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December 1, 2008
Vol. 66
No. 4

A Day's Worth of Data

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Imagine teams of observers descending on every classroom in a school. What would they report? The staff at Seattle's Cleveland High School found out when they implemented Data in a Day two years ago.
The educators at Cleveland were already making instructional changes. Teachers at the diverse urban school routinely shared and critiqued instructional practices, used data on students' learning to make decisions about lesson design, and shared ways to support English language learners. Their commitment to student motivation and learning was becoming increasingly focused and effective.
But the challenging process of instructional renewal that lifts a school up may set it on a plateau. How can the staff find paths to keep moving upward? What can continue or restart a schoolwide conversation about culturally responsive, motivating instruction?
As teachers at Cleveland High pondered how to keep improving their practice, participants in the Danforth Principals Program at the University of Washington were engaged in a parallel pursuit. The 30 prospective principals in "Danforth 20" (the name indicates the 20th cycle of a yearlong principal certification program) were studying instructional leadership and principles of intrinsic motivation.
As the participants in Danforth 20 considered how to frame useful conversations about the teaching in a whole school, they were intrigued by the efficiency and focus of a school improvement protocol called Data in a Day.

Data in a Day Defined

First introduced at Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory as a way to involve students in school improvement, Data in a Day sends teams of visitors into every classroom in a school to take "snapshots" of all the teaching and learning going on in a single block of time. The teams—which mix and match community members, high school students, teachers, parents, language interpreters, administrators, and school board members—look for and capture evidence of the school's ideals. Although insights from Data in a Day are not scientifically verifiable, they can highlight promising instructional practices and internal commitments to ongoing improvements while raising important questions.
The possibility of implementing Data in a Day at Cleveland High School appealed to the prospective principals, who were looking for a meaningful context in which to apply feedback skills and extend work on ethnographic observation.
For their part, the Cleveland teachers were eager to gather baseline data on their classroom practices to help them evaluate the changes that they were already making. They saw Data in a Day as a chance to clarify instructional priorities and agreements, rekindling their process of renewal.

Planning a Positive Partnership

Preparations for implementing Data in a Day at Cleveland High School got under way at the University of Washington's College of Education. Representatives from the school went to the university to help the Danforth 20 participants form visitation teams and practice using rubrics already in place at the school. (See Figure 1 for a sample rubric. Additional rubrics are available here for Relevance (Attitude), Relationships (Inclusion), Rigor (Meaning), and Results (Competence).

Figure 1. Observation Rubric for the Positive Attitude Home Group

  • A sense of inclusion, developed by nurturing a community of learners who feel connected and respected.
  • A positive attitude, enhanced by offering meaningful choices and assuring every student of the relevance of his or her personal experience.
  • A conviction that learning hasmeaning, created by asking challenging questions and holding students to rigorous standards.
  • A belief in students' competence, supported by providing consistent feedback and assessment emphasizing useful and valuable results.
Together, the four conditions form a motivational framework, and each of the four rubrics identifies a set of classroom practices, dubbed "look fors," related to one condition.
Participants in the visitation teams included 30 prospective principals along with an interested state school board member, a state principals' association executive, and administrators from the district office. These participants first divided into four home groups, each representing one condition. Then they re-formed into seven visitation teams, with every team taking at least one member from each home group.
Thus, each participant had two useful memberships—in a visitation team whose members had different perspectives and in a home group whose members shared a perspective.
To increase each team member's comfort as a contributor and the reliability of his or her insights, all the participants watched a 20-minute teaching simulation and then gathered in home groups to compare observations, clarify perspectives, and sharpen their focus. A brainstorming session produced important agreements about how the visitors would demonstrate respect for Cleveland's teachers, conduct classroom visits with minimal disruption, focus on the school's instructional priorities, work with the challenges in the daily schedule, and provide feedback.

From Preparation to Action

In due course, data-collection day arrived. The principal welcomed the visitors, who each received a visitation schedule and a rubric related to his or her home group's condition. The visitation teams then set out to look for, in the words of the Cleveland staff, "wows" and "wonders."
Wows—"warm feedback"—affirmed practices that addressed the four conditions of the motivational framework. Wonders—"cool feedback"—took note of practices that elicited questions and ideas for additional consideration. Everyone involved in the visit also understood that wonders might include practices whose motivational aspects were simply not evident during a 20-minute classroom visit.
The visit to Cleveland High School occupied the afternoon. At the end of one and one-half hours, the visitation teams had completed a sweep of the school, observing every classroom. The teams came together in the multipurpose room, where the members immediately separated into home groups to share their observations—first wows and then wonders. An hour later, with the school day over, Cleveland's teachers entered the room greeted by applause.
  • I wonder how teachers know if they accomplished the learning targets for the day.
  • I wonder what kind of reflection activities are used across content areas.
  • I wonder what inquiry resources are available for students to find answers for themselves.
  • I wonder if teachers have had a chance to learn from one another about ways to acknowledge every student at the start of class.
In less than an hour, the visitors had shared all their observations related to the framework's four conditions. A list of general comments offered Cleveland's teachers encouragement. One entry was, "There are obviously numerous challenges, but everywhere I turned there was evidence of how Cleveland is rising." Another was, "It is impressive that people are doing so much with limited resources."

