GCS Releases Broad Prize Diagnostic Report

Guilford County Schools (GCS) is a rising district nationally, but still has more work to do before it can join the elite ranks of Broad Prize winners, according to researchers who issued a diagnostic report issued last week.

Prepared by RMC Research Corporation (RMC), an education consulting company based in Denver, the report analyzed which GCS policies and practices are creating the district-wide conditions teachers and students need to succeed. In preparing the report, researchers reviewed information collected during a three-day site visit to GCS in November as well as district achievement data and 75 different documents.

The four-person research team conducted approximately 60 classroom "walk throughs" and  interviewed more than 280 individuals, most of whom were randomly selected by RMC to participate. Focus group participants included teachers, principals, central office administrators, support staff, students, parents and community members.

"GCS is considered a rising district nationally," said Shelley Billig, RMC vice president. "The district is headed in the right direction and has a solid foundation in place across schools to help students of all backgrounds make academic gains. We are suggesting some tweaks to the system, not a complete overhaul."

The diagnostic visit, report, monitoring visits and follow-up services were paid for by a $19,300 grant from the Broad Foundation, along with $19,300 in matching funds provided by the local Businesses for Excellence in Education.

The analysis includes a comparison of GCS policies and practices against 33 indicators that national education experts consider when selecting finalists and winners of the Broad Prize for Urban Education, an annual award that honors large urban school districts that demonstrate the strongest student achievement and improvement while narrowing income and ethnic achievement gaps. The Broad Prize provides $1 million in scholarships to students in winning districts.

The indicators, known as the Broad Prize Framework for School District Excellence ( http://broadprize.org/resources/tools.html ), are grounded in research-based school and district practices found to be effective nationally in three areas: teaching and learning, district leadership, and operations and support systems.

The indicators encompass those that research has shown to be most strongly connected to student achievement and are best practices used by the nation's highest-performing urban school systems. Past Broad Prize winners include Broward County Public Schools and Miami-Dade Public Schools in Florida, Gwinnett County Public Schools in Georgia, Long Beach Unified School District in California, and Bridgeport Public Schools in Connecticut. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools won the Broad Prize in 2011.

Billig, who served as the lead researcher on the GCS diagnostic team, said that the criteria used in the comparisons are more stringent than those used by many other audit processes.

"Many urban school districts across the country have not yet put into place many of the district-wide policies and practices that research tells us help students and teachers make notable academic gains," said Billig. "The Broad Prize framework for school district excellence analysis helps us to determine which school districts are the best of the best."

GCS met expectations or was close to doing so on 23 of the 33 indicators that cover 11 major areas ranging from support for teaching and learning to governance and performance. GCS was given an exemplary rating in the area of strategic planning and approaching exemplary status in seven areas. Two areas of concern were noted in curriculum and instruction.

"GCS has very high strengths in the areas of district governance and operations, and will tackle issues surrounding teaching and learning since most of the lower ratings have to do with a natural evolution for districts that are on the rise," said Billig.

The report specifically suggested that the district consider making improvements in curriculum and instruction that have been used by top urban school districts. For example, the report suggested that GCS align its academic standards to rigorous world-class standards, not just state standards. In addition, the report suggested that GCS provide additional supports to teachers across all schools to help them improve student learning. These supports could include proven strategies for increasing learning rigor and student engagement and access to strategies that challenge students according to their different learning needs.

"GCS has set the foundation well," said Billig. "Now it's time to prepare for the coming rigor reflected in the Common Core standards recently adopted by North Carolina."

GCS will need to actively support teachers in helping students reach these higher standards, according to Billig. Recommendations include providing access to better instructional tools and a better safety net, especially for new teachers, to help the most challenged students improve.

As a school district with a long history of site-based management, GCS has a wide variance between and among schools in terms of quality, the research team said.

"The goal in high-performing school districts is to provide principals and teachers with the decision-making flexibility they need, while also making sure that all schools are moving in the right direction," said Billig. "We recommend that the central office provide more supports - like a more challenging curriculum, timely student data, and access to proven instructional strategies - to free teachers and principals up to focus more time on what they do best, which is educating kids."

GCS plans to use the report and the follow-up discussions on implementation challenges included in the Broad Foundation grant as part of its next strategic planning process, which starts next year. The current GCS strategic plan runs through 2012. GCS was invited by the Broad Foundation to submit a proposal for the diagnostic site visit and review.

GCS pursued the grant because it wanted an objective review of its progress since launching its first strategic plan in January 2009, as well as insight regarding possible leverage points for even greater improvement. GCS also wanted the opportunity to learn from Broad Prize winners.

"What we achieve, we achieve as a team," said Superintendent Maurice "Mo" Green. "I'm very proud of the great work that has been done thus far and the support we've received from our staff and community for our vision of educational excellence. At the same time, I believe the diagnostic report gives us great guidance and direction as we take GCS to the next level."