How Small Data Leads to Big Changes
Across the country, the school year has begun with vexing questions about the fate of school reform. As a former teacher, a district-level professional development leader, a mother, and the founder of an educational technology start-up, I recognize that the basic question we face is, what is the best way to use time and data to improve student learning? With Common Core State Standards’ (CCSS) focus on the labor-intensive work of teaching problem-solving and challenging academic reading and writing across subject areas, these questions will remain central. In their search for answers to these questions, innovative schools and educators across the United States and around the globe are confirming that improvement is unlikely to result from use of the "big" data of standardized tests alone. Some of the most promising results are found in schools that use a very practical innovation: allowing time for the careful and collaborative review of small-batch data, such as student writing. I am one of many who believe that this simple change can provide a foundation for a replicable and scalable model of reform.
Rigorous studies suggest that there are three things we must accomplish if we are to enrich and deepen learning: (1) increase the quality and depth of curricular content, (2) improve teacher knowledge and ability to apply what they know, and (3) increase students’ active engagement. The CCSS are challenging school systems across the nation to dramatically increase the richness and complexity of coursework. With students doing more challenging work, we also need initiatives to support teachers in building their own professional capacity to design and respond to student learning. Many of us who have been focusing on these issues for a long time know that by making the time for more rigorous, meaningful approaches to responding to student work in collaboration with others, teachers can continuously improve their capacity to design transformative learning experiences that engage students.
Richard Elmore of Harvard argues that teachers, like doctors, can benefit from a medical rounds model. Through clinical rounds, he notes, medical professionals collaborate in collecting data to construct knowledge about individual patients that no standardized medical report can fully reveal and that no single doctor alone could easily surmise. Countries like Japan and Finland have improved education at scale through a similarly collaborative approach to collecting and analyzing data with attention to individual students and responding to learner needs as quickly as possible. The common thread in these innovative education reforms is that collaboration is not left to chance—it is purposeful, systematic, and designed to close clearly identified gaps.
To use another analogy, effective teachers and school leaders work together like an orchestra. They bring different expertise to their collaboration, and given time to practice together, careful coordination, and continuous adjustment to keep their efforts in sync, they can produce learning experiences that inspire and transform their entire school community. While making music requires technical expertise, its quality isn’t best judged by how closely it adheres to a master soundtrack. It only “works” if the audience is engaged. Educator teams face a similar challenge. Their work must connect with students they teach daily—students who bring diverse life experiences and background knowledge to each learning challenge. Teachers will certainly benefit from a rich curriculum and deep knowledge of their subject, but they can make a difference for their students only if they have a clear understanding of how each one acquires knowledge and skill. And that requires an ongoing, professional conversation across school faculty about how they can best bring their lessons, assessments, and teaching tactics together—in alignment with goals that they help establish and for which they hold themselves accountable. Like master musicians, accomplished educators are often their own harshest critics—and they deeply appreciate a job well done.
We have so much to learn from small, innovative teams in different professional fields, from medicine to music to software development, and it is already clear that sharing knowledge must be made easier in education too. The new National Center for Literacy Education (NCLE), a collaborative of professional organizations in every subject-matter area, along with some of the country’s most influential foundations, are making the gamble that this capacity-building, small-data approach will be the key to improving student learning in all of our schools. “If we want different outcomes,” they argue, “we must change how literacy learning is supported.” Through an innovative online platform that helps busy teachers and schools move beyond the barriers of limited time and professional isolation, they provide access to portraits of schools that are doing this messy work together. Their view is that sharing a common language across grade levels and subject areas, collecting and analyzing evidence of student learning, and designing responsive lessons together foster the kind of accountability that has real impact. If this small-batch data is collected by multiple teachers, over the short term and the long term, important trends emerge. NCLE is using this data to identify the kinds of support that best promotes productive collaboration among educators, school leaders, and the families and communities they serve.
Perhaps most important, accountable learners, both teachers and students, are motivated by the rewards they reap when projects are accomplished, insights gleaned, knowledge gained. You can’t fake the kind of learning required to achieve the sophisticated literacy skills today’s students need. Unfortunately, in many cases, the system of rewards and punishments today is designed around measures of student growth that tell us little about why learning lags and instead simply raise anxiety, tempting the most desperate students, schools, and systems, to cheat. As a nation, we’re better than that. Everyone with a stake in the success of the next generation has a role to play, and a reason to play it, in building the capacity of school teams to foster deeper learning.
This is an exciting moment of change for our schools. The innovations we need are beginning to take root, but we must be prepared to nurture and cultivate them. I know that there are plenty of educators and school leaders ready to take their work to the next professional level, if they can only connect to other educators pursuing similar student learning goals and gain access to emerging research and tools to design the lessons and assessments that will transform learning. With our support, it can happen.
Eileen Murphy Buckley is the former director of Curriculum and Instruction for over 100 CPS schools, author of 360 Degrees of Text (NCTE 2011), and the founder of thinkcerca.com, a platform designed to help teachers implement Common Core State Standards in Literacy through rigorous, personalized, and collaborative online learning.
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