Final Report: Q&A
This past winter and spring, LCPS engaged in a exhaustive assessment with Cognia, the international accreditation agency, in order to get an impartial evaluation of the school district's approach to teaching and learning and to earn renewal of its accreditation. The following Q&A provides a look inside the finished report from Cognia.
What’s the purpose of accreditation and what does it mean?
Like hospitals and other health-care organizations, like college and universities, public school districts undergo an accreditation process at regular intervals – a renewal of accreditation every five years in LCPS’s case – in which an independent accrediting agency evaluates the school district’s procedures and policies and, to some extent, its people. Think of it as an inspection. The accrediting agency wants to see if a school district is doing its job, if it is fulfilling its obligation to the public by offering students a quality education. This is a goal public school district’s work toward even without the incentive of accreditation, but only accreditation allows a school district and its schools to function in the way the public needs and expects. Because LCPS is accredited, for instance, it can award diplomas, it can issue official transcripts for college and job applications and its students can transfer course credits to other educational institutions. Without accreditation, none of that could happen.
How does the process work?
It takes months. It is involved and detailed and, for the administrators preparing the information the evaluators require, the process offers its own opportunity for deep reflection on how well the school district matches up against its goals. For about three months, a district-level team and principal-led teams at each of our 17 schools provided the accrediting agency, Cognia, with written answers to more than 150 questions on leadership, learning and resource capacity and backed their answers up with – literally – reams of documents and other examples. The accreditation team assigned to LCPS, five veteran educators from North and South Carolina, reviewed and rated these submissions before “visiting” Lenoir County in March. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the visit was virtual; but the accreditation team spent three days interviewing more than 200 people, from school board members to Superintendent Brent Williams and his leadership team to groups of teachers and groups of parents and groups of students. The interviews served as a check on the district’s self-assessment, and the comments of the various “stakeholders” about LCPS figured significantly into Cognia’s final report.
What did the accreditation team assess?
Overall, Cognia is looking for an education system that promotes continuous improvement. As it happens, continuous improvement has been an embedded principle with LCPS for several years, reflected in its “Leveling Up” initiative. Within that continuous improvement concept, Cognia rates a district’s performance in:
· Leadership capacity. “An institution’s leadership capacity includes the fidelity and commitment to its purpose and direction, the effectiveness of governance and leadership to enable the institution to realize its stated objectives, the ability to engage and involve stakeholders in meaningful and productive ways, and the capacity to implement strategies that improve learner and educator performance.”
· Learning capacity. “An effective learning culture is characterized by positive and productive teacher/learner relationships, high expectations and standards, a challenging and engaging curriculum, quality instruction and comprehensive support that enable all learners to be successful, and assessment practices (formative and summative) that monitor and measure learner progress and achievement.”
· Resource capacity. “Institutions ensure that resources are distributed and utilized equitably, so the needs of all learners are adequately and effectively addressed.”
Those three “domains” are broken down into 31 standards – for example, “The learning culture develops learners’ attitudes, beliefs and skills needed for success” – and each standard is further broken down into five elements, among them “engagement” and “sustainability.” In total, the accreditation team examined 155 areas of institution quality and rated each on a four-point scale, from “insufficient” to “impacting.”
How did LCPS rank?
LCPS very nearly aced the accreditation process. Of those 31 standards, LCPS rated the top score of “impacting” on 27. On the other four, it scored “improving,” the next highest rating. Numerically, those results translated into a score of 367. A perfect score is 400. The range of scores for all the school districts evaluated for accreditation by Cognia in the past five years is 278 to 283. LCPS is a lot closer to perfection than to average.
What does this score say about the quality of education?
The numerical score is actually called the IEQ, or Index of Educational Quality. While teaching and learning is a fluid process, dependent on a teacher’s ability to adapt to the needs of her students and (particularly the past couple of years) an environment rife with unexpected challenges, the process is built on a set of immutable principles, or best practices. Inspecting and rating a district’s ability to communicate effectively or support beginning teachers, for example, give the accrediting agency insight into a school district’s effectiveness. So do interviews with people connected to the schools as administrators or parents or students. Here are some Insights from the Review, as Cognia puts it, along with comments from stakeholders the accreditation team found pertinent:
· The dedicated, collaborative leadership team provides a laser focus on the data-driven continuous improvement process. “The superintendent understands instruction and meets regularly with system and school leaders to ensure that everyone is working towards the mission of educating all students to be successful in an ever-changing world.”
· Artifacts and interviews reveal the strategic plan as a living document that is both a planning and tracking document that provides information on progress and goals in a timely manner. “With the system’s concentrated focus on student achievement improvement and equity, we are continuously involved in book studies and professional development.”
· Meaningful stakeholder engagement and intentional communication efforts are key components of the system’s continuous improvement process. “This school system has a heart for everybody. If a parent or any stakeholder is not informed, it’s their own fault.”
· The system implements a process to ensure that curriculum is aligned to standards and based on high expectations, resulting in the preparation of learners for the next level. From the report: “Administrators and teachers highlighted curriculum guides, required lesson plan templates, regular benchmarks and formative assessments, regular classroom walkthroughs, digital learning with a focus on creation versus consumption, a focus on equity and access, instructional rounds and professional learning communities as some of the non-negotiables, resulting in learner achievement.”
Specifically, the accreditation team cited as significant LCPS’s partnership with Lenoir Community College, which allows students to earn college credits while in high school; the success of its 1:1 digital learning initiative; the high level of student engagement in “inquiry-based activities” like Science Olympiad and CTE classes; the district’s relationship with local employers, resulting in apprenticeships and internships and a head start for students hoping to find work right out of high school; its rising graduation rate; and its declining number of discipline problems. From the report: “Internal and external stakeholders spoke proudly about community partnerships and how the community is personally involved in the system’s continuous improvement efforts.”
Did the accreditation process pinpoint areas that need improvement?
There’s always room for improvement; and one of the advantages of having an impartial accreditation team come into the district, people with a fresh set of eyes and no preconceptions, is that they can identify any imperfections more easily. Not long after the accreditation report was formalized in July, LCPS began addressing the four standards the evaluators rated as “improving” rather than “impacting.” Those four areas are:
· Ensuring learners develop positive relationships with and have adults/peers that support their educational experiences.
· Monitoring and adjusting instruction to meet the needs of individual learners.
· Identifying and addressing the specialized needs of learners.
· Reliably assessing and clearly communicating learning progress.
Consequently, LCPS is already working to standardize and formalize grading practices and expand services to support students’ needs, particularly in high school. Continuous improvement is just that – it never stops.
What’s the bottom line?
In its conclusion the accreditation report reads: “Records substantiate the school system focuses on providing a quality education for all students. … The system has many institutionalized, high-quality programs and initiatives. The themes present opportunities for continued growth in an already excellent school system that could positively impact student achievement and system effectiveness.”
'The superintendent understands instruction and meets regularly with system and school leaders to ensure that everyone is working towards the mission of educating all students to be successful in an ever-changing world.'
'This school system has a heart for everybody. If a parent or any stakeholder is not informed, it’s their own fault.'
'Internal and external stakeholders spoke proudly about community partnerships and how the community is personally involved in the system’s continuous improvement efforts.'
'The system has many institutionalized, high-quality programs and initiatives. The themes present opportunities for continued growth in an already excellent school system that could positively impact student achievement and system effectiveness.'