Answering a ‘CALL’: School of Education research leads to business embraced by educators nationwide

By Laurel White

The schools’ rankings weren’t what they should be. 

“We’re a good district — we have great students and great families — we shouldn’t be eighth from the bottom in respect to data,” says Sheri Heiter, director of assessment, school improvement and research for the Weber School District in Ogden, Utah. 

The Weber School District, which serves about 33,000 students, is situated north of Salt Lake City. Its western border runs along the shores of the Great Salt Lake. About 70 percent of its students are white, 20 percent are Hispanic, and almost 30 percent are designated by the state as economically disadvantaged. 

Developed at UW–Madison, CALL products are in use at hundreds of schools across the country. Photo by Sarah Maughan

In the fall of 2022, 33 of the 45 schools in the Weber School District were flagged by the state for its “Targeted Support and Improvement” list. According to the Utah State Board of Education, only 21 percent of students in the district demonstrated mastery of grade-level standards in math, and just 19 percent demonstrated mastery in science. Both of those percentages are double digits below statewide averages.

“With all of the great things we’ve got going for us, that wasn’t acceptable,” Heiter says. “I knew we needed something — a framework, a tool — to kick us up,” she says. 

The tool the Weber School District ended up calling upon was CALL — the Comprehensive Assessment of Leadership for Learning. CALL is a first-of-its-kind survey and feedback tool developed by two faculty at the UW–Madison School of Education based upon decades of research on school improvement.  

Since its inception in 2009, CALL has made the rare transition from research project to fee-for-service product, reaching outside the halls of academia with the help of the Wisconsin Center for Education Products & Services (WCEPS). 

CALL was created to be a practical tool to support school leaders. Image courtesy CALL

On the precipice of its 15th birthday, CALL is supporting hundreds of schools across the country, as well as school districts and state departments of education — and it’s just getting started.

A “CALL” to action

In the early 2000s, UW–Madison School of Education faculty members Rich Halverson and Carolyn Kelley, both professors in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis, were focused on the concept of school improvement. As scholars, they both delved deep into how struggling schools could more effectively work their way toward better classroom environments, test scores, and professional development and support for educators. 

They saw a glaring hole in how that work was being done.

“We were both sort of taken aback by, in the early 2000s, how much attention was being paid to evaluating teachers and evaluating leaders and saying, ‘You stink — now fix it,’ but there were no tools to help them do so,” Halverson says.

So, the duo set a goal of creating that tool.

“We wanted to create a tool to support school improvement, a formative tool that answered not just, ‘Are you doing a good job?’, but showed how you can make it better,” Kelley explains. 


In 2009, Halverson and Kelley won a four-year, $1.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES) to begin the project. Calling upon decades of research on school improvement, Halverson, Kelley, and their research team identified roughly 100 key leadership tasks necessary for school improvement — things like creating opportunities for educator mentoring and fostering the school’s relationship with families and the community. 

The team divided the tasks into five categories and worked for more than a year to write understandable questions that would help educators adequately identify whether these leadership practices were in place at their school — and how well they were being carried out. The team also made the unique decision to build the survey to be taken by everyone in the school, not just its leadership team. 

“That gives people a much better sense of how things are going in their school,” Kelley explains. “When people in the school disagree about an item, it is an opportunity for conversation — maybe people don’t have a clear understanding of the practice. We’re trying to create spaces for building shared understanding.”


Another key element of the design process — and a crucial one to ensuring Halverson and Kelley’s goal of building a practical, solutions-driven tool — was creating a survey that didn’t simply spit out a score at the end of the evaluation. So, in addition to showing a bar graph distribution of a school community’s answers to each question, CALL was also built to provide actionable steps for improving in identified problem areas. For each area of practice, the system offers research-based strategies and suggestions for growth, along with links to resource documents that school leaders can use and share.

“That opens up options for action,” Kelley says. 

Katina Stapleton, an education research analyst at IES, recalls being struck by CALL’s unique approach to supporting educators’ learning and growth: CALL was formative — a “test” built to be part of a continued growth process, not just to generate a score. 

“What stood out about CALL was that it was a formative measure and pretty unique,”  Stapleton said in a 10-year oral history of CALL. “That’s not something we were seeing a lot of at the time.”

CALL’s unique identity wouldn’t be limited to this approach, either. At the end of its initial grant funding period, the tool made a nearly unprecedented leap: the transition from a research project to a fee-for-service model. 

Getting down to business

In 2014, at the end of their initial IES grant but interested in continuing to offer CALL to enthusiastic users, Halverson and Kelley turned their eyes toward a relatively new campus institution: the Wisconsin Center for Education Products & Services (WCEPS).

