Building Assessment Leadership: One Teacher’s Journey with a Data Team
Educator Angie Muse, a learning coach in the Hazelwood School District, Missouri, describes some of the experiences she and her colleagues shared as part of a district-assigned “data team.”
We as teachers can and must build our own assessment literacy, expertise, and leadership—so argue Chris W. Gallagher and Eric D. Turley in Our Better Judgment: Teacher Leadership for Writing Assessment (NCTE, 2012). In a variety of examples in Our Better Judgment, the authors showcase teachers conducting assessment as a process of inquiry—articulating questions, gathering information, analyzing the information, and then returning to their classrooms to use the information gained to improve teaching and learning. Angie Muse, one of the educators featured, worked with colleagues at her school in a district-assigned “data team”—here she shares additional details of their work.
When Angie Muse began working in data teams with fellow English teachers, she was both encouraged and frustrated. The group was excited to discuss standards and experiences, but quickly confronted differences in understandings and expectations. They soon saw that weekly 40-minute meetings would not be enough.
“Pretty quickly I grew frustrated with the lack of time,” says Muse, then an eighth-grade English teacher and now a learning coach in the Hazelwood School District of the north St. Louis area. “We decided to start meeting twice a week.” The data team work, which Muse defines as “looking at data in order to change instruction,” was part of a collaboration with her professional learning community (PLC). She says when the data team is running smoothly, it’s the best form of professional development she’s ever experienced, but when it’s not focused, it leaves her wanting more.
The liberating power of a data team, as Muse describes it, is that the teacher drives the development. In short, what you put in is what you get out. That doesn’t necessarily make it easy work. “The data team definitely increased the amount of homework I already had,” Muse said.
With no one but herself and her team accountable for her development, Muse began to think more deeply about assessment and planning. The team adopted a spirit of inquiry; different ideas on how or what to teach arose, and each time the team discussed the merit of various stances.
Through sharing tips on instructional issues and applications, the team developed a sense of collaborative accountability. The teachers’ inquiry projects became passionate investigations of and for their students.
Muse recalls a time when she was searching for ways to support her students’ developing grammar skills. She presented her problem to the team and each member began tackling the issue in their own way. One member immediately searched the Web and came up with some helpful results; Muse also gained several Web resources for language conventions from her colleague.
In another meeting, a group member wanted to explore ways to help her students understand semicolon usage. Should she introduce rules with examples? Or should she start with examples and ask students to explain the different functions? Muse suggested the use of mentor writers and chose Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” The mentor text served as a model and provided clear examples students could use to improve their own writing. With the text, students were able to review how and why the writer used semicolons.
Teachers’ own expertise is what drives inquiry and collaboration on a data team, and that’s one main way in which the work of data teams differs from standard “staff development” approaches. At one point during the school year, Muse sought advice from her colleagues after a preassessment showed her students to be struggling with summary writing. Other members of the data team had noticed similar issues with their own students and together they compared notes, brainstormed, and developed lessons for improvement. Muse’s class wrote stronger practice pieces following lessons on main sentences, paraphrasing, and summary, but she still noticed a weakness in summation.
In her next data team meeting, Muse led a conversation on expectations. What makes a strong summary? Is it an attention-grabbing lead? What purpose do summaries serve in the real world?
Group members talked, referred to the district rubric (which states that a strong summary provides an effective beginning, middle, and end) and though they didn’t always agree on the best approach, provided Muse with valuable input and support. Muse stresses the value in disagreements and says teachers doing this kind of work need to be prepared for long messy conversations—the results are worth it.
Muse’s data team often focused on standards and worked to calibrate those standards to their own teaching styles. With a sharper understanding of what they sought from their students, Muse and her colleagues developed a series of lessons to improve their students’ main idea sentences. “As a group, we discussed new ideas and previous lessons for teaching concepts like transitions, logical order, and ways to use an author’s words in your own writing,” Muse said.
Next Muse implemented her data team’s strategies and prepared her students for a final assessment. Following final assessments, which showed that student writing had improved, the data team reconvened and discussed what strategies they found to be best practices. The team also noted a need for future work to advance student organization and transition use.
Throughout her experience with her data team, Muse says the greatest asset she brought to the work was her own experience. “Experience is the foundation of everything when teaching,” Muse said. “It is the only lens through which I can interpret strategies.”
Muse notes that some people believe everyone is an expert at schooling because everyone has been through it. As she says, though, “If I go to a party with a doctor, a lawyer, and a politician, will I by my own knowledge be considered just as important? I don’t know. But the answer is that those are different areas of expertise.” And recognizing that her own expertise matters is something Muse has found support for in her collaboration with others on a data team.
This article is reprinted from the March 2013 issue of The Council Chronicle, published by NCTE.