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Learning How to Use Data

Problem: Jersey City (N.J.) school officials found that collecting and storing district data was one

Problem: Like other school districts, the Jersey City (N.J.) Public Schools collects comprehensive data about its students, including test scores, then stores it in electronic warehouses. Among other things, data is essential in addressing accountability requirements under No Child Left Behind. As a special needs district, Jersey City also needs data to meet state requirements.

But Jersey City school officials found that collecting and storing the data was one thing; training people in the school system how to get to it and use it for instructional purposes to improve student achievement was something else.

"It was very cumbersome for classroom teachers to use," says Adele Macula, associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction. "With NCLB on us, we realized that they needed access at the touch of a finger to all kinds of data so they could adjust their instruction." For example, she says, third-grade teachers needed to know how previous third graders performed in higher grades so they could adjust their reading instruction accordingly.

Solution: The district found what it wanted in DataFlow, a process that provides educators with the skills, tools and strategies to transform data into actions that improve instruction and student performance. It was developed by Co-nect, a Cambridge, Mass., provider of data-driven K-12 professional development solutions.

To improve access for all users, Jersey City added a TetraData tool to its warehouse process. "That turned the cumbersome access we had employed earlier into a simpler Web-based version for everybody," explains Macula.

The district designated data coaches for each of its 42 schools and the coaches attended intensive five-day training sessions on the use of data, run by Co-nect consultants. Topics included how the data-driven decision process works, identifying instructional or student performance areas of need, and collecting and using multiple data sources to improve school and district action plans.

Then the coaches began working with school data teams on an ongoing basis to advise them how to identify the data they needed and how to access it to inform instructional decision-making in classrooms. The six or seven-member data teams, similar to literacy or math teams that had been created earlier in the schools, usually included the principal or other administrators, technology coordinators and selected teachers in each school. "If you want school-level buy-in, you have to have school-level ownership," says Macula.

A Cultural Shift

Jersey City started using DataFlow last fall and it's too early to show a direct correlation to student achievement. But more users are accessing the data in the warehouse and "we have already seen a change in how our teachers approach the use of data," says Gary Murphy, supervisor of language arts for Jersey City Public Schools.

Macula says the program is changing the culture for administrators and teachers who previously "didn't know what to look for or how to use it." She describes it as a "paradigm shift, like trying to move the Queen Mary in the middle of 5th Avenue in New York."

This year, Jersey City will focus on applying information its data provides to actual classroom instruction. Over time, says Macula, the objective is to provide "a big picture of what is actually happening" in the relationship between teacher performance, student achievement and implementation of the district's programs.

"We're trying to force administrators and teachers to become reflective practitioners when it comes to data," she concludes.

Alan Dessoff is a contributing editor.