Conducting an Academic Audit

One school district’s discovery of students’ real classroom experiences and how the findings might enhance them by PAUL D. KNOWLES

“I know I need to do the book work, but I have to tell you, I would much rather be under the hood of my uncle’s truck.”

“I find most of what the teachers present in my classes has no relevance to real life and what I want to pursue as a career.”

“I don’t feel safe speaking up in class. I am not one of the teachers’ favorites. Plus, if I give the wrong answer, I will be made fun of.”

“Most students do not take school seriously. They don’t come to school to learn.”

Paul KnowlesPaul Knowles is former superintendent in Gardiner, Maine.

Gaps Discovered
Frustrated with years of below-average performance on standardized tests, high dropout rates and a negative image of its schools, the board of education in Maine School Administrative District 11, a 2,200-student school district in central Maine, charged a 15-member committee of educators, school board members and community representatives to review the experiences of middle school and high school students and to develop recommendations to improve teacher practice, learner experiences, student aspirations and academic achievement.

The school board enlisted the services of two professors of educational leadership from the University of Maine, who served as objective outside facilitators and helped with the design, data collection and analysis of the audit. Approximately $8,000 was appropriated for the project.

After 1 years of deep study, using both qualitative and quantitative methods of data collection, what was learned was the school system was indeed reaching learners in profound and meaningful ways, but deep gaps existed between how teachers and students viewed the teaching and learning experiences and how comfortable and confident students felt about who they were as learners and how they accessed their learning.

Those concerns became the focus for all program, budgetary and professional development decisions made by the school board, administration and staff regarding the middle and high schools. The school district’s academic audit transformed how teachers view, plan and discuss their work, how administrators view their responsibilities to provide staff development and how the system views its clients (the students) and their ever-changing needs to become successful in the world.

The academic audit process covered four stages by (1) conducting a review of best practices in education; (2) reviewing existing academic and demographic data; (3) designing and implementing additional data collection; and (4) synthesizing and analyzing the findings. The audit was conducted in a transparent, inclusive manner, inviting comment, review and participation from middle and high school staff members and students during each stage. The audit committee used staff and student surveys and staff, student and parent focus groups as the data-collection vehicles and the means for triangulating the information.

Recurring Themes
Teachers and students in the focus groups and on the surveys strongly agreed that learning worked best when students were engaged through multiple learning styles. While both students and teachers agreed on the benefits of varying instructional activities, they differed widely on perceptions of what was implemented in the classroom. Teachers reported they varied instruction, but students did not agree. Both middle and high school teachers lamented the loss of “hands-on” classes over recent years. Students complained about too many lectures and worksheets.

Most students said they valued education and an increasing proportion of them declared their intention to go to college. While individual students said they valued education, it was not seen as a value shared by their peers. Students in focus groups remarked that their peers did not value education and did not want to be in school — statements substantiated by survey findings. In responding to “what they would change,” students indicated they would do something about unmotivated students and those who disrupt learning. Teachers also indicated frustration in reaching some students.

Through the audit, teachers said they were working to reach students and teach them to be learners. The majority of teachers reported a belief that student motivation had to come from within the students themselves. An overwhelming majority of teachers at both the middle school and high school believed student achievement was not necessarily determined by their home life. Students’ perceptions of what it means to be prepared did not meet their teachers’ expectations. Teachers felt students were unmotivated and disengaged, that they were not taking responsibility for their education. In both middle school and high school focus groups, teachers voiced frustration with students’ lack of motivation, preparedness and engagement.

The district’s audit pointed to improvements in student perceptions of physical safety at the middle school over recent years. Middle school student reports of bullying had decreased, and most students felt safe in their classrooms. More students reported feeling unsafe at the high school. Students voiced concern over how students treated each other, with many indicating that school climate was the one thing they would change at school.

Almost every teacher claimed they encouraged students to do their best, and they agreed that their peers did the same. Middle and high school students confirmed in the focus groups that they responded positively to teacher encouragement, praise and recognition of a job well done. Teachers said success bred success, so when students were set on a path to be successful, positive outcomes would continue. While students acknowledged the importance of praise and feedback, they consistently reported throughout the audit’s various measures that they did not feel emotionally safe or respected at school. Students reported mixed experiences with feeling comfortable speaking up in class and being given opportunities to speak in class.

Teachers reported they adjusted their teaching styles to students’ learning abilities. Students in the focus groups reported that when they were grouped with similar students, they performed their best. High school students also asked about grouping students in classes with similar learning styles “to match abilities.”

