The Story Data Tells: Using Data To Improve Student Learning

The Story Data Tells: Using Data To Improve Student Learning
By: Jennifer Peterson, Executive Director of Elementary Education at Broken Arrow Public Schools
Summary: Check why data means absolutely nothing if teachers do not use it.

Using Data To Improve Student Learning: The Case Of Broken Arrow Public Schools

Data tells a story. However, to be meaningful, it must have a strong beginning, middle, and end. As a district of 19,000-plus, the type of story being told at each of our 14 elementary sites varied greatly. We needed to conquer the large task of getting all of them using the same data in a consistent manner. An even bigger issue at the time was that we truly did not have a data piece that could monitor the progress of our students; so, three years ago, the instructional team at Broken Arrow Public Schools embarked on the journey of putting together all the components and finding the missing pieces so we could effectively collaborate and use a dependable data piece to drive our instruction and ultimately launch student achievement upward.

4 Questions All Teachers Need To Ask Themselves

Data means nothing if teachers do not use it or even look at it. During that first year, we began the intentional process of training our teachers in the professional learning community process (PLC) and discussing the 4 most important questions:

  1. What do our students need to know? (Standards)
  2. How are we going to teach them? (Instructional Delivery)
  3. What are we going to do if they do not know it? (Remediation)
  4. What are we going to do if they already know it? (Extension)

We provided training from outside sources and expert teachers from within to our principals and teacher teams in addressing these four questions, but this was just the beginning. Teachers had to have the time to work through those questions, an understanding of what each of them meant, and data to help them see whether their instructional methods were working. These were all issues that needed to be addressed. We were fortunate in that a district committee was working to start embedded collaboration for our teachers through a late-start Wednesday each week (this would not actually start until a year later), and our instructional specialists were working with teams of teachers to align our newly adopted standards both vertically and horizontally, so now we were just missing the common data piece.

As a district, we have always utilized data, but pieces were missing, so we could not see the full story on each student. During the second year of working to make our data story complete, the instructional team began researching what programs could help teachers answer questions 2, 3, and 4 above. Our teachers were already using an assessment to diagnose specific gaps in a student’s reading ability and running records, but we needed something that would also allow us to benchmark and provide ongoing progress monitoring for our students. After our extensive search, we selected Renaissance Star 360. Our story was becoming clearer; however, we still had a long way to go to ensure that the work that had begun would continue.

Once we began the implementation of Star 360, we focused on training teachers how to use the data within the program to guide their instruction, identify students in need of remediation, and pinpoint students who were well advanced and needed enrichment. We wanted to be careful, however, that we used several different pieces of data so that we could get a complete picture of a child, so teachers, during their PLC time, developed common formative assessments to utilize. These are invaluable. They allow teachers to identify who already knows the concepts and who does not, and it even identifies strengths in our teachers’ instructional delivery. Now our teachers had several different data pieces to compare when looking at the overall achievement of a student. This is when we saw real change beginning to occur within our classrooms.

The third year of our story was all about just getting better, becoming more efficient, and moving students forward. This is the year that embedded collaboration time was implemented; teachers now actually had the time built in to collaborate uninterrupted. They had a year to learn and dissect the new standards, and they had several data sources to utilize to inform decisions for instruction. Another exciting piece of this story is that we are a school in the state of Oklahoma that has suffered funding shortfalls since 2008. The processes that we implemented can be done in lean times and in schools that are large or small and are just willing to put in a little training time. There is no magic data bullet to ensure that all students learn; it’s just about remaining focused and keeping students at the center of everything that we do daily.

Final Word

I know it may sound easy and that we are a well-oiled machine; that would be a lie. What we have found is that conversations have changed to center on the 4 questions and are ultimately student-focused. There is now talk about data; teachers are looking at it and have gained a better understanding. The amazing part, the part that fuels our passion to move forward continually, is the small changes that we see each year at each site and the growth that is occurring in our students. We are all eager to see how our story unfolds. As with most stories, they end, but ours is one that will continue with fresh new chapters each year.