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Drilling down on education data

Coaches guide teachers in mining information that drives achievement
At Raymond LaPerche Elementary School in Smithfield, R.I., Amy O’Hara, school data leadershp team member, far left, works with first-grade teachers Lena Martel and Laura Zucker to analyze reading test results and to determine specific skills to target.
At Raymond LaPerche Elementary School in Smithfield, R.I., Amy O’Hara, school data leadershp team member, far left, works with first-grade teachers Lena Martel and Laura Zucker to analyze reading test results and to determine specific skills to target.

A new bounty of academic data is guiding teachers as they adjust instruction in the hopes of boosting student achievement. Some districts are connecting “data coaches” with the teachers’ own professional learning communities (PLCs) to ensure this bounty of information fulfills its pedagogical promise.

Using portions of the $4 billion Race to the Top initiative, educators in Delaware, Rhode Island, Hawaii and other states have been working with data coaches—many of whom are former teachers—to learn how to parse data to plan lessons and reach end-of-year academic benchmarks, among other short- and long-term goals.

“At some point, it’s vital that we link our instruction to the gaps we are seeing in kids,” says Daniel R. Venables, executive director of the Center for Authentic PLCs. “Once we do, we can make a goal and then develop an action plan.”

Most teachers have never been trained to look at data meaningfully, or in a way that forces them to draw connections between learning gaps and the way they are delivering material, says Venables, who is also an education consultant and the author of The Practice of Authentic PLCs and How Teachers Can Turn Data Into Action. Venables helps schools implement what he refers to as “authentic PLCs” that can identify learning gaps by designing common assessments, reviewing student and teacher work, and analyzing state test results.

Common Core assessments will become the most significant data to evaluate, Venables says. And principals and administrators are increasingly encouraging their PLC teams to become more versed in looking at and deciphering this data, he says.

Delaware school turns corner

The Red Clay Consolidated School District in Wilmington, Del., has been using data coaches supplied by the state Department of Education for four years. Red Clay, with 30 schools, is the second-largest district in the state and has about a 52 percent poverty rate.

How to find a data coach

Some districts have access to federally-funded coaches that are paid for using grant money through programs like Race to the Top. Districts also can bring in outside coaches or create their data coaching positions, says Shanika Hope, senior director of curriculum and instruction for Discovery Education.

Partnering with an agency that trains rather than leads PLCs often fosters a greater sense of ownership among teachers because all future decisions lie in their hands, Hope says.

Nonprofit organizations, like Achievement Network, provide data coaches that build student assessments aligned to each state’s standards and cover all aspects of professional development for teachers.

These coaches also can work directly with teachers in their classrooms, Hope says. In many cases, providers require that most school or district teachers commit to working with the data coaches because the training and ensuring consistency is not easy, she says.

Investments in outside providers can cost up to $2,500 per teacher in some cases, she adds.

“The beauty of having a data coach available to teachers is that it really helps to build their capacity real time, in the moment, as they are making decisions every day,” says Hope. “And the beauty of using common formative assessment is that it helps the teacher focus on their own delivery.”

Superintendent Mervin Daugherty says the district launched PLCs at each school a year before starting work with the coaches. The district’s individual PLCs met during two 45-minute sessions per week and the data coaches attended those meetings once or twice a month, Daugherty says.

Students in grades 3 through 11 took the Delaware Comprehensive Assessment System in reading and mathematics each fall and spring. PCLs analyzed fall data with support from the data coaches using the “Taking Action with Data” modules, an approach developed by Amplify that provides analytics and instructional tools.

Data coaches helped teachers identify areas of success with students, as well as opportunities for growth, and implement new classroom strategies. In addition to state tests, PLCs used common formative assessments to monitor their instructional impact with students and to make adjustments.

Red Clay schools that were underperforming benefit from the data coaches, Daugherty says. Two years ago, the district turned its immersion elementary school into a full-immersion school. At the time, the school was considered low-performing. But the teachers have developed a learning environment through the immersion program. With success from the student data project, the school will be recognized this year as the model for immersion by the state and the U.S. education departments.

Red Clay’s Race to the Top money is set to run out in September, but Daugherty says the district hopes to fund data coaches with grants, such as the Delaware Department of Education’s 21st Century Community Learning Centers program.

Establishing PLC outline

Rhode Island’s Raymond C. LaPerche Elementary School is one of four elementary schools in Smithfield Public Schools and serves 225 students in K5. Three times a year, the school conducts “data days” during which teachers analyze test results to determine which students need more support.

During daily, 30-minute intervention periods, students receive targeted instruction in reading comprehension, phonics​, math or writing. A special educator, reading specialist or the classroom teacher lead the groups.


