When North Dover Elementary School in Dover, Delaware was awarded $50,000 as one of the State’s 17 “recognition” schools for its gains in student achievement in 2013, Principal Suzette Marine gave some of the credit to what she called the school’s “Go Green” culture. “Students know that any time their data is green it’s great because students have reached their benchmarks on proficiency levels and are on track for success,” Marine wrote on the school’s website.
“Go Green” refers to the way positive data is displayed on the computer dashboard the school uses to keep track of student progress. Teachers meet with their students several times each year “to look at data and talk about ‘this is where you perform’ and ‘where would you like to be next time’ and ‘what do you need to get to the next level,’” she said. Teachers also meet for 90 minutes once a week to analyze their own performance. “It’s phenomenal the way they lean on each other and they share,” Marine said of her teachers. “When they look at data, they can say, ‘this is my concern, this is what I’m seeing in the classroom’ and then talk together about how to address it.”
That was what State, district and union leaders hoped would happen after winning a Federal Race to the Top grant in 2010. Teachers in many schools already were meeting to discuss their students’ work. The grant deepened the discussions by making it possible to hire coaches. Coaches help teachers in each of the State’s 237 schools become more adept at using student data to focus their instruction on the concepts and skills that their children needed the most help mastering.
As a result of the weekly meetings, which are called “professional learning communities (PLCs),” Marine is seeing much more differentiation of instruction in both reading and mathematics when she observes classrooms. “Teachers are going above and beyond to meet the needs of every student,” she said.
North Dover is one of two schools in the Capital School District that have been recognized by the State for the progress they are making. Pam Herrera, who oversees the professional learning communities for the district, said the entire district is focused on using data and improving instruction as a way of implementing the Common Core State Standards adopted by the State. Those standards, adopted by 45 States and the District of Columbia, emphasize the critical thinking, creativity, and communication skills needed for success in college and careers.
“Our focus is on our students and we communicate that throughout the district in terms of our expectations and cultures and the professional learning communities fit right into that,” Herrera said. “We’re looking at the student data and getting right at the heart of what’s happening with all of our students.”
Christopher Ruszkowski, who heads the Delaware Department of Education’s Teacher and Leader Effectiveness Unit, said he hears comments like that all over the state. “Every teacher, every principal, every superintendent cites the professional learning communities as a core reason they have seen gains over the past three years.”
Some Initial Skepticism
At first, though, many teachers were skeptical. Based on research, the State had specified that the PLC sessions had to run for either 90 minutes weekly or 45 minutes twice weekly to ensure that they lasted long enough to be productive. Mikki Madden, who has taught math for 25 years, said her fellow teachers at Phyllis Wheatley Middle School in the Woodbridge School District in southern Delaware were concerned at first about giving up time they had previously used to plan their lessons.
Now, Madden is leading those meetings and she said teachers love them because they can see that the meetings are helping them better address the needs of their students. The teachers are working to make their lessons more rigorous and finding better ways to assess students’ knowledge. “All of the professional learning communities are focused on our school goals for curriculum, instruction, and assessment,” she said.
Donna Hall, Director of Instruction for the Woodbridge district, agreed with Madden that support for the professional learning communities has increased among teachers.
“Now they see that this is a vehicle for keeping the momentum going and giving us time every week to keep talking about strategy and how kids are dealing with elements of the curriculum,” Hall said. “They own this process. That’s the beauty of it. They’re all deeply and richly involved in what they teach and using the information from the kids that they can put into improving their instruction.”
Ruszkowski said Delaware’s commitment to maintaining the focus on data and professional learning communities won’t go away after the state’s Race to the Top grant ends. “We are 100 percent committed to sustaining PLCs beyond the period of the grant,” he said. “This is just best practice.”
Hawaii Organizes Coaching through Regions
Hawaii is another State that has made it a priority to increase the use of data to better serve students’ needs. Public schools in Hawaii are part of a single, statewide system. But each region, known as a complex area, has a team of specialists who help schools make productive use of data.
One of the largest, poorest and most rural regions is the Kau-Keaau-Pahoa complex on the south shore of the island of Hawaii. Complex Area Superintendent Mary Correa had hired data coaches before the State won a Race to the Top grant. But now, thanks to the grant, each of the nine schools in the district has its own team of coaches specializing in data, literacy, mathematics, and supporting student success. These academic review teams now operate in 95 percent of the schools in the State. The grant also helped the State create a “data dashboard” that gives every school and teacher instant access to a myriad of student-, class- and school-level data.
Correa said the data teams monitor 20 indicators including student behavior, engagement, attendance and achievement, as well as principals’ observations. Those data points are tracked monthly, and educators teaching the same subjects or grades meet weekly in professional learning communities where they can compare notes and learn from one another. “We’re working toward developing a common pacing guide, and then you can have common assessments, and when you have common assessments, you can get the PLC working on the same strategies and student interventions,” she said.
Before this emphasis on using data for instructional improvement, all nine schools Correa oversees were in danger of being taken over due to years of poor performance. Now, according to Correa, student achievement in eight of them has improved enough to remove that threat.
The value of using data to improve instruction has taken hold statewide, according to the Hawaii Department of Education’s David Moyer, who helps schools across the State use data. He said states used to evaluate schools based solely on the annual mathematics and English Language Arts tests. Now, he said, “the expectation that you will use data to inform decision-making throughout the year has thoroughly gotten out there. While that may seem like a small thing to have happened, it is actually a powerful cultural shift.”
Data is key to three pillars of Hawaii’s Strategic Plan: “Student Success. Staff Success. Successful Systems of Support.”
Christopher Ruszkowski, the Chief Officer of the Teacher and Leader Effectiveness Unit for the Delaware Department of Education, recommended that States wanting to establish PLCs assisted by data coaches do the following:
- Establish a non-negotiable and stick to it. Scheduling PLCs for one 90-minute session weekly or two 45-minute sessions was non-negotiable in Delaware. So was the requirement that every PLC have a data coach for the first two years. “I can’t tell you how many people told us 90 minutes was impossible.” But research findings suggested shorter sessions were not as productive and, in the end, every school worked with its teachers to meet the requirement.
- Create the technology infrastructure that makes student data, curriculum materials and formative assessment items readily available online. If those resources are not a few clicks away and all in one place, they won’t be used.
- Make available to the PLCs a menu of resources. Data coaches are one such resource. Delaware is also providing leadership training to teachers leading PLCs as well as ongoing professional development for transitioning to the Common Core State Standards.
- Require districts to pay part of the cost. That demonstrates that the PLCs are a collaborative effort by the State and the district.
The Delaware Department of Education Website describes the Data Coach project.
Along with the video from the Hawaii Department of Education above, read more about how data is incorporated in the State’s strategic plan.
The Reform Support Network provided a webinar Designing and Executing Data Review Routines. State leaders in Hawaii highlighted examples of how their State has implemented routines to regularly explore data and progress related to the State’s turnaround work. The webinar presentation and an archived recording can be accessed here.