QEIA was intended to be an investment in quality education for the lowest performing schools in the state of California. Findings from this research suggest that many schools have used QEIA to cultivate positive changes in teaching and learning.
Consistent with the reform’s regulations, many schools capitalized on the opportunity to hire new staff and teachers, with sufficient experience, that were focused on continued improvement and open to change. In order to meet the professional development requirements, many schools crafted school wide professional development plans that were focused on strengthening instruction in ELA, math, and English language development as well as gathering and interpreting student assessment data more effectively.
According to school stakeholders, the implementation of class size reduction, across grades K-12, resulted in better learning environments for students, more instructional time, and decreased workload for teachers. At a minimum, these results of class size reduction led to increased teacher morale and increased student engagement. However, many teachers at QEIA schools reported that they leveraged the additional time afforded by class size reduction to vary their instructional methods, experiment with new strategies, and adopt new, more effective pedagogy. Moreover, several teachers reported using their increased time to assess students and review data more frequently. In these cases, when class size reduction encouraged changes in practice, teachers reported stronger relationships with students, greater awareness of student needs, and higher quality instruction.
Several schools also reported that QEIA implementation plans included initiatives that went above and beyond the QEIA requirements. For example, schools adjusted master schedules to support more time for core instruction or additional support for struggling learners, upgraded technology that could be used to provide instant feedback on student learning, adopted new enrichment programs focused on college readiness and character development, and implemented new parent engagement strategies. Several schools initiated new approaches to teacher collaboration in order to support QEIA implementation and instructional change.
Findings from the evaluation indicate that overall, about half of QEIA schools have been able to meet the implementation requirements of the program each of the last five years. According to county monitoring reports, when schools struggled to meet requirements, it tended to be in the areas of class size reduction or staffing (highly qualified teachers and the teacher experience index). Additionally, several QEIA schools were unable to meet API targets.
Consistent with the county monitoring results, stakeholders commonly noted that the areas of greatest challenge for schools and districts were class size reduction and staff turnover – both due primarily to the ongoing financial crisis in California. Annual budget cuts at the state level have resulted in decreasing general funds for districts – leading to increases in class sizes that QEIA funds are simply too few to mitigate. In many cases, schools have used more of their funds to support decreasing classes than originally intended when the program began. Furthermore, annual reductions in the teaching force due to budget cuts have made it difficult for schools and districts to retain consistent staff and sustain momentum.
In order to combat challenges and secure funding, numerous schools and districts have submitted waiver applications to the State Board of Education to alter their individual accountability requirements in the areas of class size and staffing. As of March 2013, about 28% of schools had received a waiver from either the Class Size, Highly Qualified Teachers, Teacher Experience Index, and/or Williams Act requirements. Thus, 28% of QEIA schools have implemented a modified version of the reform.
Additionally, this research uncovered that the Exemplary Administrator requirement has not been fully realized in QEIA schools. The requirement was not part of the formal county monitoring process for QEIA schools. Not surprisingly, findings suggest that there are very few instances of QEIA-specific district-created criteria for exemplary administrators. It is important to note that in interviews, teachers overwhelmingly agreed that principals were critical to change processes: an effective principal was an essential ingredient for school success. Although QEIA legislation also acknowledges the significance of an exemplary administrator, additional guidelines and monitoring procedures are needed to ensure that appropriate criteria are in place for hiring effective principals in QEIA schools.
Despite these and other challenges, many staff reported that QEIA afforded an opportunity to make essential changes to school structures, professional development, programs, pedagogy, and curriculum. These changes resulted in several positive impacts including improved test scores, school reputation, school climate, and parent involvement. Although stakeholders were cautious to credit QEIA, alone, for successes, they acknowledged that the reform offered much needed resources and requisite conditions; school stakeholders leveraged these drivers to change teaching practice and cultivate improvement. One principal explained:
The class size has helped make those changes. It’s not the class size alone that makes the difference, though...If people regardless of the size, keep doing what they’re doing and they are ineffective, size makes no difference. It’s changing those practices that makes a difference.
Furthermore, stakeholders identified the importance of effective professional development and meaningful collaboration to support change efforts. Professional development that was chosen by teachers and tightly aligned to school goals was viewed as both influential and relevant. Moreover, teachers were grateful for professional development that was actionable and offered immediate results in the classroom. Ongoing support, collaboration, and feedback were considered by teachers to be essential for professional development to lead to lasting change.
According to QEIA stakeholders, successful collaboration required adequate commitment, willingness to innovate, sufficient trust and respect among participants, and supportive leadership. When these foundational prerequisites were combined with a clear vision for the collaboration and sufficient time and resources, schools were able to cultivate stronger professional communities, greater collective accountability, increased cohesion among teachers, and more effective data use.
Finally, for many QEIA stakeholders, the successes they observed led to a renewed belief in themselves and what they could accomplish. As explained by one teacher in a particularly high-performing school:
I think success has bred success... When I first came to this school, the teachers, they were hard workers and they’re still really hard workers. But they’ve been so beaten up by working hard and trying. It’s so harsh to be labeled a “failing school.” No matter what they did, what they try to do, everything they know how to do and everything that other people are telling them to do…and they just weren’t getting the results. And it’s frustrating that even when you have gains, you are still labeled a failing school. So the first year, we had a huge API gain and the second year I was here, it was even larger. So we had a 115-point API gain in two years. And that was really the selling point. They began to believe again.