For $20,000, the Payson Unified School District learned that students work diligently at their desks on the state standards, but don’t actually understand those standards and don’t generally work on higher thinking skills.
The consultants concluded that most school sites lack clear behavior and discipline polices, don’t correctly apply research on what works in the classroom and teach to standardized tests rather than stress critical thinking skills.
Many of the district’s teachers thought the survey would explore their frustrations after years of budget cuts, layoffs, increasing class sizes, pay freezes and loss of support services like extracurricular activities, counselors and electives.
Instead, many of the key observations in the thick report focused on a critique of school standards and in-class practices.
The Payson Unified School District hired the Flippen Group to conduct a Learning Keys assessment of planning, curriculum, instruction, assessment and professional development and test data last year. Teachers filled out questionnaires and consultants walked through most classrooms more than once. They also analyzed Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS) and Stanford 10 (a national test) scores.
Superintendent Ron Hitchcock observed, “nothing really surprised me.”
However, he said the study will set the baseline so the district can make sweeping, state-mandated changes in the next few years on everything from the curriculum to teacher and school evaluations.
“We’re at the point where the clock is ticking and we have exhausted all our allowed delays,” Hitchcock said. “We need to find out what’s already been working so we don’t have to re-create the wheel.”
The consultants asked teachers nine questions, such as, “Which do you use to plan your instruction? State standards? Student assessments? Or previous lessons taught?” or “What professional learning activities have you participated in the past two years?” or “What strategies do you use to deal with inappropriate behavior of students?”
Some 106 teachers from Julia Randall Elementary, Payson Elementary School, Rim Country Middle School, Payson High School and Payson Center for Success answered the questions, giving the district a peek into how they teach, plan lessons and measure student progress.
What the Flippen Group found:
• Most PUSD teachers key on the state standards and use those standards to keep students on target.
• Teachers use test scores and previous lesson plans to guide their teaching.
• Teachers need to vary their approach to make students use higher-level thinking skills and stay interested.
• Teachers rely on observation and classroom work to tell if students might need additional help.
• Teachers use visual cues and aides, auditory learning, projects, and individual learning plans.
• Teachers correctly apply research on “instructional strategies” only 11 to 17 percent of the time.
• The high school lacks a plan for consistent staff training.
• To motivate students teachers “get to know students, have respect for students, build trust with students, and have one-on-one and group conversations with students.”
• For discipline, most schools relied on “verbal warnings,” with only Payson Center for Success relying on a a well-publicized discipline plan.
• In classrooms, the consultants observed positive relationships with the students from a low of 60 percent to a high of 87 percent at four of the five campuses.
• Walking around campus, they found positive relations dipped to a low of 52 percent to a high of 73 percent.
• Clearly defined discipline practices ranged from a low of 23 percent to a high of 69 percent.
• Four of the five campuses lacked clear behavioral expectations for their students, the consultants concluded.
• In contrast, PCS — an alternative school with small classes mostly for students who had difficulties at the regular high school — had positive teacher-student interactions of 80 percent and clear behavior expectations at 100 percent.
Hitchcock said the Flippen consultants spent time with each principal reviewing the study results and also explained the district results to him.
“(The results show) where you’re at and where would you like to be,” said Hitchcock.
Hitchcock said before he can implement sweeping state and federal reforms like the adoption of common core curriculum standards and new assessments for teachers and administrators he has to understand the current system. “I know it seems we’re under a microscope, but it’s so we have all the data,” he said. “Next year will be implementation.”
Hitchcock said the district might hire the Flippen Group to teach classroom management and mutual respect through its Capturing Kids Hearts program or to teach principals how to evaluate teaching with its Data Walks process.