WCEPS, established by former School of Education dean Julie Underwood, was created to extend the impact of innovations born at the School of Education by bringing them to the commercial market. Profits from products’ sales would be used to help endow further research and development at the university.

Image courtesy WCEPS

“It was a good way for us to continue offering CALL to the world,” Halverson says. 

Matt Messinger, director of WCEPS, brought CALL into the organization as one of the first projects in its portfolio. In the 10-year oral history of CALL, Messinger said he appreciated the CALL team’s willingness to collaborate and blaze a new path for the research. 

“There were several reasons why WCEPS worked with CALL,” Messenger said, pointing to the tool’s user focus and practical orientation. He said he also saw promise in CALL’s digital identity. 

“CALL is an online tool we could adjust,” he said. “As schools adopt more ed tech, WCEPS wanted to get into that space as well.”

A complex transition from research to market involved copyrights and ensuring a robust firewall between future academic inquiry and business. Mark Blitz, a former doctoral student in Halverson and Kelley’s lab, stepped in to shepherd the project into a new era. 


A former classroom teacher who earned his doctoral degree from the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis in 2011, Blitz became an unlikely marketing and sales professional as CALL’s project director. 

“These are not things I thought I would be doing in my career,” Blitz says. “But I don’t mind being in sales, because I actually believe in this. I’ve been convinced — and I’m convinced every time I get positive feedback from others. It’s really not hard to be genuine about it.”

Under Blitz’s leadership, CALL has partnered with learning and research organizations across the country to build out specialized versions of the tool. CALL developed the WIDA School Improvement System (WIDA SIS) in partnership with WIDA, a national leader in multilingual teaching tools and assessments based out of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research (WCER). 

In partnership with WestEd, a national education nonprofit, CALL built the Four Domains CALL System, which measures key instructional leadership practices at the school and district level aligned to the Four Domains for Rapid School Improvement framework developed at WestEd’s Center on School Turnaround. The Four Domains CALL System is what is currently in use at the Weber School District in Utah. 

CALL has also rolled out customized versions of the survey to support leadership for personalized learning (CALL PL) and, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual learning (Long Distance CALL).

The CALL team developed Long Distance CALL, a school-wide leadership assessment and feedback system for remote teaching and learning, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Sarah Maughan

“There’s still room for more,” Blitz says, floating the potential for CALL products focused on special education or community and parent engagement. “The versioning capacity will always be there.” 

In fact, Halverson and Kelley are currently at work on a new version: CALL for Equity Centered Leadership (CALL-ECL). 

Thanks to an $8.1 million, six-year grant from the Wallace Foundation, the team — which expanded for this project to include Halverson and Kelley’s Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis department colleagues Christopher Saldaña and Anjalé Welton and colleagues from Teachers College, Brown University, UCLA, the American Institute for Research, and WestED  — will create a tool that gives school districts feedback on the leadership practices that create more equitable schools.

“This project will tackle one of the most important education issues today: Can we prepare leaders to create more equitable schools for students and communities?” Halverson says. “As a nation, we urgently need a new generation of school leaders who can create conditions for teaching and learning in schools that support social justice, achievement, and equity.”

‘We saw the change in our students’

As new tools develop, existing CALL surveys continue to bolster educators across the country, lighting the way toward better teaching and learning. Often, those results are deeply felt and greatly appreciated. 

In West Grove, Pennsylvania’s Avon Grove School District, assistant principal Kim Hall says WIDA SIS has helped her empower and unite teachers in her school.

Kim Hall says WIDA SIS has made a big difference in Pennsylvania’s Avon Grove School District. Image courtesy Avon Grove School District

“It was pivotal in my career,” Hall says. “I think partnering with WCEPS and WIDA SIS has brought to light what teachers need. We were really able to create an actionable plan for multiple years to continue to grow parent engagement and professional learning.”

From Wisconsin to New York, Indiana, Colorado, and California, educators credit the survey with “tremendous gains” and well-deserved celebration.

“We saw the change in our students,” Hall says. “Once you see that, what other motivation do you need?”

In Mississippi, Shakinna Patterson says the Mississippi Department of Education has been so impressed by the Four Domains CALL System that it has expanded its use from 32 schools in the 2022-23 school year to 240 schools in the 2023-24 school year. 

“I really find value in the system as a tool and a resource,” Patterson says. “A lot of times, we can believe we are doing things well, we can believe staff are all having the same experiences — CALL allows us to get data based on their experiences. It’s a really great tool to be able to see that.” 

And back in Utah, Heiter says the Weber School District has received preliminary data for the next set of state school rankings — and it looks like several schools are poised to move out of their “targeted for improvement” designation.  

“It’s making a difference for Weber,” she says. “I think it’s just awesome.”

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