This spring, District 65 teachers and 6th-8th grade students participated in the Illinois 5Essentials Survey.

Administered for the second time this school year, the survey is designed to inform school improvement by measuring change and providing individualized reports for each school. On Oct. 31, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) publically released the 5Essentials Survey results from the 2013-2014 school year. We want to take this opportunity to communicate our interpretation of District 65’s data and discuss our plans to integrate the results into school and district-level strategic planning.


In 2010, researchers at the University of Chicago published Organizing Schools for Improvement about what it takes to improve a school. Specifically, the authors identified five essential factors that led schools to improved student outcomes: ambitious instruction, supportive environments, effective leaders, collaborative teachers and involved families.

The findings demonstrated that schools strong in three of the five essential factors were ten times more likely to improve their growth on test scores than schools who were weak in three of the five essentials. In 2012, the Illinois State Board of Education contracted with UChicago Impact, a non-profit connected to the university, to survey students and teachers at schools across the state and provide public data on where schools and districts stood on each of the five essential factors.

The 5Essentials Survey provides schools with scores on the following five essential areas for school improvement:

• Ambitious Instruction – “Classes are challenging and engaging.”

• Effective Leaders – “Principals and teachers implement a shared vision for success.”

• Collaborative Teachers – “Teachers collaborate to promote professional growth.”

• Involved Families – “The entire staff builds strong external relationships.”

• Supportive Environment – “The school is safe, demanding, and supportive.”

Each essential is made up of 4-6 measure scores (e.g. the Effective Leaders essential includes measures of Teacher Influence, Principal Instructional Leadership, Program Coherence and Teacher-Principal Trust). The Effective Leaders, Collaborative Teachers, and Involved Families essentials are comprised of measure scores based on teacher responses to survey questions. The Ambitious Instruction and Supportive Environment essentials are comprised of measures based primarily on student survey responses.  Since the student survey is only administered in grades 6-8, our elementary schools only have data on three of the five essentials.

District 65 Results

District 65’s 5Essentials results for the 2013-14 school year show strong scores in Ambitious Instruction and Involved Families compared to the statewide benchmark. The district’s strongest measures within these essentials are Math Instruction, Quality of Student Discussion, Parent-Teacher Trust and Parent Involvement in Schools. The district will focus improvement efforts on Supportive Environment, Effective Leaders and Collaborative Teachers – areas in which we still scored above the statewide benchmark, but see more room for improvement.  Specific measures that can help us further understand how to improve on these essentials include Collective Responsibility, Principal Instructional Leadership, Principal-Teacher Trust and Academic Personalism.  Overall, these data indicate positive trends in our schools and our district and will be an essential part of our overall continuous improvement efforts.

The results for each school are detailed in online reports that were released to principals in late August. Since then, principals and staff have analyzed their data to understand the strengths, challenges and trends unique to their school – and using these insights to drive school improvement planning.  At the district level, these results will be used to inform the strategic planning process, with committees considering 5Essentials data as they work to develop strategies to advance our overall mission. 

Data Use for Continuous Improvement

In conjunction with the release of this year’s data, we are excited to announce a new partnership between District 65 and UChicago Impact. As part of the collaboration, UChicago Impact has provided helpful guidance about how we can most effectively interpret the 5Essentials data. First, they have encouraged us to view the data with an open mind. They believe the power of the 5Essentials data is that it can lead district leaders, practitioners, students, and families to question deeply held assumptions about their schools. Second, they strongly recommend that we do not compare schools based on their 5Essentials scores: two schools could have identical safety scores, but different neighborhood contexts would give different meanings to each of the scores. Finally, they caution that the 5Essentials is a single measure of school quality and no one measure can completely capture the quality of education students receive in an individual school.

In addition to this guidance, District 65 is working with UChicago Impact to provide direct support to schools and district leadership around how to use the results to drive school improvement. Since the beginning of the school year, principals have been focusing on school culture as part of their professional learning and have started action plans to build on areas of strength and focus on areas for growth. Principals have participated in two institutes to develop a deeper understanding of the survey; review school results; and use protocols to discuss results with school communities. 

UChicago Impact is also providing more intensive support around data use, action planning and implementation to principals and instructional leadership teams in a cohort of five schools. The teams attended their first professional development session on Oct. 30 and will participate in a second on Nov. 3. In addition, principals at participating schools will receive one-on-one coaching and participate in a learning network with other principals in the cohort. At the end of the school year, these teams will be able to share the tools and strategies they have developed with all schools in the district.

We are excited to partner with UChicago Impact and to use the 5Essentials data in smart, solutions-oriented ways that help all schools in District 65 take collaborative and coherent actions towards improvement.

More information on UChicago Impact and the survey itself can be found at 

Individual school survey results can be accessed at:

Dr. Goren is superintendent and Dr. Allison Chief Strategy Officer at School District 65.