Lee County Schools get curriculum audit results

TUPELO – A curriculum auditor told Lee County School District officials Monday that the key to improving its declining English II scores is to analyze the skills it is teaching in all 13 grades.
John Murdoch of Phi Delta Kappa also told the district it needed to make its board policies more specific and to develop better standards of what it expects from its teachers.
Murdoch is the lead auditor in a team of five from the professional education company that visited the district in February to study how well its written curriculum aligned with what teachers taught and state tests measured.
The auditors then spent the last several months preparing a report about how the district could improve.
Murdoch presented their findings Monday night for a group of central office staff, school board members and principals. He will make four more presentations today, including three for the general public at 1 p.m., 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. at the central office.
Lee County is one of eight school districts in Pontotoc, Union and Lee counties who underwent such an audit. All eight were paid for by the Toyota Education Enhancement Fund.
Lee County’s auditors said that the district was headed in the right direction but that it needed more specific board policies and a better plan to drive all of its decisions.
“The people here have really gotten off to a great start,” Murdoch said. “What they lack is a complete blueprint. The audit will help them with that comprehensive blueprint to get everything to line up.”
The district asked auditors to particularly address ways it can improve student scores on the state standardized test in English II. Those scores have been declining over the last couple of years.
Murdoch advised district curriculum coordinators to review the practice questions and test blueprint provided to them by the Mississippi Department of Education and break down each question to see which skills are required.
School officials should then determine when the students should have learned each of those skills and make sure they are being taught at that grade level.
Often, student struggles on the test that they take as sophomores are the result of things they should have learned at a much younger age.
“It made it clear that English II doesn’t start in 10th grade,” said Keith Steele, who has been Lee County’s assistant superintendent and was just named principal at Shannon Middle School. “It starts in kindergarten and first grade and we need to do a better job of building that process.”
Murdoch also said the district may want to reorganize its priorities to ensure students fully grasp necessary skills in language arts and math. He gave examples of other schools and districts that would teach only those two areas until students were proficient in them.
He also said that to ensure that students were fully prepared for state tests, the district had to make its own assessments more rigorous. He said that often what was being taught and assessed in Lee County classrooms was not as demanding as what was being tested by the state.
“Our teachers are working hard and they are the reason why he said that we are well on the way,” said Lee County Superintendent Mike Scott. “We need to do a better job of supporting them and giving them better professional development and lining it up with the curriculum.”
One of the biggest keys to improving as a district is to develop specific policies and job descriptions that guide all employees on a day-to-day basis. Murdoch said that employees should be evaluated based on their job descriptions, which should be so precise that all employees feel the need to keep them at their desks.
“The audit shows how much we’ve done, but it is a drop in the ocean of what we need to do to improve instruction and student achievement,” Scott said.
Staff development should focus on developing a model of a Lee County teacher and on common expectations and vocabulary shared by all educators in the district.
The audit was designed to point out the district’s flaws, not its strengths.
“One does not have to be sick to get better,” Murdoch said.
But the auditor did point out several things that impressed him within the district. For one, he noted that even though the amount of money in the district’s fund balance has decreased from $10.6 million in 2007 to $6 million in 2010, the percentage of its budget spent on instruction has increased.
The district spent 58 percent of its budget on instruction in 2008 and nearly 62 percent in 2010.
Scott said that work to respond to the audit’s findings will begin immediately.
Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or chris.kieffer@djournal.com.

Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal