In ‘doing data right’, leaders’ fidelity and focus are crucial

Teachers say data makes them better teachers — but only if it’s quality data, used optimally

Aloha! If you’re like most educators, you’ve probably amassed varied experiences in using electronic tools and the data they generate. You may have found some tools and practices more effective than others.

In a recent posting, Education Week’s TeachingNow blog cites a follow-up study by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation showing that “91 percent of surveyed teachers say data and digital tools are important to seeing how a class is doing,” with nearly 80 percent crediting data with helping them track students’ progress. Further, 61 percent say they’re better teachers because of the digital tools they use, such as Excel spreadsheets and digital gradebooks.

Unfortunately, the respondents also expressed dissatisfaction with the data generated by those tools. While 93 percent of the 4,600 teachers surveyed for the Gates study said they use digital tools, 67 percent of those respondents cited in “Teachers Know Best: Making Data Work for Teachers and Students” said they aren’t fully satisfied with the resulting data.

Respondents mention feeling overwhelmed by the volume of data and the time and effort required to analyze it — time that eats into instruction. They want to see more student progress, the Gates study found, along with the “academic, social, behavioral, and cultural experiences that can help strengthen the connection between teachers and students, and shape how learning takes place.”

Keys to effective data use

At Performance Fact, we’ve seen how paying consistent attention to data provides practitioners, students and other stakeholders with evidence-based feedback mechanisms about the effectiveness of daily teaching, leadership and organizational practices.

Doing all of that well requires an exceptional commitment, the kind of commitment demonstrated by Highline Public Schools in Burien, Wash. In 2012, Highline’s leaders began designing — and are now faithfully executing — a system-wide program of continuous improvement. The transformation includes developing: a three-year Strategic Plan and Instructional Focus; an Annual Action Plan for both district and schools that targets priorities in the strategic plan; and a three-part, disciplined implementation cycle for both district and schools. That cycle includes:

  • Data Summits — evidence-based conversations about student learning and professional practices, held at the end of each assessment cycle. Data Summits build in sacred time that allows educators to reflect deeply on accomplishments and challenges, to renew themselves, and to invite the collaboration of colleagues.
  • 6- to 12-Week Instructional Plans — “mini plans” drawn from the Annual Action plan that target specific priorities for student learning and professional practice. By breaking their work into manageable chunks, practitioners leverage multiple opportunities throughout the year to reflect on and adjust their practices based on data.
  • Monitoring structures — tools for bridging the “knowing/doing gap.” Using classroom observation, self-reflection logs, and practice-driven professional learning and collaboration tools, educators can methodically track progress and build accountability.

The people who make it all work

Process is always important, and well-developed tools provide needed structure. But achieving sustainable impact, as Highline is doing, requires the system’s educational leaders at all levels to commit to consistent application and ongoing execution and measurement.

I tip my hat to the energetic and faithful leadership provided by Superintendent Susan Enfield; Alan Spicciati, chief accountability officer; Susanne Jerde, chief academic officer; and the principals at Highline, who continue to inspire me with their focus, hard work and faithfulness.

I encourage all who are reading this to look at Highline’s program and to consider: Would this work for my school or district? What pieces must be added in order to achieve similar unity of purpose and consistency in my environment? Please share your comments and questions with us!

— Mutiu O. Fagbayi

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Highline Public Schools: From plan to execution to results

Most of us have participated in one or more lengthy strategic planning processes in our organizations. Perhaps we’ve found the process and results energizing, and we were eager to start making the important changes we agreed to. But then, just as the hard work of implementation was set to begin, enthusiasm started to wane.

And the plan was put on the shelf, where it now gathers dust.

Susan Enfield knows that experience, and she’s skeptical of strategic plans that are “just words on paper.” But when the district of which she is superintendent — Highline Public Schools in Burien, Wash., with 39 schools, 19,000 students and more than 2,000 staff — embarked in 2012 on a system-wide transformation initiative, she knew that the approach to planning would have to be outstanding.

With the help of Performance Fact, Inc., Highline launched a planning process “that truly got all stakeholders involved, where there was a lot of genuineness and buy-in,” Enfield says.

Once adopted, the plan did not languish. “We’ve brought our plan to life,” she says. Methodical implementation is well under way, and measurable results are surfacing.

