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New Leaders for New Schools
Ben Fenton and Mark Murphy
In a series of columns in ASCD Express, the cofounder of New Leaders for New Schools, a nonprofit for education reform, shares promising practices in principal leadership for improving some of the nation's most challenged urban schools.
In this era of increased accountability, nearly every principal has begun using data to help drive instructional practices. Principals in the most rapidly improving schools almost always cite data-driven instruction as one of the most important practices contributing to their success. But what exactly does data-driven instruction mean to them, and how do they achieve it?
In this article, we hope to answer those questions by exploring the four major areas of work related to data-driven instruction: culture, assessments, analysis, and action. We'll also share lessons learned from our highest-gaining schools about how to overcome some of the common challenges schools and districts face in implementing a data-driven instruction model. (Read full case studies [PDF] of two schools using data-driven instruction to achieve breakthrough student learning gains.)
All elements of a school's culture, including student aspirations and a code of conduct that promotes positive learning behaviors, benefit from the use of student learning data. Improving instruction is nearly impossible without it. The data-driven cycle of assessment, analysis, and action, which is indispensable for increasing student achievement, must be deeply embedded in the school's culture and a top priority for schoolwide improvement. Many school leaders use a simple but highly effective yearly data calendar, which they display publicly and refer to constantly, so that everyone in the school community—including students and families—knows when important steps in the data cycle will take place. Even more powerful is the principal's plan to carve out time for the assessment, analysis, and action, as well as any professional development teachers need to succeed in each part of the cycle. A clear plan can create a sense with teachers that professional development "will help us improve for our kids."
To get everyone in the school working toward the same goal of preparing every child for college and career readiness, teachers must adhere to the same standards and assessments for all students in a given grade level and content area. This common thread is essential if teachers are to collaborate on data analysis, professional development, and strategies for reteaching and improving student learning.
Many schools and school systems feel a great urgency to have useful progress data now. That sense of urgency isn't a bad thing, but it often means school leaders purchase or design assessments without sufficient time to think through their content. For an interim assessment to produce useful information about how students will perform on state tests, each question needs to be clearly aligned to a standard. Moreover, the questions should reflect both the rigor and format of the state test if they are to guide teachers about how much students are expected to know and be able to do. In this way, assessments clearly define standards and render them meaningful. When selecting or designing an interim assessment aligned to state standards, highly effective principals and district leaders work with teachers to drill down to this level of specificity, and they continually push as far beyond the state standards as their students and teachers are ready to go. For example, imagine a school that must meet the standard "multiply and divide fractions." Student mastery of this standard will depend a great deal on whether students confront assessments with simple fractions in a number line or with complex fractions embedded in a multistep word problem.
Focusing on the individual questions in an assessment is also important when analyzing results. Data reports usually provide an overall snapshot of how the students performed on specific standards, or whether students answered an individual question correctly, but they generally lack critical information about the wrong responses students chose or wrote (often referred to as "item analysis" reports). With this second data point, teachers and principals can dig much deeper. They can identify the specific challenges individual students or groups of students are facing, and they can pinpoint their misunderstandings. Getting to this deeper level of analysis is critical for focusing subsequent actions in the classroom.
Collecting and analyzing student learning data from assessments is important but only becomes meaningful when combined with effective action. Starting small is often the best way to create real change in instructional practice, particularly for new teachers or those new to data-driven instruction. One strategy we have seen many principals use effectively focuses on two steps. They first have teachers start with whole-group reteaching for an entire grade level or content area. This allows teachers to focus on a few key standards the majority of students are struggling with and on their own professional development around teaching for mastery of that standard. This way, teachers avoid being overwhelmed by creating reteaching plans for multiple small groups and individual students.
The second step of the keep-it-simple strategy has grade-level and content-area teachers coming to an agreement on what standards need to be retaught, when each standard will be retaught, and how to determine student mastery after reteaching. Agreement on the "what," "when," and "reassessment" plan ensures that standards get implemented consistently with the entire teaching team. The two steps provide teachers with a digestible approach to "action" and allow school leaders the ability to monitor implementation.
For teacher teams to be successful in this work, school leaders must be creative and vigilant about leveraging the school's most valuable commodity—time. In our next article for this series, we will explore how highly effective principals use yearly planning, scheduling, and day-to-day norms to maximize instructional time.
Ben Fenton is a cofounder and chief strategy and knowledge officer and Mark Murphy is the executive director of leadership development for New Leaders for New Schools.
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