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KEYS Unlocks School Reform

An NEA program gets everybody into the act

By Alain Jehlen

Springfield, Massachusetts, may be an unlikely locale for a joint union-administration campaign to improve struggling schools. It wasn’t long ago that a horrendous fiscal crisis led to a pay freeze, state takeover, and four years of working without a contract. Teachers fled. The district had to hire more than 1,800 new teachers in five years, out of 2,600 total.

“People were extremely angry,” says Springfield Education Association President Tim Collins. “We had a 97 percent vote of no confidence in the superintendent.”

But even during the darkest, most contentious period, SEA leaders and top administrators were meeting quietly, every month or two, with the help of a facilitator, to lay the groundwork for cooperating once the fiscal crisis was over. Despite all the pain and chaos around them, they were finding common ground on what makes an effective school, and beginning to plan how they would involve the embattled educational community in a joint campaign to improve education, instead of blasting and blaming each other. 

The era of no contracts and no confidence finally ended three years ago. And the tool that leaders on both sides chose to move the district from bitterness to building better schools was a reform program offered by NEA called “KEYS,” or Keys to Excellence in Your Schools. Collins says two of the big selling points for KEYS were that it was free to the district, and NEA would provide experts and other resources to help Springfield educators use it.

KEYS was launched 15 years ago and has been used in over 1,700 schools. It is built around a survey about school climate. The survey includes over 200 statements like “My school has well-defined learning expectations for all students” and “I am comfortable voicing my concerns to school administrators.” Educators are asked to what extent these sentences describe their school. The survey takes about 30 minutes.

The results come straight to NEA for processing, which guarantees to those who take the survey that their responses will be anonymous. NEA does not start tabulating until at least 80 percent of staff members have responded.

NEA sends back a clear description, with many graphs, showing how the climate in the school compares with other schools in the district and the nation. The results are compiled into 42 indicators, grouped further into six broad categories of school climate. The indicators were chosen because research has found that effective schools tend to be strong in these areas.

The most important part of the KEYS program begins after the results come in. Armed with the survey data, educators and administrators can sit down together and plan how to improve climate and student achievement. NEA trains people to lead these sessions.

Springfield is still working through the implications of the KEYS survey results. Top administrators and their union counterparts distilled the KEYS results into three top priority areas for action:

(1) Educators didn’t feel it was safe to disagree with higher ups.

(2) Teachers didn’t feel listened to.

(3) Teachers wanted more professional development to help them work more effectively with their students, most of whom come from low-income homes.

Collins reports that at the top level, the two sides are working together well.

The new approach has also taken root inside some—not all—schools.

Two examples of progress: At one school, Collins says student discipline was a serious problem. Administrators agreed to a teacher-written plan to cope with it. At another, the new way of thinking led to a mentoring program in which teachers with special skills are sharing their knowledge with their colleagues.

Administrators and union activists are continuing their work in other schools throughout the district, Collins says.

Many other districts across the country report KEYS has led to real progress in making schools better places for teaching learning.

KEYS is a free benefit of NEA membership. There’s more about KEYS and how to bring it to your school on the KEYS website.