Out of the blue, you receive a letter informing you that your school has been selected for an educational compliance audit. It may come from your state education department, an accreditation body, or any number of other agencies. You are not happy. You curse. You panic. You ask out loud: "Why me?"
What do you do next?
This article offers some practical tips for Superintendents.
Like death and taxes, audits are inevitable in the field of education. You can not avoid them. While they come in different forms, each with a different focus, reviews tend to have lots of things in common. As a result, there are common practices you can undertake to make the audit more bearable – and more productive.
So let's get started with a few things you can do to help prepare:
1. Accept the Reality. Indeed, embrace it. There is nothing you can do to avoid the review. Sooner or later, every school district will be subject to one. You just hit the Educational Compliance Audit Lottery. Do not waste any time crying over it. Instead, look at the sunny side: You can use the process to improve your school district.
2. Commit to Excellence. Make a commitment to do whatever is necessary to achieve compliance and improve your school district. Recognize that, in some cases, this may be a multi-year process. Remember also that the people doing the audit are human beings, too. If the auditors see that you really care about what you are doing and really value the work they are doing, you might find them quietly or unconsciously rooting for you to succeed. Maybe, just maybe, that might result in them viewing your compliance cup as "half full" instead of "half empty." It certainly can not hurt.
3. Educate Yourself. Get familiar with the Standards by which your school will be judged. In most cases, those Standards should be readily available online. If not, ask for them. Get acquainted with the jargon. Each agency, each review team, has its own lingo. You need to know what they are talking about so you can respond appropriately.
4. Read Up. The compliance auditors about to visit your school have done this type of thing before. Maybe they have not been to your school before, but they've been elsewhere. They've written reports. Chances are excellent that some of those reports on online. Read some to get a "flavor" for what they're looking for.
5. Build a Team. After you figure out the amount of the task ahead, immediately put someone in overall charge of the process. Do not pick yourself. You need someone who can devote significant energy to this effort, someone who is well organized and can meet deadlines, and someone with flexibility in his or her schedule. Working with that person, set up a Steering Committee to assist. You can certainly help lead the effort, hold your Team Leader to deadlines, and even run Steering Committee meetings if you'd like. But do not try to do the work yourself. Do not micromanage.
6. Prepare for Bad News. Let your School Committee know about the upcoming audit and how your district is planning for it. Keep the members well informed, particularly if you suspect that bad news may be on the horizon.
7. Get to Work. Gather the documents requested by the auditors. Submit them. Keep track of what you send. In my experience, documents are routinely lost or misplaced. Do not send originals of anything. Always keep copies.
8. Do a Self-Study. Doing a self-study has been required by some accreditation bodies for many years. But it's not so common before other reviews. I highly recommend self-studies, whether they are required or not. You need to take a close look at where your district stands in relation to the Standards.
9. Divide Up the Work. Put one person "in charge" of each of the Standards. That person should get thoroughly acquainted with that Standard and become your local "expert" on it. That person should investigate how well you are doing on that Standard and prepare a frank, confidential "warts-and-all" assessment. This internal report is a diagnostic tool. There is no need to sugar coat the findings.
10. Prepare an Internal Report. Assemble the pieces into a full internal self-study. Distribute this report to your steering committee. Review it. Start developing plans to correct the most glaring weaknesses.
11. Communicate. Keep your faculty and staff informed. Prepare an in-service presentation, letting everyone know about the upcoming review and what to expect. Spotlight some of the district's strengths. Acknowledge areas of weakness. (If bad news is coming, they should know about it before it is posted on the Internet for the entire world to read.)
12. Prepare for the Onsite Visit. Every review includes some type of visit to the school district. Depending on the type of review, the visit could last for up to a full week. Make the auditors' jobs easy. Give them a comfortable area to work in, give them the technology they request, grant them easy access to the staff members who need to be interviewed, make sure everyone answers consistently, and make sure everyone tells them the truth. Make sure the auditors are well fed. Identify who will speak to them on behalf of the school on the various Standards. Typically, it should be the person who you earlier identified as your local "expert" on that Standard.
13. Prepare Mentally. Recognize that no district is perfect. Yours is just the latest to be singled-out for scrutiny. If you're a lower-scoring district on state exams, accept the fact that you may be scrutinized more closely than higher-scoring districts even if they have the exact same structural problems you have. Be prepared to cooperate fully with the examiners. Be prepared to get annoyed, angered, and frustrated by some of their questions.
14. Fix Problems Right Away. Even before the visit, start working on your weaknesses. Depending on the audit rules and the time period the auditors are looking at, your efforts may not be "counted" in the final audit report but they will (1) demonstrate your commitment to the process, (2) get your faculty and staff working on something tangible and worthy, (3) get your district better prepared in the event that further scrutiny follows and (4) improve the quality of your district.
Educational audits are a simple fact of life for all of us. As school administrators, we can spend our time complaining about them or we can make a conscious choice to use the audits (as time-consuming and frustrating as they may be at times) to help improve our school districts. Whatever option you choose, I hope that the precedent tips will be of some assistance to you.