Using SEA Powers: Part II: Nevada – Close Monitoring, a Facilitative Role, and a Sharp Eye on the Budget

Interview with Sue Moulden-Horton, State SIG Coordinator, Nevada Department of Education
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This month, Alexandra Usher, an MPP candidate at University of Chicago, will discuss examples pertaining to an upcoming Mass Insight publication, The Top Ten SEA Power Levers for School Turnaround.  Keep an eye on this space for more information coming soon!

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A one-woman team

Sue Moulden-Horton is the Nevada state SIG coordinator and sole staff member working on SIG. To devise a monitoring system that accounted for this limited capacity, the SEA reached out to the Southwest Regional Comprehensive Center, housed at WestEd, which had designed a technical assistance tool for compliance monitoring and planning. Nevada adapted the planning tool as a system to track its SIG and priority schools, so while there can’t be a physical SEA presence within schools at all times, real-time tracking can happen through the online system.

A robust online monitoring system                                                      

Nevada’s school improvement system allows for quick and easy monitoring: Schools input their improvement plan into the online system, broken down into goals, strategies, and as far down as individual tasks. Users select which parties will communicate on implementation, monitor the budget, and provide data to demonstrate success. Moulden-Horton can sort results by missed due dates or incomplete tasks, or check the progress of a school against its stated plan. She can also communicate about specific tasks’ or strategies’ progress.

This is also a tool for administrators, Moulden-Horton notes: “As the principal, you can take that [information] and go to the next leadership meeting and use it as hard evidence to hold players accountable [for budget items that didn’t change student outcome data], or as a great celebratory track record of what’s been accomplished. […] Great conversations can happen if they think positively about the system they have in front of them.” The system has also helped the SEA hold the larger districts to the same standards and requirements as other districts.

An eye on the budget

The tool is particularly useful for budgeting; schools split the total amount of SIG money they were awarded into budgets that correspond to each strategy and action step. This close monitoring of spending and assessment of each strategy’s budget against its outcomes provides a tool to judge any changes schools or districts propose. When a strategy isn’t working or has met with resistance, schools can “retire” that strategy and replace it – after an in-depth conversation, especially around budgeting, and approval from the NDE. Moulden-Horton uses strict criteria to judge requests: will the proposal concretely improve student achievement? And, as SIG grants phase out, she increasingly looks for strategies that ensure sustainability of improvements.

Site visits and the key role of facilitator

Alongside this online monitoring, Moulden-Horton visits each SIG school four times yearly. Metrics and data collection protocols are laid out in a handbook developed with WestEd. Indicators span topics such as hiring and professional development, data use, and stakeholder involvement; each has a description of what meeting and not meeting the indicator looks like. Moulden-Horton notes that the real evaluation work happens during these visits: “Most of the a-ha moments occur when they’re sitting there. The deep questions that are asked as part of the handbook encourage people to be honest.”

Moulden-Horton’s most important role is facilitator. She and district representatives interview principals, who discuss data, benchmarks, and areas of struggle. She alone conducts focus groups where 10-12 teachers discuss expectations, communicate progress and problems, and celebrate victories. She has established a deep trust with school staff, who feel free to speak honestly in these confidential sessions. She then brokers communication among district and school administrations to set the stage for technical assistance.

Lessons learned about leadership

After years of doing this work, Moulden-Horton shares several observations:

  • Strong SEA leadership is crucial to provide consistent guidance and make tough decisions when it comes down to the kids;
  • Departments across the SEA should think comprehensively about supporting schools and districts; and
  • There are many ways for an SEA to be present and supportive beyond compliance—sometimes you just have to be creative!

Based on information gathered in an interview with Sue Moulden-Horton conducted by phone on September 3, 2013.