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Wonder How Districts' Decisions on Curriculum and Instruction Change Over Time? We'll Soon Have Answers

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A newly announced research survey promises to shake up how the K-12 education field understands districts' approaches to topics like curriculum, teaching supports, and social-emotional learning. 

Funded by a $4.8 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the RAND Corporation and two partners are creating an ongoing survey of both traditional school districts and charter management organizations. The work complements RAND's existing American Teacher Panel and American School Leader Panel, which respectively survey teachers and principals over time.

This new collection, to be titled the American School District Panel, may not seem like a big deal, but here's why you should sit up and pay attention: Most of the data we currently have on school districts and their practices, from the U.S. Department of Education and other sources, comes from snapshots administered to a large sample of districts at one point in time. Even if each of these snapshots is nationally representative, you have to be cautious with apparent trends or patterns because the districts comprising each snapshot are different from survey to survey. (That doesn't mean that these are bad collections—just that they're limited in this way.) 

The new collection will survey the same districts at several points each year—in research jargon, it will be "longitudinal"—so analyses of changes and trends over time will be more sound.  

This is not easy to do technically, especially when you consider the difficulties of coming up with a nationally representative sample and weighting it appropriately. After all, there's not really such a thing as an "average" district in the United States: There are 14,000 of them of all shapes, sizes, and configurations. Large, urban districts educate a high proportion of U.S. students, yet more than 50 percent of school districts serve fewer than 1,000 students.

And then there's the difficulty of getting harried administrators to respond to these queries.

"One challenge that I've heard from many, many district supes is that they are interested in contributing, but don't want to take long surveys," said Laura Hamilton, co-director of RAND's existing survey panels and distinguished chair in learning and assessment at the organization. "I think we'll struggle with the desire to ask about a lot of topics and have a lot of detail, and figure out a way that it's not a burden for folks answering the surveys."

The new survey will have one major difference from RAND's principal and teacher panels. Those instruments focus on specific people, and so the same people respond to each survey. The ASDP will allow different administrators within the same district to respond, based on the topic. This makes some sense given that a person with financial expertise in a district is usually a different one from the curriculum director or the director of student services.  

The panel will also oversample from districts with large proportions of black and Hispanic students so their experiences are well represented in the survey.

RAND will partner with the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research and advocacy group known for sharp analyses of district and charter school management, and Kitamba, a project-management firm.

"Our goal is to make this useful to the field, and by the field, I don't just mean researchers and journalists. I mean district leaders and the people who support districts," Hamilton said. "We don't want to put out traditional research reports—we want to think about ways to engage the people in the data, and we want that data to help in day-to-day decisionmaking, not just advancing the research." 

The Gates Foundation also provides general operating support to Education Week, which retains sole editorial control.

New Surveys, New Insights

So, just what topics might the survey cover? It's not clear yet. An advisory panel will meet later this month to start hashing those out.

But given Gates' focus on improving curriculum and some of RAND's other work on social-emotional learning, those two topics are pretty much sure bets. That's encouraging, because there are a lot of holes in our understanding of how policies and guidance flow from central offices through schools into the classroom.

RAND's past survey work has had a lot of impact. The teacher panel in particular has become well known for its work in identifying where teachers find the curriculum materials they use and whether the materials are highly rated on independent measures. Its reports in the wake of the Common Core State Standards, for example, gave pretty much the only national picture of what purportedly aligned published curricula teachers were using in their classrooms. And the survey has identified some troubling trends, too—like the fact that huge numbers of teachers use Google, Pinterest, and lesson-sharing sites to develop lessons, even though such sources can be extremely variable in quality.

As for principals, my colleague Maddy Will recently noted that RAND's data showed that principals almost uniformly said that teachers had a role in shaping important schooling decisions and felt empowered to voice their concerns, while far fewer teachers said they could do those things. Those kinds of data help to illuminate the underreported sociological dynamics at work in school buildings. (Some budding Ph.D. should do a dissertation on this phenomenon if there isn't already one out there.) 

The organizations plan to put the first survey out to its panel in the fall. They will simultaneously begin qualitative studies designed to align with and complement the surveys in the spring.

Image: Getty

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