Undaunted by Data

Can a day's worth of data be worthwhile? The next step at Cleveland High School was to find out. Cool feedback—wonders—can be discouraging, but the hallmark of a school that can move forward is an ability to see challenges as opportunities.
Cleveland's principal quickly scheduled a follow-up session to give teachers an opportunity to respond to feedback. Everyone readily acknowledged that participating in Data in a Day required great trust and commitment to school improvement. At the same time, the teachers were convinced that the non-evaluative observations would help them examine instruction at Cleveland. Already they recognized the value of visiting one another's classrooms more often.
In fact, an outgrowth of Data in a Day at Cleveland High School was a commitment to regular collaboration on lesson design, implementation, and reflection. The principal and a teacher leader guided teachers to this and other goals through a process in which teachers spread out four rubrics that included data that had been aggregated from the observers' rubrics, considered any cool feedback that was recorded several times, and zeroed in on possible schoolwide goals to strengthen each condition of the motivational framework.
For instance, to promote a more positive attitude toward learning—which is the second motivational condition—the teachers agreed to integrate more cultural information about the communities Cleveland serves into examples, homework assignments, and visual displays. To engender confidence, the fourth motivational condition, teachers agreed to develop their repertoire of ways to deepen learning through reflective activities.
The teachers came up with new ways to implement their instructional priorities. They agreed on a schedule of regular team meetings focused on instruction and data on student learning. They extended their commitment to making their teaching public to one another. They also invited parents and community members to visit classrooms on a set day, using the same set of "look fors" that Danforth 20 used.
This event proved to be an influential way to forge instructional partnerships. It included an interpreter for recent immigrants, as well as representatives from the district office, one of whom captured the experience on videotape as a demonstration of a valuable method for involving families in instructional conversations.

Principal Pluses

The benefits of Data in a Day were also clear to the prospective principals. In follow-up reflections, they wrote that the feedback process was especially valuable, affording an authentic opportunity to consider how best to phrase comments aimed at improving instructional practice. Effective school leaders must be able to communicate negative as well as positive information honestly and respectfully. "It was extremely helpful to watch other prospective principals offer feedback," wrote one participant, adding, "It made me more curious about how different principals give feedback to promote growth rather than defensiveness, especially in schools that are experiencing a lot of change."
Some wrote that the design of the process was itself instructive. "After my small group completed our observations, we discussed what we saw in our individual sections of the framework," began one prospective principal. "This was a good time to address thoughts and questions we had about each observation [and] allowed us to hear many perspectives on a range of lessons."
Many participants were surprised by the usefulness of the results. "I was impressed with the concrete opportunities for action that were identified through the process," wrote one. The experience also suggested avenues for academic inquiry: What attributes of instruction slip under the radar of observation—undetected, but nonetheless vital to learning? What would be an ideal design for school improvement focused on instruction? How might feedback be used to increase staff members' willingness to listen in challenging situations? What would be the value of repeating the Data-in-a-Day process at a later stage in school change? How might the members of Danforth 20 design Data in a Day at their own school sites?
Several of the prospective principals remarked that the work with instructional language and concepts would help them guide teachers in lesson planning and self-reflection. "This observation brought my understanding of a conceptual framework for aligning learning theories to a deeper level," said one. Others began thinking creatively about ways to help teachers make decisions on the basis of data. All in all, the prospective principals found the experience at Cleveland so rewarding that several offered to assist with a follow-up Data in a Day toward the end of the school year that included students, families, and community partners.

A Reproducible Success

  • Draft a statement of purpose, explaining "what," "why," "who," "how," and "when" to the rest of the school.
  • Find a brief video of a teaching session, or a teacher who is willing to be videotaped, to let prospective visitors practice identifying the instructional attributes selected for focus. (A professionally produced piece, such as Good Morning, Miss Toliver, can substitute.)
  • Schedule sessions for selecting and preparing teams.
Members of the planning committee also typically serve as guides and leaders for the classroom visitation teams. They develop visitation schedules and participate in all team activities. Having a coordinator ensures that the planning team has maximum support. Data in a Day teams can also benefit from having a social gathering such as a dinner or a picnic to develop a sense of community and trust before the school visitation day.

A Two-Way Tool for Training

While many schools and school districts comb through copious data from standardized tests for clues to teaching and learning throughout schools, Data in a Day provides an additional lens—data on the teaching practices actually in play. These data can restructure conversations inside a school, where shared pedagogical language sometimes disguises a disconnect between anecdotal information and self-report, on the one hand, and actual performance, on the other. Data in a Day can quickly highlight unconscious departures from good intentions.
As the experience at Cleveland High School shows, Data in a Day can also cushion blows delivered by "negative" numeric data from standardized tests. External partners become aware of how complicated it is to hold schools singularly responsible for persistent and broader social and economic problems. Nonetheless, getting the goods on instruction means getting the "not-so-goods," too, even if observers' communication is respectful and accurate. As a training tool, Data in a Day can be equally powerful for those inside a school and for outsiders who are looking in, showing both how to conduct conversations that are informative, empathetic, and focused on improvement.
End Notes

1 For more information on this framework, see Ginsberg, M. B., & Wlodkowski, R. J. (2000). Creating highly motivating classrooms for all students: A schoolwide approach to powerful teaching with diverse learners. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Margery B. Ginsberg has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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