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What does Frank Lloyd Wright know about School Improvement?

By Donna Warthan - June 16, 2022

So, What does Frank Lloyd Wright know about school improvement?

Well, maybe not a lot. But the characteristics he utilized in his work certainly lend themselves to the way we think about school improvement today. Characteristics such as being a good listener, a great planner and organizer, a problem-solver, and a team player describe not only this famous American architect and Illinois resident but also the IL-EMPOWER team at the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE).

Supporting students begins with a commitment to ensure all children have access to quality learning opportunities and the resources needed for success.

IL-EMPOWER is a statewide system of differentiated supports and accountability to improve student learning, purposely designed for capacity development to leverage schools’ strengths to meet student needs.

With state ESSA plans approved by the U.S. Department of Education in 2017–18, state education agencies (SEAs) moved to implement the plan’s components: goals, success measures, strategies, activities, and timelines. In Illinois, ISBE introduced IL-EMPOWER, the Statewide System of Support. R9CC worked with ISBE and IL-EMPOWER leaders to share their stories and advice on the development of systems and organization for their statewide systems of support in this three-part blog series.

In this blog, Dr. Dana Kinley, executive director, Center for Systems of Support, and Mrs. Christine Paxson, director, ESSA/IL-EMPOWER, share four takeaways from their IL-EMPOWER work: understanding the gaps, understanding ESSA, creating a strong vision, and creating strong tools and resources.

Takeaway 1: Understanding the Gaps

Frank Lloyd Wright once said, “I never design a building before I’ve seen the site and met the people who will be using it.” Dr. Kinley and Mrs. Paxson took this approach when building their vision for IL-EMPOWER. By understanding the workings within IL-EMPOWER, they found windows of opportunity and points of leverage.

Framework for school improvement: Conducting a needs assessment of the program and gathering feedback from school staff was instrumental in developing a clearer framework for school improvement. These discussions uncovered the need for both a dedicated website and resources that outlined a clear process with timelines and responsibilities for what stakeholders should do when their schools were designated as Comprehensive Support and Improvement or Targeted Support and Improvement.

Data use: Schools and districts have become rich in data. After speaking with team members and superintendents, gaps in how educators use data to make instructional decisions intended to raise student achievement were uncovered. These gaps included using benchmarking assessments not connected to the enacted curriculum or collecting data that do not give any information about progress toward a school improvement goal. The need for this information became a catalyst to develop a stronger framework with the critical elements of success. Those elements include a data system that contains various data sources and data meetings in schools with time to objectively review data about progress toward the SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely) goals for the school improvement plan, as well as determine whether any adjustments need to be made.

Takeaway 2: Understanding ESSA

Dr. Kinley’s mantra is “seek first to understand.” Thus, understanding ESSA and the state’s approved plan was her first step in creating a strong framework for IL-EMPOWER. In fact, Dr. Kinley suggests that other state education agency leaders should do a deep read of ESSA and deconstruct it, “so that you better understand how all the pieces fit together, as well as understanding and reading through your state’s ESSA plan.” Dr. Kinley recommends talking with stakeholders in the field and various state associations (such as your state’s teachers’ or principals’ associations) to determine how best to leverage the resources available to generate the greatest impact. According to Dr. Kinley, “We have to work strategically to use resources that are already there, ensure the funding sources are aligned to the school, synergize what other departments are using and doing, and work with them to coordinate” resources to better support our schools.

Takeaway 3: Creating a Strong Vision

Central to Frank Lloyd Wright’s unique vision for American architecture was the idea that architecture and design can shape and improve the way we live. When she became executive director, Dr. Kinley understood the importance of developing a vision and strategic direction for IL-EMPOWER that was aligned to ISBE’s vision in order to improve student learning. Ultimately, the goal is to “raise the floor of the lowest performing schools [by] improving student outcomes and building district-level capacity to sustain school improvement practices.” By working with stakeholders from schools, districts, and partners, IL-EMPOWER crafted a vision that “empower[s] local school leaders to make systemic change that has an effective impact on positive student outcomes pursuant to the accountability system.”