Many middle and high school students reported being bored in class and unmotivated. Students saw a drop in relevance in their course work as they progressed from middle to high school.

Teachers at the high school felt several recent initiatives built student confidence and met individual needs. Middle school teachers in the focus groups remarked that more students arrived at middle school with a better academic foundation. Teachers said the focus on assessments and common outcomes forced them to provide undifferentiated lessons to students. Time constraints at the middle school also were cited as an impediment.

Across the board, teachers found they needed more professional development to provide differentiated instruction in a single class.

Audit Targets
The academic audit, which took place from April 2006 to January 2007, revealed many aspects of students’ school experiences were on target and positive, yet substantial areas of concern had surfaced. These concerns, if not addressed with a sense of urgency, would continue to be obstacles standing in the way of making learning and teaching experiences better in the school system.

The academic audit committee’s recommended the following changes for improving teacher practice, learner experiences, student aspirations and academic achievement.

Challenge 1: Educational coherence. Ensure that the learning experiences of every child are logically connected, developmentally continuous and supported by uniform policies and conditions.

Many middle and high school students did not see their schools as places where learning experiences were consistent and valued, and in some cases there were significant disconnects between how students and teachers view classroom and school experiences.

Challenge 2: More diverse learning opportunities. Ensure every student is engaged daily in meaningful, relevant learning that addresses his or her interests, needs and learning styles. If this can be successfully accomplished, students will have more intrinsic motivation (drive) rather than students who need extrinsic motivation (rewards and penalties).

Many students felt their learning experiences were not tailored to their abilities and interests and had no relevance to their future.

Challenge 3: Safe and educationally supportive climate. Ensure all students feel safe, accepted and educationally supported for their entire career at middle and high school.

Many students went to the middle school and high school every day not feeling as safe as they deserve to feel, and they wanted to be respected and recognized for their accomplishments.

Resulting Changes
The school district made important changes as a result of the academic audit.

Regarding learning being relevant and students being recognized for their accomplishments: The middle and high school staffs implemented broad-based strategies to assist struggling learners (Response to Intervention expectations), and the high school opened a new learning lab for students who struggle academically. Those students are required to access these services to address their individual needs. Teachers are designing more hands-on and performance-based learning activities and assessments. The middle school has monthly assemblies where students are recognized for their citizenship and academic work.

Regarding educational coherence: The middle and high school teachers now have common planning time where teams and departments of teachers meet weekly to discuss their collective work and student progress (by discipline and across disciplines). The high school staff has adopted a “two plus two” student/administrator/peer feedback process where students are asked to give frequent feedback on their teaching and learning experiences and administrators and colleagues give feedback on lesson observations. Teachers are expected to communicate clear expectations and directions, and all professional development money is used exclusively for building-based professional learning community work.

Regarding students feeling safe: More adult coverage of hallways and cafeterias now exists to monitor student passing times and large student-group interactions. All staff members are making it a priority to include all students in classroom conversations and recognize students for jobs well done.

Final Thoughts
The school board decided, at the time it commissioned the academic audit, that the academic audit report and recommendations would not become another study that lands on a bookshelf to be forgotten. Teachers and administrators have viewed the findings and recommendations as critical data upon which to design the teaching and learning lessons and activities and to improve the culture of the middle and high schools, making those environments more learner friendly and inviting places in which to teach, learn and work.

Using the lenses of systemic consistency, role and responsibility, and assessment and accountability were the keys to success in developing and implementing action plans to address the academic audit report’s concerns.

In this age of more accountability and the expectation for data-based decision making, conducting an academic audit can mine telling information about learner and teacher experiences, leading to more precise planning for needed school and systemic changes.

Paul Knowles, former superintendent in Gardiner, Maine, is a lecturer of educational leadership at the University of Maine in Orono, Maine. E-mail: paul.knowles@umit.maine.edu

Additional Resources
Paul Knowles suggests these materials, which don’t specifically address the conduct of an academic audit at the PK-12 level but do offer some helpful ideas. “Our process was to explore best practices using the listed resources and local data, then apply scientific research methods to conduct the work,” he says.

• “Promising Futures: A Call to Improve Learning for Maine’s Secondary Students,” a publication of the Maine Department of Education

• “Breaking Ranks in the Middle: Strategies for Leading Middle Level Reform,” a product of the National Association of Secondary School Principals

• “Breaking Ranks II: Strategies for Leading High School Reform,” available from NASSP