“We’ve paid as much attention to executing the plan as we did developing it,” Enfield says, and that work has “started to shift our culture and impact how we talk about the work, how we talk about our kids, how we hire people. … Setting very tangible goals that people can remember and rally around has given us some common language, some common goals, some common strategies that the system really needed.”

Every week, Enfield says, someone on her team mentions how the plan “makes the work so clear. It’s really easy to say that something aligns and something doesn’t align. And it helps us make budget decisions, it helps us make staffing decisions, it helps us have conversations in the community using the same language.”

Tying data to staff practices and measurable results

With sustained momentum around that culture shift, Enfield says, “Now we’ve transitioned to the next level: using data strategically to ensure we’re advancing the plan’s goals.”

One of the plan’s six main goals involves eliminating out-of-school suspensions (except where needed for safety). Clearly identifying that goal, says Alan Spicciati, chief accountability officer at Highline, “gave us a platform to obtain the buy-in of the entire system.”

“We’ve been monitoring our suspension rates closely and reflecting on changes we need to make,” he says, and suspensions have dropped by more than half since 2013.

He emphasizes Highline’s more strategic, structured approach to using data. Though use of benchmark assessments and other data was not new at the district, Spicciati says, what Performance Fact brought were “the process, structures and protocols to analyze the data and connect it to staff practices and student results.”

Highline leaders, staff and teachers now “look at student achievement data not in isolation but next to data about our practice,” he says. He emphasizes the value of bringing the cause (teaching practices) and effect (learning experience) to the same conversation.

“Performance Fact has been the broker that has brought together a lot of assessment we were doing already and (showed us how to) use it well,” he says.

Susanne Jerde, Highline’s chief academic officer, notes that the drop in suspensions is particularly dramatic among male students of color.

She points to a change in district policy — defiance is no longer grounds for suspension — that has bolstered the improvements and has positioned Highline as the leader in suspension-reduction success among comparable districts. Rather than suspend, she says, Highline now provides de-escalation training, for both adults and students — calming and redirecting the emotional reactions that in the past led to suspensions. And when a student must be removed from the classroom, he or she now receives re-engagement services — social, emotional and academic supports — to ensure that the student will be equipped to re-enter the classroom later and resume working with the teacher.

Mastery by third grade

Highline leaders cite another key goal: preparing at least 19 of 20 students entering kindergarten in 2013 to meet or exceed standards in all core subjects by the end of Grade 3. The district has instituted full-day kindergarten for all and has launched a comprehensive program of professional learning and support for kindergarten, first- and second-grade teachers.

Results are encouraging.

“Last year’s kindergarteners,” Spicciati reports, “who are now our first-graders, are more prepared than they ever have been.”

Jerde adds: “(We’re now) collecting on-demand writing assessments to … verify some of the anecdotal responses, but we anticipate we are going to start to see very clear growth in that area. … The responses from teachers (regarding) how these students are coming to them are definitely remarkable.”

Leveraging complementary resources

Highline officials describe how they have energized their ongoing transformation process with an array of internal and external resources.

Enfield and Jerde cite the collaborative work of Meredith Honig of the University of Washington’s District Leadership Design Lab in helping develop principals as instructional leaders. Honig’s work, Jerde says, addresses “the missing piece: the protocol a principal uses to lead an instructional leadership team to think through the strategies, the milestones, the professional learning needs that populate that annual action plan and support the monitoring. The Performance Fact tool itself guides the process, but it doesn’t fill in the questions that the principal asks him or herself and his or her team. We’re trying to make that implicit leadership work more explicit.”

Jerde also acknowledges the support of the Panasonic and Gates foundations, and Reach Associates’ Cathy Feldman. And, along with other Puget Sound schools, Highline is receiving federal Race to the Top funds.

For Enfield, none of the current execution initiatives, strategic use of data, or movement toward achieving goals would have been possible had the planning process fallen short.

“We developed a promise: that every student in Highline is known by name, strength and need, and graduates prepared for college, career and citizenship,” Enfield says. “(That puts our bold goals) front and center, and makes no bones about what we’re here to do. It’s a reminder to people of why they’ve chosen to be in public education: to support kids and get them across that stage.”

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