Takeaway 4: Creating Effective Tools and Resources

Spending time creating a new system is important, but this in itself will not create a system shift. You need the right tools to do the work. As Frank Lloyd Wright once said, “The two most important tools an architect has are the eraser in the drawing room and the sledgehammer on the construction site.” Although an actual sledgehammer was never used in the work at IL-EMPOWER (thankfully!), the picture that comes to mind may demonstrate the process for developing tools and resources for IL-EMPOWER.

Tools and Resources you can use:

  • Year in the Life Planning and Implementation document: This document was one of the first tools created with IL-EMPOWER. It provides guidance to stakeholders about critical deadlines and activities aligned with best practices in school improvement.
  • School Improvement Monthly Topics: This tool supports IECs and school and district leaders in identifying critical tasks and essential questions to understand their data and use it to drive discussions and decisions each month.
  • Data Dashboard: A tool that is being created to provide a central repository of data that ISBE staff can leverage to improve processes. (Coming Soon)

The Year in the Life Planning and Implementation documents were some of the first tools developed with IL-EMPOWER, which are a direct reflection of the need for a clear pathway Mrs. Paxson and her team identified in Takeaway 1 above. These tools provide guidance to all stakeholders in the educational system, from the IL-EMPOWER coordinators to the teachers and learning partners, about the critical deadlines and activities aligned with best practices in school improvement. Mrs. Paxson describes it as “the foundation of what we do…because it’s what we center everything around.”

Another helpful resource is the School Improvement Monthly Topics. IL-EMPOWER created this document to support IL-EMPOWER Coordinators as well as school and district leaders in identifying critical tasks and essential questions to focus their time on each month in order to really understand their data and use it to drive discussions and decisions. As explained by Mrs. Paxson, “Through the collaborative work between IL-EMPOWER and R9CC, we created the monthly topics and tasks with essential questions to help us move beyond surface-level questions … to essential questions to get to the root of the conversations and make a positive impact” on the school improvement work in schools and districts.

As the work continued to evolve, the need for a centralized information space for the IL-EMPOWER team to use was identified, which led to the creation of a centralized Microsoft Teams site. According to Mrs. Paxson and the IL-EMPOWER team, this site helped to reduce the need to “email back and forth, so that everything was accessible, including the precious data.” Additionally, she noted, the creation of a Data Dashboard, which is currently being built within ISBE, will provide a “central repository of data, where ISBE staff can leverage data to improve processes.”

The work continues

The development of tools and resources is an ongoing goal for supporting the IL-EMPOWER system. As Mrs. Paxson said, “We needed to systematize our own understanding as a team. Creating these documents together and defining what should happen and then having supplemental resources attached to it systematized all of us in our understanding and made use stronger in the process.”

Frank Lloyd Wright famously said, “The thing always happens that you really believe in; and the belief in a thing makes it happen.”

His statement embodies the work of building a statewide system of support. If you find yourself with the opportunity, you can take advantage of the takeaways outlined above to achieve success: Work with colleagues and stakeholders to identify gaps, understand ESSA and your state plan, create a strong vision, and create effective tools and resources to improve student learning, purposely designed for capacity development to leverage schools’ strengths to meet students’ needs.

Please reach out as you begin building your future statewide system- we are always eager to support you. 

Donna Warthan, EdD, is a senior technical assistance consultant at the American Institutes for Research (AIR) and serves as a project lead with the Region 9 Comprehensive Center (R9CC), supporting the Illinois Empower Project. Dr. Warthan has served as a project lead, coach, and trainer for several successful leadership coaching and instructional improvement projects in school divisions across the country. These projects leverage data-driven instructional coaching, utilizing data to close achievement gaps, and innovative approaches to professional learning and growth to support diverse learning needs.