Like a fine-tuned piece of machinery, districts across the nation are taking advantage of high-tech tools and software programs to collect reams of data on students, make sense of it all, and in the end, transfer that knowledge into successful classroom lessons.
Data-driven decision-making is the biggest thing in education, gaining ground since it first started getting popular in the mid-1990s. Numerous reports and studies have delved into the topic of data-driven professional development, which many districts are using now, revealing the benefits of such programs.
It's about 11 years since only a select few teachers ever got a chance to step out of the classroom and collaborate with their peers for staff development training. Educators never had clear standards of what they wanted children to learn, says Jean Rutherford, so measures and standards were non-existent. When standards are "crystal clear" as they are now, in part due to the federal No Child Left Behind law, Rutherford says, it sets the "stage for powerful professional development."
One research project, compiled by the NEA Foundation for the Improvement of Education, discovered that teachers must take charge of their own learning to get results in the classroom, according to Robert Ganem, assistant director of programs at NEA. The foundation's research calls for standards and accountability, better collaborative efforts as well as better use for technology and expenditures in professional development, Ganem says.
"When people talk about results they'll start with examining results as to what we want in students, and then examine the knowledge and skills of teachers in relation to what we want in students, and then how the staff development is related to that," according to Stephanie Hirsh, deputy executive director of National Staff Development Council. "There is a real consensus in the field that the teachers as part of learning communities is key and examination of that data is the building block to what they learn."
The Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University goes further, saying as long as educators have easy access to data, the skills to use it, and the structures to support it, a data initiative helps educators be more productive. "Now that we solved technological barriers, professional development is where this [the use of student data to inform educational decisions] is going to live or die," says Jeff Wayman, associate research scientist. His focus is how to use data to help teachers and principals inform practice. "If we do the professional development correctly, using data is going to be the real boon. It taps into a resource we never had before."
Wayman explains that recent technological advances have created software programs that organize student data and offer user-friendly presentations. "Turning data into information isn't a breeze and hardly any educators have had preparation to do so," he says. "That's why it will be crucial to provide development for educators already in service and preparation for education hopefuls in college."
Cleaning Up a Mess
But getting bogged down with data is the last thing school districts need to do. "School data is messy," Wayman says. Data can consist of standardized test scores, mid-term and final exams, attendance, and dropout rates as well as teacher surveys, classroom observations, report cards and anecdotes. "Some of the most exciting information is collected from students themselves, including examples of their work and their positions and attitudes of their own schools and teaching and learning in their schools," Ganem says he learned in the research.
"If the kids are saying instruction is not tailored to their needs, that is important to know. Conversely, students will tell you when something is very exciting. And you learn project-based learning is a very helpful way for them to gain mastery over the subject matter. Maybe you as a faculty can learn more about project-based learning."
Feeling overwhelmed with information is common, according to a report from the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, Using Data for School Improvement. And while some schools will still build their own systems, which is a "long and arduous process," Wayman suggests schools use software to handle all data. But no one system provides comprehensive access to solutions to educational problems, so districts must choose between many types of data systems. Student information systems provide attendance and schedules, but not analysis or data beyond the current school year; assessment systems organize and analyze benchmark assessments but are not designed to provide access to such data over time; and data warehousing systems provide access to historical data but not an immediate turnaround of new data, Wayman says.
Letting it All Hang Out
After various research papers, including ones from The Education Trust and the National Commission on Teaching America's Future, experts found links between quality teaching and student results, though some still say it's hard to pinpoint the exact connection. Often, high-minority, high-poverty and well-performing schools have more focused professional development, Hirsh says.
Eight math teachers at Lindbergh Middle School in Long Beach Unified School District, among the districts experts say has powerhouse professional development, are trained to take data, such as results on exams testing common assessments, analyze each piece of information, learn what it all means, and then figure out how to go back to the classroom to re-teach students to master the concepts next time.
Teachers do this by comparing teaching styles to each other in the same grade, for example. If a sixth-grade teacher has students correctly answer exam problems about the order of operations, she teaches her method of teaching to the teachers whose students were hung up on the problems.
Beyond this, teachers' honesty about their teaching methods is vital, according to Peggy Gutierrez, math department chair and math coach.
The program started four years ago after they learned the school was the lowest performing middle school in the district, Gutierrez says. Gutierrez worked with California Academic Partnership Program, which offered a grant, and other math coaches to design a method for analyzing student work. "This process was a difficult one because for teachers to open up and speak honestly about their teaching methods to their peers and reveal or show their scores, they must be able to trust and feel safe with their fellow teachers," says Gutierrez. "Not all teachers were willing to share as easily as others; therefore, this part took a little time."
