It’s one-thirty on a Friday afternoon, and Paul (“Van”) Mitchell, principal of Colonial High School in Orlando, Fla., enters his office.

He’s slightly out of breath, having just come back from a school pep rally–though it could just as easily have been the 20 classroom walkthroughs (CWTs) he had done earlier that day that had winded him.

But that’s a typical number for Mitchell, who brings up his computer from sleep mode. “We have 186 teachers, and I try to do 25 walkthroughs a day,” he says.

Mitchell is referring to a school leadership strategy that has him spending three to five minutes in each classroom, observing the behavior of teachers and students. He’s looking for specific indicators that research suggests can produce higher achievement. He records his observations on a Palm handheld computer, then transfers the data to his desktop computer later on for analysis.

Mitchell points to one of two flat-screen monitors on his desk–it displays the software program he uses to manage the data collected from his CWTs–and rattles off phrases such as “high-yield strategies” and “learner engagement.” They’re two of the leading indicators measured during the walkthroughs. But for Mitchell and his school leadership team, these are not just abstract terms; they’re real concepts that are being put into practice to improve results.

At each Monday’s staff meeting, Mitchell and his team review the data culled from the CWTs to discover how well teachers are implementing these suggested approaches–and which strategies need more emphasis during staff training.

“We started using them little by little, and now it’s just common culture for us,” Mitchell says. “But it does take time to get there.”

Down the hall, Assistant Principal Hilary Buckridge demonstrates a student-tracking system that Colonial teachers use to monitor the progress of their students.

Each week, she says, teachers export the data from the school’s student information system (SIS) into a database that automatically generates reports on which students are struggling academically, so “we can watch those students very carefully,” she says.
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The system is helping Colonial meet a new state mandate that requires schools to notify parents if their child’s grade point average dips below 1.9.

“Our teachers are pretty happy about it, because they don’t have to do anything–all they have to do is keep their [electronic gradebook] up to date, and reports are generated automatically,” Mitchell notes.

What’s going on at Colonial is a reflection of common practices occurring throughout Florida’s Orange County Public Schools (OCPS). Choose any school, and the chances are high that the same buzzwords Mitchell uttered–“high-yield strategies,” “learner engagement”–are part of the everyday lexicon there, too.

In a school system the size of OCPS–the nation’s 11th-largest, with 176,000 students and 12,000 teachers spread across 165 schools–“it can be hard to change the culture,” says Nora Gledich, director of leadership development for the district. But that’s just what OCPS has been able to accomplish.

School leaders are using the trends and patterns that appear in the CWT data to make more informed decisions about their staff’s professional development needs. Individual teachers are using the data they collect through periodic assessments to change their instructional practices. And technology is the catalyst for all of these reforms.

This change in culture “has resulted in a thousand school leaders who now speak a new language together,” Gledich says. “No matter who works where, we can have a real conversation about the children in our district and move things forward.”

As a result of this district-wide shift in culture, student achievement is on the rise, and OCPS is widely recognized as a high-performing school system.

Despite a highly mobile and diverse student population–OCPS students come from 179 countries and speak 132 different languages and dialects–the district’s graduation rate is 72 percent, above the average for the state of Florida, and its dropout rate is under 2 percent, best among the state’s seven urban districts. OCPS has achieved a “B” rating from the state, and 70 percent of its schools have earned either an “A” or a “B.”

How the district has achieved such remarkable success can be traced to its leadership at all levels–from the superintendent on down to the leaders in each building.
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Eliminating guesswork

A good example of this leadership can be found in the CWTs, which are “truly changing the way our principals operate,” says Nicholas Gledich, Nora’s husband and chief operating officer for the district.

There are many models for how to conduct CWTs in the United States, but Florida has adopted a particular model and has mandated that all principals in the state be trained in it, Nora Gledich says. But while you’ll see CWTs performed in every district throughout the state, perhaps no other Florida district has taken these quite to the level of OCPS.

For one thing, Nora and her staff decided early on to train not just the building principals, but the entire leadership team at each school.

“As a former principal, I said, ‘Let’s look at the reality of this–what principal do you know who works in isolation, where they’re the sole doer of anything in a school?'” she explains. Training an entire leadership team in each building allows for more CTWs to occur, while bringing the whole team into the decision-making process.

Florida uses Teachscape as the provider of its CWT training, based on a model for the walkthroughs that Teachscape created. It involves seven very focused “look-fors,” Nora says, that are based on sound educational research. “The seven things we look for are the things that, if a teacher and her students are showing evidence of these in the classroom, then we know the classroom produces higher achievement,” she says.

Besides learner engagement and the use of “high-yield” instructional strategies (which are identified in the research of Robert Marzano, Debra Pickering, and Jane Pollock), these indicators also include what the learning environment looks like and whether the objectives of the lesson are evident.

