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Tom Wilson

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Protocol Design and Project Implementation

State Accountability.  Rhode Island Department of Education.  SALT (School Accountability for Learning and Teaching)

The principles of Practice-Based Inquiry are the conceptual basis of the rigorous peer visit that was at the heart of the Rhode Island School Accountability for Learning and Teaching (SALT) initiative.

The Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) showed unusual leadership in 1996 by starting and sustaining a rigorous school visit system that was supported by state and local schools for 12 years. In 1997 RIDE launched the SALT initiative. In that year RIDE conducted its first school visit to pilot a rigorous visit protocol. RIDE sought a better system of state-wide accountability and school support than was the convention. SALT was funded on state funds. It was part of the Progressive Support and Intervention section of the Office of Middle and High School Reform.

There is general agreement that the SALT visit provided unusually high value to school improvement in the state for what it cost. One principal characterized the effort as, "The best thing RIDE has ever done for our schools."

The central benefit of a SALT visit is that the accurate conclusions of a SALT report pushed the school, its district and RIDE to converse about the quality of the actual practice of teaching and learning at each school. Findings are school particular, encouraging improvement strategies that build upon and/or correct that school's actual practice. Thus, the target of change remained focused on the most important question: "How does the practice of this school need to be improved to ensure that learning is improved?

In addition, the visit provided increased practical, substantive information so both the local school districts and RIDE can more effectively refine and implement their policies to improve learning.

RIDE staff build from this value of the visit by conducting follow-up sessions with the visited schools and by establishing visiting strategies for local school districts. Even in these shorter visits, which are more focused on school improvement than on accountability, RIDE works to ensure that the findings are legitimate.

Facts About the SALT School Visit
SALT visit teams wrote more than 6,400 conclusions that directly answer these questions for each school:

How well are students learning?

How well are teachers teaching to support student learning?

How well does the school support good teaching and learning?

The four initial pilot visits in 1997 were expanded after three years to 60 visits a year. While state budget cuts in 2003 forced RIDE to decrease the SALT visits to 30 and in 2008 to 10, RIDE conducted visits to more than 90% of Rhode Island schools and conducted second visits to more than 50 schools. 

Over the 12 years of SALT, 2,200 team members devoted a total of about 106,000 hours to understanding what makes Rhode Island schools tick in order to help them achieve their goal of providing better learning to all Rhode Island students. More than 2,000 teachers and principals, who practiced in Rhode Island public schools, served on SALT visit teams.

SALT visit teams completed 360 visits to schools at all levels. These have been located in 36 of the state's 37 districts, and comprise more than 90% of Rhode Island public schools. The resulting reports provided RIDE and the public with an unusual resource of findings on the state of learning and teaching in the state's schools.

Catalpa trained and certified 13 former Rhode Island practicing teachers to serve as SALT team chairs, following their appointments as Regent SALT Fellows at RIDE.

To ensure that team findings have the certainty of modern scientific rigor, the protocol for the SALT visit is based on the principles of Practice-Based Inquiry.

In addition, RIDE provided an array of pre- and post-visit services to help a school and its district tie the findings about the quality of school practice to a school's planning and action for improvement.

RIDE also designed and conducted 12 Commissioner's visits to schools that were identified as "needing improvement."

SALT Results: The Impact of the SALT Visit
The findings of most SALT school reports were reported in the Rhode Island media. Schools frequently claimed that they "turned around" because of the direct, honest, demanding and helpful findings of a SALT report, even if the report found that a school's learning performance was poor. SALT was recognized several times on the national level for working to find a better way to make accountability effective, rather than simply seeking compliance with No Child Left Behind.

In June 2004, Catalpa began conducting a web-based survey of team member perceptions of the value of the SALT visit as professional development and as a state department intervention to improve learning. The survey was also administered in 2006, 2007 and 2008 to team members who served after the survey was first administered. The response rate is high (52%), and the respondents represent well the total group of participants. The results for participants who served between May 1997 and June 2004 have been thoroughly analyzed and are presented in a Catalpa report. See The Value of Rhode Island's SALT School Visit.

Key results from this analysis in process follow:

Over the 12 years of SALT visits, 86% of teacher team-members said that participating on the one week-long visit was the "most powerful professional development experience" they have ever experienced. The majority of teachers said it "gave me new ways to think about my teaching" and "new ways to look at student learning in my classroom." More than 90% of the teachers said the SALT visit made a "positive difference" in how well they actually taught.

Principals rated these items somewhat differently from teachers, but at a similarly high level. 88% of the 2008 principals saw their participation on the team as "the most powerful professional experience they have ever experienced."

Between 83-87% of the team members, rated the effectiveness of the SALT visit "as a way to improve student learning" at a "high" or "very high" level. They placed the SALT visit at the top of the survey's list of various state department interventions. They rated the SALT visit as 30 percentage points more effective "to improve student learning" than "the State's testing program."

Team members (on teams between 2004 and 2008) strongly agreed that the SALT visit "has "proved itself," and was not "just a pilot that will fade away (90%)." 

Even more relevant in this time of severe budget cuts, they did not see the SALT visit as "a nice luxury that we can't afford at this time (90%)." Rather, they believe that RIDE should give "top priority to its continued use (70%).

They did not see the visit as "inherently too subjective (91%)." Rather, they saw the SALT visit as in "the forefront of new and better ways for a state department to promote better accountability (69%)."

SALT/Catalpa Relationship
Catalpa provided RIDE with key resources for the design, management and quality control of the SALT visit. Both RIDE and Catalpa productively benefited from the 15 years they worked together.

Key SALT Documents


The Taste of SALT in Rhode Island. Catalpa essay, February, 2009.

SALT School Visit Budget Cuts. Warwick Beacon, March 26, 2009.

Research Documents

Salt 360 Feedback and Evaluation Study: Phase One: Report to RIDE and SALT Leadership.

The Value of Rhode Island's SALT School Visit: A survey study of the perceptions of SALT visit team members

Protocol Documents

SALT: A Blueprint for School Accountability for Learning and Teaching

The SALT Visit Protocol

Handbook for Chairs of the SALT School Visit, 2nd Edition Revised

SALT Visit Documents (80 protocol and guidance documents for the SALT Visit)

SALT Team Recruitment Brochure Download

SALT School Visit Reports (a selection)

SALT Visit Report for Leo A. Savoy School

The SALT visit team to this urban elementary school saw a school working hard to improve its performance.

SALT Vist Team Report for Samuel W. Bridgham Middle School

The visit team to this urban middle school saw important difficulties in school performance.

SALT Visit Team Report for Coventry High School

The visit team to this large suburban high school saw a school struggling reasonably well with several major problems.

SALT Visit Team Report for Primrose Hill School

The visit team to this suburban elementary school saw an amazing school at work.

SALT Visit Team Report for Laurel Hill Avenue Elementary School

The SALT visit to this urban elementary school saw a school struggling to move forward.

SALT Visit Report for East Greenwich High School

The SALT visit team found that this moderate size suburban high school was doing a good job of moving forward in learning and teaching in spite of a teacher's strike and administrative turn-over.

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