I’m a new teacher at a new school. I’m applying for a spot on the principal’s cabinet. One of the questions he’s asking is “What data should we review when we are planning and checking in on existing plans?” I can think of test scores and attendance, but can you suggest other data sources?
—Anar, Jamaica, NY
Schools already have a wealth of data, but the challenge is how schools can use these data to inform and guide the decision-making and planning processes. As a science teacher, your skills with problem solving strategies and the role of evidence (data) would be very valuable to the cabinet.
From the notes accompanying your question, it appears two of your school’s goals are related to project-based learning and improving student reading skills. I assume your principal will want to focus on data regarding your school’s attempt to meet these goals. I’ve often used Deb Wahlstrom’s four-step process:
1. Collect. The data you use should come from a variety of sources in order to get a more complete picture of what it happening at your school. I’d recommend using four types of data (suggested by the work of Victoria Bernhardt):
- Student learning. In addition to standardized tests, measures of student learning could include report card grades, common assessments (e.g., unit tests or semester exams used in all sections of a subject), project scores based on a rubric, and examples of student work such as notebooks or portfolios. If you have access to data from the middle schools your students attended, this could be helpful as baseline data, especially in reading and math.
- Demographics. The demographics of the students and teachers include characteristics such as gender, race/ethnicity, socio-economic status, special education status, English language learner (ELL) status, feeder schools attended, neighborhood characteristics, years of experience (for teachers).
- Perceptions. Some researchers might consider attitudes and beliefs as “soft” data. But sometimes these perceptions become part of a school’s reality. Surveys, questionnaires, and interviews can tell you what students, teachers, administrators, and parents believe about the school and each other. (Bernhardt’s books have examples of surveys and questionnaires on attitudes toward learning and the school.)
- School processes. The day-to-day activities and school climate can also have an impact on student learning. This data would include class schedules, enrollment in remedial and advanced courses, instructional strategies being used, extracurricular opportunities, availability of tutoring (and which students take advantage of it), discipline records, attendance, school facilities, class size, professional development opportunities. These data, along with observations from walkthroughs, provide a glimpse into what happens in the school.
The real value of considering multiple kinds of data is in looking at how the data sets intersect. As a result of NCLB, you get student achievement data disaggregated by several demographic characteristics. You can also look at differences in project quality or reading achievement by gender, the quality of projects in various subject areas, the attitude of students in remedial classes, the types of reading instruction that take place in different content area classes, or the relationship between attendance and learning.
2. Organize. Looking at spreadsheets, printouts, and surveys can be daunting. Organizing the data into consistent formats and using graphic displays can help people make sense of the data. Spreadsheets or other electronic tools are essential to this process, especially if you’re aggregating data from a variety of sources.
3. Analyze. In a smaller school, you can learn a lot simply by looking at the data and highlighting trends, patterns, or anomalies. Some numeric data can also be analyzed statistically. It’s helpful if the data team can produce summaries and displays to communicate with the rest of the faculty.
4. Use. The next step is to use the results of the data analysis for identifying needs, decision-making, planning, monitoring your progress toward the goals, and celebrating your success.
There is no “last step” in the process, because you’ll use the results to revise your goals and identify additional needs. In addition to answering questions, you’ll find that your data analysis leads to more questions.
It’s easy to focus on the tables, charts, statistics, and summaries. But behind the numbers and descriptions, there are real people—students, teachers, parents, and administrators—with variables and stories that make data-informed processes challenging (and fascinating).
You mentioned your school currently has ninth grade and will add a grade each year. You have a wonderful opportunity to study your ninth graders longitudinally. As additional grades are added, you’ll have teachers new to your school also. It would be important for the cabinet to develop a way to bring them up to speed with your processes.
Decision-making can be stressful, especially if the decisions result in changing the status quo. You’re fortunate that, as a new school, you don’t have an entrenched status quo. Your school is evolving, and data-informed processes can become an accepted part of the school culture.
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