How AAI’s Center for Evaluation & Educational Leadership Helps Kansas School Districts with Home-Grown and Customized Needs Assessments
Involving all members of a group when problem solving leads to better and more equitable solutions. That’s the idea at the heart of the Achievement & Assessment Institute’s Center for Evaluation & Educational Leadership (CEEL). Founded in 2022, CEEL fills a vacant need in Kansas for a third-party organization to support district and building-level leaders to lead, organize, and implement effective and equitable learning environments for PreK-12 students.
CEEL’s director Brad Neuenswander has 40 years of experience in education and has served in many educational positions, from teacher all the way up to Deputy Commissioner at the Kansas State Department of Education. In every position, Neuenswander kept aiming higher to improve education in Kansas.
“When I was a teacher, I thought that if I were a principal, I could have a bigger impact on students. And then, after I became a principal, I thought if I was a superintendent, I could help the whole district. And when I had the opportunity to go to the State Department after being a superintendent, I thought I could help all 286 school districts,” Neuenswander said.
“I remember a former commissioner saying, ‘the nice thing about the State Department is you get to help superintendents turn lights on.’ But you don't get to see the light. I think CEEL helps me get a little bit closer back to the work of being in a school district and helping them turn some lights on.”
CEEL representatives meet with school district leaders to develop and implement strategic plans that lead to educational success. But rather than relying only on input from leadership, the center takes an inclusive and comprehensive approach to needs assessments at schools by including all groups in the process, from parents and students to teachers and district administrators. The center also makes feedback anonymous, ensuring fairness and accuracy when developing an improvement plan.
“Anything that is viewed as top-down is going to have a little bit of bias,” Neuenswander said. “If I'm a teacher or a parent answering a survey question, and the person that's getting the responses is the superintendent or the principal, I might answer a little bit differently. By taking an unbiased approach, the people that are engaged in the process feel a little better that their voice is going to be heard.”
The needs assessment process involves gathering as much information as possible through school district records (such as financial, demographic, and enrollment records), comparisons between other school districts, in-person meetings, interviews with multiple stakeholder groups, and surveys. This deep dive into all corners of a district ensures assessments and recommendations are as accurate and specific as possible.
“Every school is different and every school district is different. It’s a mistake to not start by realizing that,” said AAI Director Neal Kingston. “It’s very easy and always wrong to come up with a canned solution to something as important as education. Starting by understanding the needs of the multiple constituencies is paramount.”
This highly individualized and customizable approach leads to solutions that better fit each unique school district. Before CEEL, this type of service did not exist in Kansas, forcing school districts to turn to organizations based as far away as Chicago for their needs assessments. But those outside organizations don’t know what resources exist in Kansas and can’t give proper recommendations or solutions. Neuenswander’s years of expertise in Kansas education allows CEEL to connect schools directly with people and organizations in Kansas that can help them implement recommended changes.
“We aren’t trying to recreate something that already exists. The professionals are already there, school districts just don't know it,” Neuenswander said. “We broker these connections to get school districts the supports they need.”
These connections ensure a successful implementation of the strategic plan, including services from University of Kansas faculty and staff, Kansas State Department of Education, the Educational Service Center, the Kansas Association of School Boards, United School Administrators, and more. CEEL representatives have the knowledge of what services exist in Kansas, something out-of-state evaluation groups don’t have.
CEEL also conducts follow up visits 8-12 months later to support the district on steps and actions taken to implement the plan. This serves as a form of accountability to implementation while also allowing CEEL to keep track of what recommendations worked and which didn’t.
This level of engagement with school districts and the related communities is possible because of CEEL’s position as the only Kansas-based education evaluation group and Neuenswander’s years of expertise. When considering the foundation of this center, Kingston said he knew this position would be perfect for him.
“The second I heard that Brad was going to be available, I knew he could help us figure out what had to be done and how to move this forward,” Kingston said. “I could not think of a better person to lead this initiative in Kansas.”
Looking ahead, Neuenswander has plans outside of needs assessments to help districts in other ways, including rural vitality projects and video series on assessment literacy.
“I have learned so much over the last year at this center and am looking forward to supporting districts navigate their challenges and understand what their data is telling them.”
About Center for Evaluation and Educational Leadership (CEEL): Led by Director Brad Neuenswander, Ed.D, the mission of Center for Evaluation and Educational Leadership (CEEL) is to support district and building level leaders to lead, organize, and implement the most effective and equitable learning environments for students. As each school district and community is different, so are the resources educational leaders need to ensure student and educator success.
About Achievement & Assessment Institute at KU: The Achievement & Assessment Institute (AAI) is one of 12 designated research institutes at the University of Kansas. AAI and its centers partner with numerous agencies to improve the lives of children and adults through academics, employment, career advancement and building healthy environments, as well as to enhance the capacity of organizations that help children, adults and communities succeed.