County Schools Audit Recommends Increased Rigor, Engagement

Bellwether Education Partners consultants Anson Jackson (left) and Akeshia Craven-Howell present the findings of a county-wide Instructional Practices Audit to the School Board on June 8.

During the final week of school in June, Albemarle County Public Schools (ACPS) released the results of an Instructional Practices Audit, prepared by educational consulting firm Bellwether Education Partners, that centered on one question: “Why are pass rates for ACPS students of color on the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOLs) for K-5 reading, K-5 math, and high school Algebra 1 lower than the averages for other students of color in the state and lower than their peers in other demographic groups in ACPS?”

“As a whole, we [ACPS] tend to perform just above the state average on outcomes like SOLs and SAT scores,” said Superintendent Matt Haas during a June 8 press conference, “but when you look closely into our data you see large gaps between our white middle class students and just about every other demographic group. We have some of the lowest reading scores for Black students in Virginia. After last year’s SOL results, I felt we were standing still, and I heard from the community that they want better results, so I asked our team to [engage] an independent auditor to come in and answer these questions.”

Bellwether spent four months in the late winter and spring—at a cost of $131,000—visiting schools, observing classrooms, conducting teacher, student, and parent focus groups, interviewing office staff, and examining school- and division-level data to produce a summary report of its findings. The report examined the holistic and classroom-level experiences of students of color, and identified five root causes as the primary drivers of gaps in student achievement:

Instructional tasks do not consistently reflect the same level of rigor required by the SOLs. The consultants said they observed “elementary students primarily engaged in independent work with limited targeted feedback,” “middle school students with full-group instruction where the teacher carried the majority of the cognitive load,” and “high school students working on non-grade level content [who were] not held accountable for their learning.”

Three of the five sets of achievement gap root causes and recommendations in the Instructional Audit performed by educational consulting firm Bellwether Education Partners.

Adults are not equipped with the knowledge and skills to meet the instructional needs of all students. The report said that “teachers consistently shared frustrations with the current instructional coaching model,” saying it lacks “real-time feedback and tactical strategies,” and that “many staff need more training and support to implement curricular resources … and want more opportunities to collaborate within and across schools.”

Gaps in content, especially for secondary math and K-5 interventions, create barriers for teachers and students. The consultants noted the school division “lacks high-quality instructional materials that prepare students for Algebra 1” and does not prioritize supporting secondary math, and that ACPS will need to switch to a state-recommended literacy program for early readers by the 2024-25 school year as the current program—Being a Reader—is not recommended.

ACPS does not have a unifying Theory of Change linking interventions and student outcomes. A “Theory of Change” should describe a chain of events that leads from a policy change at the division-level all the way to the desired change in student performance. The report said that “for every role in schools and at central office, there should be a clear understanding of how their actions drive outcomes for students,” and the district must “hold roles accountable for outcomes and assess whether the role is effective.”

Internal and external stakeholders do not experience engagement in ways that meet their needs. “Stakeholders [teachers, principals, parents, etc.] across ACPS are dissatisfied with what they perceive as a lack of transparency around key decisions, and they are eager for more communication,” said the report. “Community engagement remains inconsistent; this may be partially due to a distrust of the school division.”


Superintendent Haas said he was unsurprised by the audit’s conclusions. “I wasn’t really surprised by anything I learned in the report,” he said. “These are observations I’ve had over time and, you know, you do the best you can to work on these things. For example, when we go out and visit our classrooms, often we ask the students what they are working on that day, and what we read in the report is that the students often don’t know, or they cannot express it at the level of rigor that’s expected. There’s a disconnect as principals are visiting classrooms—how do they know if a teacher is working on a particular standard, and at what level of rigor? We don’t have a consistent standard.”

Haas and Assistant Super-intendent Daphne Keiser were asked what would determine the success of implementing the audit’s suggestions. “We would want to see improvement and achievement across the board for all our groups,” said Keiser. When asked what is the division’s expected timeline for closing achievement gaps based on the report’s advice, Haas noted that the division’s current strategic plan is a five-year plan, of which almost two years have already elapsed, and that their goal is to close the gaps within those five years.

Two of the five sets of achievement gap root causes and recommendations in the Instructional Audit performed by educational consulting firm Bellwether Education Partners.

The Bellwether instructional audit was presented to the county School Board at its June 8 meeting, where board members lauded the consultants’ work. However, during the public comment period prior to the presentation, Journey Middle School teacher Mary McIntyre gave a fierce defense of ACPS teachers and said the report made her angry because “so many of the things they are telling you are things that we have already told you.” She suggested that the audit’s call for greater “accountability” should be aimed at the top of the organization as well.

“If you want to start holding teachers like me accountable for standardized test results, first we need to talk about who’s accountable for all the things outside of my control that affect my ability to be successful,” said McIntyre. In a torrent of examples, she listed chronic understaffing at schools, a lack of bus drivers to get children to school on time, poor communication to parents and teachers from the division, an elementary literacy program that teachers couldn’t properly use because they weren’t fully trained, a dearth of intervention specialists for huge numbers of students in need, and simply not enough time in the day for teachers to plan high-quality lessons while also attending to data entry, recordkeeping, contacting families, gaining CRT certification, and a host of other required meetings and duties.

“You use the term stakeholders regularly as if this is some kind of a business,” McIntyre said to the board. “But if this was a corporation, there would be some accountability of the leadership over the problems that I just mentioned, the Gallup poll results, the audit reports and many other things. These results are not accidental—multiple bad decisions by multiple people led us here. Whose job is it to hold people accountable? That’s you.”

House Fire

Following the Bellwether presentation, Haas spoke to the board about “next steps,” which included sharing a video describing the report’s results with all instructional staff in June, and a mandate to require a one-hour professional development module for teachers “to unpack this report” in the fall. Haas talked about the report’s recommendation to clarify the division’s “theory of change” as being most impactful to him. 

“What I’ve learned through this process is that because we don’t define the action steps below the principal or the [division] director level, we don’t have adequate feedback loops to assess whether they are sharing those steps with instructional staff,” he said, which led to a disconnect on the division’s priorities. He also placed some blame on past division administrations. “Twenty years ago, school systems around the state were adopting these kinds of structures to respond to standardized testing. Albemarle County did not adopt these practices—[it] was hoping that standardized testing would go away—so now, lo and behold, here we are.”

A graph showing the percentage of ACPS elementary school students in each school who passed their grade-level English Reading Standards of Learning (SOL) test, organized by race and ethnicity.

Board member Judy Le said she agreed with linking future actions to the report’s recommendations, as the board already does with its strategic plan, but said that alone was “too passive.” “This feels like we now know that our house is on fire,” said Le, “and [the report] really has to drive all of our strategic action going forward.” 

Le’s vivid description notwithstanding, the board does not plan to address the Bellwether results again until October. “One of the most important takeaways from our discussion was the sense of urgency around these recommendations,” said School Board Chair Katrina Callsen. “There is no interest in placing any recommendations on hold and in fact, we will be conducting a work session during our October 26 school board meeting to review progress up to that point and to discuss future timelines.”

Callsen said that Superintendent Haas met in June with the task force of teachers, administrators, parents and other community members who have been supporting Bellwether’s work since February, and she noted that teachers were required to view the Bellwether findings online as part of their professional development. “The immediate next step is to bring together a broadly inclusive implementation team of educators, central office staff and families to begin turning the Bellwether recommendations into specific action plans and have those plans begin as soon as possible.” 


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