NORWALK, Conn. – The Connecticut Center for School Change was tasked with three main areas to study in the Norwalk School District: capacity and coherence, a strategic operating plan performance review, and a central office review.
“It’s important to note as we go into the findings of all three of these studies, that you’re in a unique context, you’re in the midst of a transition,” Executive Director for the Connecticut Center for School Change Richard Lemons said at Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting.
The nonprofit whose stated mission is “to improve teaching and learning, to reduce achievement gaps, and to promote equity in Connecticut schools,” was brought in by then-Superintendent Steven Adamowski to be an “honest broker” of how the district was meeting its goals, how coherent was the district in its operations, and how was its central office operating.
The study was just one that is a part of the district’s plan to collect data, engage in different listening and learning conversations, and ultimately use all of them to create a new strategic operating plan for the district for summer 2021, Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella said.
“All of this information collected will provide us an opportunity to engage between the months of December and January in an intense analysis of the current state of the district that will allow us to start planning and designing the new strategic operating plan with the goal that by the end of April in May, we will have gathered feedback and comments from the community for the board to engage in the final approval of our new strategic operating plan,” she said.
‘It was intentional, but may have had some negative consequences’
The goal of the capacity and coherence review is to examine how coherent a district is with its goals from teachers to administrators, Board members to the community, and how that impacts its capacity and ability to improve learning for the students, Lemons said.
Educators, in their responses, spoke of the instability prior to Adamowski’s tenure, given the constant turnover in leadership.
“Prior to the previous superintendent, it was the wild west out there,” a teacher’s response read.
One of the biggest areas that came up consistently was the district’s “portfolio/choice system” which allows each of the schools to provide different offerings to families, but also could create some inequalities between the schools, Lemons noted.
“We recognize that your portfolio choice model is a big part of the story of understanding what the priorities are in Norwalk,” he said. “In Norwalk, you’ve created a system of choice where the power and influence and decision making is at least partially pushed down to the school level. And that means that there can be a lot of different priorities going on in different schools and in different departments. And we just wanted to acknowledge that this was done in part by design, it might have some negative consequences, it might have some real positives.”
Priorities changing under Estrella
Educators also said that “district priorities were not consistently understood across the district,” but there is a change in focus with the change in leadership. For example, the survey results noted that Adamowski’s priorities were: “increasing achievement, gap closing, and parent choice,” while Estrella’s priorities are: “increasing equity and better engaging the entire community.”
Under questions related to culture, educators said that in the last few years the district has “focused on performance and improvement,” particularly on areas with “measurable outcomes.”
While this was a source of pride for some, the focus on “metrics” also raised some concerns for educators and board members.
Board member Barbara Meyer-Mitchell questioned what other metrics districts use to measure success compared to standardized tests, particularly since the study found that many said metrics were high priority.
“You talked about the culture of analytics and our assessing ourselves based on how we’re doing on standardized testing,” she said. “What are some other ways that other districts measure success that might be less analytic and more subjective?”
While Lemons didn’t have a specific answer, he said that heard this from “enough people” in the district who were raising similar concerns.
“What we heard from some educators in Norwalk it was like, ‘that’s what we’re about. We’re about beating the other districts, more so than we’re about meeting the needs of all our students,’” he said. “Not that those are mutually exclusive, but there clearly was an incentive system that put a lot of emphasis on the metrics and some people internalize the story that the metrics were more important than humans.”
Pride, but ‘initiative fatigue’
Still, district educators also expressed pride for what the district has achieved in the past few years.
One comment read: “Look at how we’ve moved in the state accountability system — we are moving faster and further than the other CT cities. There is a lot of pride and satisfaction about that.”
Lemons said that there was a “broader accountability system” that came along with some of the focus on metrics and outcomes.
“That had a cultural impact on the identity of the district and what people think when they’re working with them,” he said. “There’s quite a bit of pride that some educators expressed when they were interviewed and when they were surveyed.”
Still, because there has been a lot of change in the district, there was a feeling of “initiative fatigue,” with too many changes and ideas being tried out at the same time.
The study noted that the district “emphasizes school variation and flexibility over system coherence and alignment. Unlike some districts that try to reduce such variation, Norwalk purposefully fosters it in an effort to incentivize performance.”
Under that flexibility, principals noted that they “appreciate the flexibility and defined autonomy that allows many personnel and programmatic decisions to happen at the school level.”
“Your management approach and having a portfolio and choice system that emphasizes variation and flexibility over system coherence and alignment is an important part of the story,” Lemons said. “Because in other districts alignment means ‘we’re all moving at the same pace, we’re all moving in the same direction. We’re all moving on the same themes.’ And that clearly wasn’t what we heard in Norwalk. And again – by design – we’re not passing judgment on this is part of how you’d approach the work.”
Lemons said that this meant teachers and staff feel that much of the “real action” in Norwalk happened at the school level.
“That’s where ingenuity and creativity and problem solving might happen,” he said. “And that means that we might have a lot of people doing very different things across schools in the system. We’ll talk about some of the concerns that some of the educators have over time about that, but among many people that was a source of pride, and a part of the culture but also part of the story of how we aligned the system.”
