In just four years, Arthur W. Stellar has helped Taunton Public Schools become first in English language arts and second in math among the 22 urban districts in Massachusetts. It is one of only two urban districts to make AYP for three years in a row. The dropout rate has gone from 6.8 percent to 4.2 percent. The fourth grade at one elementary school—with 80 percent low-income students—finished third highest in math among the state’s 1,176 elementary schools. Another elementary school is eligible for state nomination for National Blue Ribbon status.
All of these accomplishments would be terrific on their own, but what makes them even more stunning is that Taunton spends $2,418 less per student than the average urban district in Massachusetts.
Located 30 miles south of Boston, the district has about 40 percent low-income students. Stellar, who has spent 30 years in education, has been a superintendent at six other districts and was, before coming to Taunton, chief education officer at an educational software company.
How does this district accomplish so much with so little? It starts with the data.
Getting Here from There
“If kids aren’t in school, they don’t learn,” says Stellar. “It’s basic, but it works.” Using the MMS Student Information Management System, his staff broke attendance numbers down by schools, by subgroups, and by teachers, looking for patterns and for schools that did not fit those patterns. Stellar reminded parents that attendance was crucial and rewarded schools that hit 98 percent for a month with new computers or electronic whiteboards.
As the culture changed, attendance improved. “You can get so caught up in the rhetoric of reform that you don’t step back and look at the big picture,” says Stellar.
Next, Taunton mined its Test Wiz database to improve professional development. When student test scores indicate outstanding results on, for example, a reading skill, the teacher gives an hour-long workshop on how she is teaching that skill. As the district’s English language arts and reading curriculum supervisor, Stacey Hammond is responsible for compiling data, sharing information, and planning professional development. “I look for teachers with strong skills to present and improve all of us,” she says. “You can say you focus on data, but if you don’t, you don’t.”
The district figured out where it could conserve and now saves $1.3 million annually. It followed the same methodology in other areas: Break the numbers down into subsets, look for overall patterns, and determine where to align or realign resources.
Evaluating data has helped with discipline too; there are now 2,500 fewer days of suspension issued than there were in 2004-2005. When officials learned that one middle school had suspended a highly disproportionate number of students, it addressed that school, which now accounts for one-third of the reductions.
“We are getting to the point where we will be able to predict—based on yearlong data—how kids will do on high-stakes state tests,” says Stellar. “The goal is for the data to allow us to say, ‘If you increase your attendance by this percent, achieve a certain score on beginning assessments, improve by this level at midyear, and address these five skills, you’ll score this much higher on state tests.’”
Although it sounds simple, Stellar stresses that working with data is challenging. “It is difficult for most districts to do this on a grand scale,” he says. “People are getting better at using data, but they use it in one or two subjects and don’t connect all the dots. Because I’ve been doing this for a while, I have learned how to do it more efficiently.” DA
Ellen Ullman is a freelance writer based in Connecticut.