Teachers collect student work from selected students, for a random sample, ranging from far below basic to advanced proficient, Gutierrez says. Prior to analyzing student work, the teachers of specific grades will identify problems to be considered, chosen by difficulty and those most stressed on the California Standards Test. They review and analyze specific problems, Gutierrez says., and the questions they ask themselves include: What is the state standard for this problem? How many students answered this correctly? What is the common error in this problem? Is the problem procedural or conceptual? How am I going to re-teach this concept so that all students can be successful?
Twice a month teachers come together and compare student work through common assessments in reading and writing, which are then used to analyze student work.
The changes have helped the school's academic performance index increase from 423 to 684 and they hope to reach 700 this year, Gutierrez says.
Accessibility for All
Although honesty about teaching is key, having accessible data is vital for some top districts. At Garden Grove Unified School District in California, which won the 2004 Broad Prize for Urban Education, a "magnetizing, energizing" group of teachers collaborate, communicate and share data about their students, one expert says. Its new Web-based data system is easily accessible to department chairs, teachers and principals who can distinguish what intervention program a particular student should use, such as if a student struggles with phonics or phonemic coding. Quarterly benchmark assessments, allowing for adjustments in teaching during the year, are also accessible online within 24 hours of posting so teachers can see results quickly and learn how they are tied to standards, according to Carolee Ogata, director of K-6 instruction.
The district's data warehouse also includes results from CELDT, California English Language Development Test, which assesses reading, writing, listening and speaking and identifies students at risk for intervention programs. About 70 percent of Garden Grove's 50,000 students are English Language Learners. Results from CELDT are disaggregated by school, grade level, and even teacher.
"Last year, we had a lot of kids in that middle band, early intermediate, and stuck there" for several years, Ogata says. "So we knew we needed to do something for students."
Staff members at the district office act as literacy coaches to teachers using, for example, demonstration lessons. Teachers might also watch videos of successful strategies. A final training session then takes place to ensure a teacher's comprehension.
Long Beach Unified School District in California has a "powerhouse district-level research and data department," according to Jean Rutherford, director of educational initiatives at the National Center for Educational Accountability. The district, which started using data-driven professional development programs in 1996, shows student improvement and performance because it has such a hold on its data analysis, in terms of its focus on grade-level and subject-level materials. If data show that most students struggle with double digit addition, administrators can then look for national resources in considering if the main problem is curricular or staff development, for example. "They see 30 of 32 elementary schools having difficulty in the same area. There has to be a powerhouse training," Rutherford adds.
Principals of each school can also study every objective on a state science test and plan staff development around that, Rutherford adds. "These principals go in and study, what did we miss?" she says. "Is this a problem with the teacher, the grade or across the district?"
Rutherford watched a team of ninth-grade algebra teachers come together in Long Beach for an hour daily, break into groups, and work on common unit assessments, such as end-of-unit exams. "They were sitting on their knees and comparing answers, item by item," she says. "It was truly the best development session."
And the "coolest part" is when that was done, teachers then sat in on an algebra class with students that needed the most assistance. The teacher with the best student scores on objectives on the unit assessments taught the class as other teachers observed, Rutherford says. "It's beautiful," she says. "That is your real time."
A number of factors come into play. Long Beach created an online data collection system whereby teachers enter data on common assessments given at the classroom level, such as grade level reading assessments, according to Lynn Winters, assistant superintendent of Office of Research, Planning and Evaluation. A teacher logs on to the Research Intranet to access her classroom roster. She can then enter a score or click on a proficiency level, depending on the assessment. From there, teachers can print the results or graphs showing the percentage of proficient students, or an individual student's test score history. Principals can use this for "real time" snap shots of classrooms or curricular areas that may require more support or indicate a need for acceleration and enrichment, Winters says.
"More often, kids are not getting the instructional rigor they need," Winters says. So the question becomes, "What do we need to do starting in grade four or younger to master all concepts so by the time they get to grade eight" they will continue to move along at a proficient rate?
In the Aldine Independent School District in Texas, Principal Nancy Blackwell of Mattie B. Hambrick Middle School uses three-week benchmarks, allowing for instant knowledge when something is not clicking with students. Before spring testing, teachers review assessments and set goals. After TAKS results, they break the answers apart, objective by objective, teacher by teacher, student by student, Blackwell says.
Weekly staff development occurs with principals leading the training. It could range from fractions for math teachers to grammar and writing for language arts teachers, and reviewing objectives for the coming month. Her school is closing the achievement gap between white and minority students, she says. "To me, if your staff development is effective, it prevents teachers from burning out," Blackwell says. "Teachers have to be treated as professionals, looking for new ways to reach the kids."
Great strides have been made but there is still no system of teachers sharing with other teachers what is effective and not. Tapping those resources and sharing those practices are still huge issues.
"We don't know precisely what the skills are that teachers need to have to reach proficiency in reading," Hirsh says. "Some districts ... do know. Some are there and some are moving." That's the next phase for data development.
Angela Pascopella is features editor.