One of the frustrations expressed in the survey was a lack of coordination and communication in Central Office.
“Not clear that all offices in Central Office talk to each other,” a comment read.
Collaboration in the district happens more with individual relationships, rather than a “systemic approach” or “routines” that bring schools and buildings together.
One downside of variation between the schools that educators noted was that it can “breed inequity for students” depending on what school they went to.
The district’s changing demographics over the past 20 years or so are “directly challenging established practices, expectations and beliefs,” according to the study. Respondents noted that while the principals are diverse, the teaching staff is not as diverse and is “not representative of the student population.”
Strategic Operating Plan Review
The main question the study sought to address was: “to what degree has Norwalk Public Schools met goals … as outlined in the Norwalk Public Schools 2016-2019 Strategic Operating Plan (SOP)?”
Successes were listed:
- Goal: Improve District Accountability Index Score. Result: The district “exceeded the state” and its accountability benchmark for all three years reported. Norwalk was “the highest performing of Connecticut’s 10 largest cities for three years in a row.” Norwalk had 75.6 points in 2018-19, compared to 74.2 for the state, following 76.8 points in 2017-18 compared to 74.9 for the state, and 76.9 in 2016-17 compared to 73.2 for the state.
- Goal: Increase the percentage of students in grades 3-8 who meet/exceed the NWEA (Northwest Evaluation Association) achievement norms. Result: The “percentage of students who met or exceeded NWEA achievement norms increased each year from 2016 to 2018.” In 2016-17, 58.7% of students met/exceeded the achievement norms in English language arts along with 46.4% in math. In 2017-18, 58.8% met/exceeded in ELA, with 49.8% in math, and in 2018-19, 59.7% met/exceeded in ELA, with 51.1% in math.
- Goal: Maintain gap closure of high school graduation rate and graduation rate of high needs students, 4-year graduation cohort. Result: NPS graduation rate exceeded that of the state over the four years reported for all students, and the gap between NPS and the state widened favorably each year. For example, for the Class of 2018, Norwalk’s overall high school graduation rate was 91.6% compared to 88.3% for the state. Norwalk’s high needs students had a graduation rate of 86.6% compared to 80.4% for the state.
- Goal: Increase the number/percentage of students taking the AP exam and the percentage of students with passing scores of 3 or more. Result: The percentage of students with passing scores on the AP test rose each year from 2016-17 to 2018-19 as did the percentage of AP exams passed by students.
Goals that were not met:
- The district “failed to close the gap between all CT students and Norwalk students on Math Smarter Balanced grades 3-8.”
- The district wanted to increase the percent of all K-3 students to meet reading benchmarks by 2017, but the percentage of grade 3 students at or above the EOY (end of year) DIBELS benchmark ended up decreasing from 82.1% in 2015-16 to 74.6% in 2018-19.
- The district aimed to “decrease the gap between NPS and state for all students; increase the percentage of all students reaching college and career-ready benchmark.” The study showed that “the percentage of NPS students who met the SAT ELA benchmark declined from 2016 to 2018, although the percentage who met the Math benchmark increased.”
- The district aimed to “increase the percentage of 8th-grade students meeting college and career readiness expectations,” but only partially met the target of increasing the percentage of 8th grade students meeting college and career readiness benchmarks.
- The goal was to increase the percentage of the graduating class enrolled in 2- or 4-year postsecondary education, but those numbers decreased.
- The district aimed to reduce chronic absenteeism, but results were mixed.
One of the notes the study found was that there is “wide variation in performance among schools and groups of students,” and determined that “this variation warrants additional attention.”
Central Office Review:
The main goal of this area of the study was to answer the questions: “How does the structure of Norwalk Public Schools compare with other school districts of similar size and composition?” and “What is known about the efficacy of different central office structures?”
- Compared to similar districts Norwalk does not “suffer from administrative bloat at Central Office.” While the study noted these are “loose numbers,” Norwalk spends about 6% of its budget on Central Office compared to 19% in Danbury and 15% in Meriden, but more than Stamford which spends about 1% of its budget on central office administration, although Lemons strongly noted that Stamford’s lower number might be based on how they “categorize staff.”
- One area that other districts have that Norwalk doesn’t is a separate department for “school leadership.” The study recommends creating a new position that can focus on “improving instructional leadership capacity of building principals.”
- The study recommended having central office leaders work in “cross-department teams” to help support different building leaders’ needs.
After analyzing the study, the Connecticut Center for School Change issued recommendations and “opportunities” for the district to explore including:
- Have a clear management approach for the district with a new superintendent at the helm
- Identify a small number of priorities and align all structures, systems, processes, and communications to meet those.
- Increase diversity in the teaching staff to better represent students
- Prove help for educators to work with an increasingly diverse student body
- Utilize the equity study to “identify sources of institutional racism and disproportionality”
- Work to create structures, culture, and routines for collaboration and coordination
- Create “operating procedures that foster efficiency, problem solving and capacity building for school leaders”
- Identify and address inefficiencies and delays when it comes to recruiting and hiring new staff.
Estella and Board Chair Colin Hosten emphasized that this data would be a part of how the district plans moving forward.