  • All Things PLC provides Professional Learning Communities at Work research, articles, data and tools for K12 administrators and educators.
  • Amplify offers Data Use Services, which enables educators to analyze all sorts of data to boost the effectiveness of PLCs and data systems.
  • Behance is an online platform from Adobe that enables users to create, showcase and discover creative projects working from Creative Cloud and select Adobe tools.
  • Consortium for School Networking provides management, community-building and advocacy tools for school districts.
  • Discovery Educator Network PLC offers online and in-person events focused on integrating digital content, media and technology into the classroom curriculum.
  • Marzano Research Laboratory, a joint venture between Robert J. Marzano and Solution Tree, is an all-inclusive research-into-practice resource center offering classroom assessment, and instructional and leadership strategies.​
  • PD360, a PD resource from School Improvement Network, offers 3,500 instructional videos covering international public forums and online PLCs.
  • Solution Tree, educational tool and strategy provider with products and services that include PD, national and regional conferences and books, videos and study guides.

Students not placed in an intervention group work on paper- or computer-based enrichment projects. For example, the kids may do research science or social studies concepts and create a brochure to share what they’ve learned.

In July 2013, the school began working with a data coach through a statewide contract with Amplify. This laid the groundwork for the PLC. The data coach spent 10 days training a small group of teachers on how to guide their colleagues in analyzing data.

The coach also observed and provided feedback when the teachers began training.

“Having the type of coach we did, someone who guided rather than told, helped create coaches in us,” LaPerche Principal Julie S. Dorsey says. “Grade levels now have common planning once a week and [teachers] are determining what they are going to teach in math tomorrow based on how their kids did on the lesson they just taught.”

Through this work, LaPerche teachers realized math-test questions weren’t challenging students sufficiently. Fourth-grade teacher Jana Schnell says teachers evaluated their math questions to see if they were triggering the higher-level type thinking students need to improve state test scores.

The teachers were shocked to discover their math questions were not leading to in-depth responses from students. Because the district uses standards-based grading, Schnell says students need to show higher-level thinking to garner the highest scores. Teachers needed to change only one or two questions to meet the Bloom’s Taxonomy goals, she says.

Cranston schools’ own data coaching

As part of Race to the Top, Cranston Public Schools in Rhode Island was awarded the services of a data coach from Amplify for one year. The district doesn’t have an official PLC, but organized its 20 schools into groups of four to work with the coach.

The coach helped form data leadership teams composed of administrators, teachers and subject specialists, says District Data Coordinator Rosemary Burns. The teams then trained the rest of their colleagues.

The district’s cost has only included paying substitute teachers about $100 per day so five teachers from each school could attend the 10 data training sessions, Burns says.

“What I am seeing among many schools, for example, are plans for expanding the reach to include more teachers, parents and students in data conversation while improving reading/math/science using school-wide formative assessment strategies,” Burns says.

The coach’s time with Cranston ended on June 18, but the school’s in-house data teams will continue to receive support—Burns says she will meet with schools throughout the year to ensure the data collection, conversations, analysis and collaboration continue. She is also designing district PD as she builds the district-level sustainability plan based on the needs of the schools. For example, Burns says she may offer sessions on how data drives the evaluation of interventions, modifying instruction based on formative assessment data and grouping strategies.

Data coaching helps avoid takeovers

Mary Correa, the superintendent for the Ka’u-Kea’au-Pahoa Complex Area in Hawaii, says her nine schools had already been focused on data prior to the state’s 2010 Race to the Top award.

A staff data resource expert had been training principals, vice principals and teachers to evaluate student data. Each of the nine schools built its own team of in-house data coaches and PLCs, which has allowed educators across all schools to compare notes and share best practices.

Same-grade teachers in each school meet every week in a PLC to discuss data points, including student achievement, behavior and engagement. To eradicate gaps in instruction, guides are distributed within each school to help teachers stay on pace, Correa says.

Prior to the increased focus on data, seven Ka’u-Kea’au-Pahoa schools could have been taken over by the state DOE for failing to meet the adequate yearly progress regulations spelled out in No Child Left Behind. One other school was in corrective action and only one was in good standing. Now, eight of the nine schools have displayed enough continuous improvement to eliminate the threat of takeover.

Keaau Elementary School was posting a meager 11 percent proficiency in mathematics and a 19 percent proficiency in reading six years ago, Principal Chad Farias says. But on last year’s assessments, student proficiency showed great gains. Students achieved 76 percent proficiency in math and nearly 80 percent in reading. This year, he says, the school will eclipse a 70 percent proficiency in science.

Improving the entire complex required having all of the leaders focused on the same things at the same time, Correa says, citing the Hawaiian phrase “E lauhoe kakou,” which translates to “let us all paddle together.”

Stephanie Fagnani is a freelance writer based in New York.