaningful, strategic conversations that can drive school improvement.

For example, the 5Essentials can assist school boards in their important role in developing the superintendent and other school leaders. As IASB notes in the fourth of its Foundational Principles of Effective Governance on delegating authority: “Ultimately, the school board is responsible for everything, yet must recognize that everything depends upon a capable and competent staff.”

By combining feedback from teachers, students and parents around school health, the survey results can be a powerful professional development tool for principals. While analyzing her school’s reports, Chicago Public School Principal Assata Moore honed in on one section in particular for her own development: “The effective leadership section. I look at that section as the one that I own. The online survey helped me see what our rating was and let me laser focus on which elements I was going to focus on first, like program coherence, and then branch out into other areas … like how to support collaborative teaching.”

The 5Essentials data has the potential to empower principals, administrators and school boards by giving them an even clearer picture of their schools. And, with a clearer picture of schools’ holistic wellbeing, these leaders should be better equipped to guide their schools toward an even healthier year.

Questions to ask the superintendent about the 5Essentials:

• Do you understand the survey is intended to provide information and is not designed or validated as an evaluation tool?

• How will you use the results from the 5Essentials survey?

• Is there a district plan in place to explain the survey and explain the results to teachers, families and the community?

• Do you plan to review the data and prioritize areas for school-wide improvement with each principal?

• Are you considering how you can use the information to support professional development for principals during the next school year?

• Could pairing a principal from a school that is strong in one area with a principal of a school that is weak in that area be an effective way to help each other improve over the next school year?