Professional Educators

KEYS to Better Schools in Des Moines

“Data-driven” is one of the favorite catch phrases of so-called school “reformers” these days, but the data they want to use to drive schools are a very narrow set: mostly math and reading test scores.

Des Moines educators know there’s a lot more to great schools than test scores, so they’ve started a comprehensive process for gathering and using a wider range of data that matter. That process is called KEYS, for Keys to Excellence for Your Schools. KEYS is an NEA school climate improvement program. The current version has been used in some 2,000 schools across the country since 2001.

Last spring and this fall, NEA, the Des Moines Education Association, and the Des Moines school district have been gearing up for KEYS. In the next few weeks, educators will take the first big step, filling out survey forms that ask a wide range of important questions about how well their schools are run, questions ranging from how well the staff uses data about school problems, to whether staff are comfortable voicing their concerns to administrators.

Former Association President Alan Young says KEYS “broadens and deepens the dialogue as to how to create better learning experiences for students.” He worked for years to bring KEYS to Des Moines and this year, it’s happening.

Once the data are collected, the next step will be to use it in the school improvement plans that the state requires Iowa schools to develop.

NEA KEYS experts will travel to Des Moines early next year to help educators analyze and use the survey data to build a stronger teaching and learning environment in their schools.

“We need to make sure, building by building, that we never get the school improvement process reduced to just student test scores,” says Young.

If the KEYS teacher survey works well, he adds, the KEYS parent and community surveys may be next. He’d also like to see a survey of students.

Melissa Spencer, the Des Moines Association’s new president, says morale is low in many schools that are being labeled by No Child Left Behind and Race To The Top as underperforming. Not many people understand that NCLB keeps lifting the bar so that more and more schools inevitably don’t make the grade, she says. KEYS can be a vehicle for the city’s educators to give their own evaluation of how things are going, and contribute their ideas for improvement.

Associate School Superintendent Terrence Martin, who’s been involved in the KEYS work in Des Moines, said he has high hopes the project will lead to real improvements in the schools. The KEYS reports, he said, will be a working document showing what needs to be addressed in each building.

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