Teachscape has created a software program that works on a variety of handheld computing platforms for school leaders to record their observations about these indicators. The information is collected electronically, and reports are generated automatically to give building leaders a snapshot of what teaching and learning looks like in their schools.

It’s important to note that this is not an evaluative process, Nora says: Data are not collected on individual teachers, and they aren’t used to evaluate particular educators. “That’s what helped sell the program to the teachers,” she says. “We’ve had no issues with the union as a result.”

Data instead are collected in aggregate form, though they can be parsed according to grade level and subject area. “I can say, let’s take a look at the information only as it pertains to ninth-grade algebra, or eighth-grade language arts,” Nora says. School leaders then use these results to plan for their teachers’ professional development needs.

Nora says she appreciates the solution because “everything is so targeted. There is no guesswork in what we need to do to help teachers be more effective. Instead of saying, ‘What would you like to learn this year as a teacher,’ it’s now, ‘What do we need to learn in order to help our students?’ And that is quite incredible.”

But OCPS doesn’t just use data to drive professional development. It also uses data to inform classroom instruction.
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Orange County educators are using Riverside Publishing’s Edusoft platform to administer formative assessments at least four times a year, which they use to find gaps in their students’ understanding and target their instruction accordingly. Edusoft is a paper-to-web solution, meaning exams are given on paper and then scanned into a computer. The results are uploaded to an Edusoft server, where teachers have web-based, near-instant feedback.

Teachers can give an exam, then go to the faculty lounge to scan in students’ answer sheets–and by the time they get back to their classroom, the results are available online for instant analysis, says George Perreault, director of educational technology.

Edusoft is merely a platform for administering the assessments, and so OCPS partnered with The Princeton Review to create test items for each subject that correlate closely with state standards. Because of this close correlation, OCPS teachers can predict with a high degree of reliability which students are on track for passing the reading and math portions of Florida’s FCAT exam and which students need remedial help.

The initiative grew out of an effort by Superintendent Ronald Blocker four years ago to find ways to standardize assessment according to a single, district-wide model. As a result of this effort, OCPS officials looked at what all the schools were doing and identified best practices they could implement district-wide.

In a related initiative, elementary reading teachers also use Wireless Generation’s mClass solution to administer DIBELS exams via Palm computers. The system has slashed the amount of time it takes to administer the exams and get results back to teachers: OCPS now can turn around 100,000 exams in less than two weeks–about a third of the time it took before.

The district started this initiative as a pilot project five years ago with only a handful of schools. But “within the first four months, other schools were hearing what we were doing, and they wanted to participate,” Nick Gledich says. “And we pretty much had to say to these schools, ‘Hold off, let’s wait, let’s assess what we’re doing first before we go any further.'”

Early on in the project, however, it was clear the initiative was a huge success–and within three years, OCPS was offering the program at all of its elementary schools.

To facilitate teachers’ adoption of the system, district trainers first taught them how to use the Palm computers and gave them a chance to become familiar with the devices; only then did teachers learn how to use the handhelds to administer the DIBELS exam. This two-step process simplified things enormously and kept teachers from being overwhelmed.

“I don’t know of anything that’s been as accepted this easily by the elementary school teachers,” says Perreault. “The bottom line is, it makes their job easier, and they have more timely feedback. It’s much more efficient than what they were doing before.”
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Other projects under way

Such a strong reliance on data to better target instruction requires a robust SIS. However, until now, OCPS has had three different legacy systems in place in its schools: one each for the elementary, middle, and high schools. These three systems all feed into a central system used for state reporting.

Having three disparate systems poses many problems. So, in a major ed-tech initiative, OCPS is in the process of moving to a single system with a uniform interface for all schools. The district chose to standardize on Pearson’s SMS (formerly the Chancery Student Management System), because it was the most robust of the three systems in use. Its goal is to shift all schools over to SMS by spring 2009.

The SIS project is just one of several large-scale technology initiatives under way in the district. Another is a project to upgrade the district’s bandwidth and monitor its internet traffic. This project aims to supply a minimum of 10 megabits of bandwidth per second to each elementary school, 100 Mbps to each middle school, and 1 gigabit per second to each high school.

OCPS is taking advantage of 2007 eRate funding to make this happen. It has contracted with Tennessee-based ENA to oversee the project. ENA will own the routers at the school sites and will be responsible for monitoring internet traffic through these routers.

On the instructional side, OCPS received a $1 million grant to implement a project called the Integrating Technology into Reading Initiative. The project targets schools rated as “C” schools by the state, and participating teachers receive four days of training in multimedia creation. They also get a Macintosh laptop cart, a digital projector, and a digital camera; the goal is to boost students’ reading scores with multimedia projects.

Encouraged by Superintendent Blocker’s goal of “constant innovation,” OCPS is in the process of upgrading its Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) solution from SAP version 4.0 to version 4.7 through a project called EFI, or Expanded Functionality Initiative.

The goal of this project, as its name indicates, is to expand the functionality of the district’s back-end software system. For example, OCPS is adding an e-Recruiting module that will help automate staff recruitment and move much of this process online, which should help the district meet its ever-challenging hiring needs. (This fall, the district has added about 800 new teachers–and that’s down slightly from previous years.)

OCPS also is implementing a district-wide web portal, based on Microsoft SharePoint technology, that will serve as a single point of delivery for online services, and it’s in the early stages of a three-year project to implement a comprehensive data warehouse to support instruction.

Not all of the district’s technology projects have gone smoothly. In one particular “pain point,” Nick Gledich says, OCPS ended up making headlines in the local papers for the wrong reasons: As the district began rolling out SMS in some of its schools, teachers had trouble retrieving their students’ grades. For some teachers, the software’s gradebook program simply froze–while others reported losing data altogether.

District officials looked into the problem and determined that it was an issue only with the software’s gradebook feature. All other aspects of the program worked well. So, rather than scrap the system entirely, they stripped the gradebook feature from SMS and sought another gradebook solution that would work with it.
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After doing their homework, they chose a program called ProgressBook, from Ohio-based Software Answers Inc. They did extensive testing to make sure it worked with SMS.

“We’re just starting to use ProgressBook with the middle schools, and we’re hearing from teachers, ‘My gosh, this is wonderful!'” Gledich says. “Teachers can take attendance in ProgressBook, and it feeds into SMS seamlessly.”

Keys to success

Aiding in its transition to the new system was the attention the district paid to “change management,” a business term used to describe the process for managing the people side of any major change. For OCPS officials, change management is extremely important–and it’s a key reason for the success they’ve had with new technology initiatives.

For its SIS project, OCPS chose to implement the new software in only 25 schools at a time. District officials also knew it was important to have a person on site at each school to help teachers with the transition, answer questions, and provide hands-on support.

The district didn’t have enough people on staff to make that happen, so it hit upon a creative solution: It hired and trained temporary employees from local staffing provider Tek Systems to fulfill this role.

Hiring temps for such an important role might seem a bit risky, but OCPS has had great success with this approach. “We made these 25 people important people for the district,” Nick Gledich explains. “And we gave them training they can use to further advance themselves.” While not everyone has worked out, OCPS has had to replace only a few of the temps.

To find these temporary employees, OCPS looked at state-sanctioned temp agencies that specialize in technology placements, says Valerie Hall, assistant director of the district’s customer care division. District officials were looking for a baseline set of technology skills, as well as change-agent skills, good communication skills, and the ability to learn. “We figured we could teach them the education business,” Hall explains.

OCPS pays the agency a flat fee per employee, and the agency handles individual temps’ salaries. Though the district has lost a few, the agency keeps a stable of qualified candidates and can replace them at a moment’s notice. “The key is to establish a good relationship with the temp company, so they know your expectations and know how well their temps are doing in meeting those expectations,” Hall says.

The temps received four weeks of training to become “customer care agents.” Once the software was implemented in the first 25 schools, they moved on to the next set of schools. The approach has worked so well that “this will be the model we’ll continue to use for other projects,” Hall says.

Change management is just one of several keys to the district’s success.

“If you were to ask me why we are experiencing success, I would say … because projects are not done in isolation–they are done in coordination with all of the divisions that support our schools,” Nick Gledich says.

For instance, the assessment office worked with the curriculum and professional development offices to implement the Edusoft and mClass projects. “All of those offices worked together to make this happen,” he says.
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Yet another key is how OCPS defines the concept of ownership over projects. In many districts, Gledich says, the IT department “owns” all tech-related projects–but at OCPS, it’s the business process owner who assumes responsibility for a project, and IT is responsible “only for the development of the tool and the support.”

That’s a change in philosophy that has been happening for the last three or four years, and it’s a good one, says Hermes Mendez, director of IT infrastructure for the district.

“Having been here 20-plus years myself, it’s always been [that] we’re pushing the technology to do things–and now it’s the other way around: We’re seeing more of a shift to the end-users, the professionals out in the field, pushing the use of technology,” Mendez says.

Roland Moore, who took over as chief information officer for OCPS just this summer after serving in that capacity for the Detroit Public Schools, says that was a key factor that attracted him to the district.

“Too often, technology is an answer in search of a problem,” Moore says. “And until you can find ways to embed it, it is never really realized in education until someone has a practical application. But when you have several systemic applications, it begins to vet itself as to how it should appropriately be applied to education. And that’s one of the things I saw happening here.”

Nick Gledich refers to this transformation from a “top-down” to a “customer-driven” approach to technology as yet another profound cultural shift within OCPS.

“It’s this cultural shift to a customer-driven [enterprise] that will allow us to expand our use of technology even further,” Gledich surmises.

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Orange County Public Schools