Using SEA Powers: Part III: Virginia – Focus on Districts and Partners to Maximize Capacity

Interview with Kathleen Smith, Director, Virginia Department of Education Office of School Improvement

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!


In 2002, in light of a growing number of underperforming schools, Virginia began the PASS (Partnership for Achieving Successful Schools) initiative for school improvement. In 2005, there were 146 schools in “warning” status (failing to make a school-wide pass rate of 70% in math and 75% in reading). By 2012 that number was reduced to 18. However, Virginia recently toughened its math and English stands and now has 421 schools in warning status.

Working with these schools is Kathleen Smith’s focus. “It’s a different strategy, when you really begin working with your lowest-performing schools,” she says. The critical work is putting systems in place so they can make improvements even with the new standards. In SIG schools, this occurs by establishing relationships with lead turnaround partners. The two most critical components of turnaround success in Virginia, Smith says, are making lead turnaround partners available, and shifting the focus of improvement work to the district level.

Shifting to a district-level focus

In 2006, Virginia shifted its focus to district processes for support schools in improvement. Smith stresses the importance of building LEA capacity as a means to increase SEA capacity. “It helps us human capacity wise when we build the capacity of the district to be able to do [turnaround work].” The VDOE first had to get parties communicating; once school and district administrators were meeting regularly, the work became much less siloed.

Now, the SEA’s role can start with the district – a more efficient use of resources, crucial in this time of limited budgets. For example, the money Smith usually has to work with “warning” schools is stretched thin with the recent increase in number of schools. The focus on district capacity to support turnaround, instead of working with each individual school, means that she can get the most for her dollars. The SEA’s attitude has become, “We’ll give you the tools, but you get the work done.”

This focus also helps align improvement work so that everyone – from the school to the district to the state level and the lead turnaround partner – is moving in the same direction, aligned to the same goals and action steps. “Districts need to be willing to bend and be flexible, but at the same time, you have to have people pulling the cart in the same direction – you can’t layer SIG requirements on top of district requirements on top of state requirements,” she says. “[Schools’ improvement work] has got to be autonomy with accountability, but it still has to be very well connected to the district initiatives. You cannot do it in isolation of other district initiatives.”


 When Smith is monitoring schools’ progress against their plan in the Indistar system, one of the main things she looks for is changes – if a school is changing something in its plan every month, she takes that as a positive sign that they are looking at their data and updating their plan accordingly. She also wants to see upward movement in the schools’ ranking within the state.

Holding parties accountable

When the SEA doesn’t see indicators moving, they take a closer look at the relationship between the lead partner and the school, helping troubleshoot any problems and, most importantly, threatening to pull the contract if there isn’t a change. “Schools are not businesses,” Smith explains, “and they [school and district staff] do not always understand the concept of ‘you work for money, and have to be held accountable for the contract’. So we had to work with the school districts to be forceful and tell their lead partners that they’re not supplying what they promised, and so they aren’t going to get paid.”

Smith also notes the important of principal leadership. “You’ve got to have the right person – leadership is everything. You have to match personality and skill.”

Importance of partnerships and maximizing the available resources

Smith also stresses the importance of partnerships and knowing the available resources. In Virginia, her office works closely with the principals associations and the Virginia Foundation for Educational Leadership, which helps identify talented people available for contract work, as well as their Comprehensive Center and REL. Smith says that opportunities are available in every state – the SEA just has to be willing to look for them.


Based on information gathered in an interview with Kathleen Smith conducted by phone on September 17, 2013.