Published Online: May 2, 2006
Published in Print: May 4, 2006, as Tip of Their Fingers
Includes correction(s).

Tip of Their Fingers

Teachers in Philadelphia can tap into an array of student-level information from a districtwide data system.

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Mary Rooney Thorp’s classroom at the John Welsh School is a microcosm of the gritty North Philadelphia neighborhood it stands in.

Nearly all her 8th graders live under the poverty line. Families are transient, so much so that students who start the school year disappear months later, and sometimes reappear after a few more to pick up where they left off. Nearly three-quarters of the children come from Hispanic homes, and many struggle with reading and writing English. Truancy is rampant.

Despite those conditions, Thorp’s students have achieved substantial gains in reading scores over the past two years, as has the rest of the K-8, 647-student school. Thorp and others here say that’s due in part to a computerized data system that puts an array of student-level information at teachers’ fingertips and helps them identify areas in which their students are academically weak.

With a few keystrokes on the “teacher dashboard” displayed on her district-issued laptop computer, Thorp can instantly tell exactly how many days of school individual students missed that month, their academic histories, whether they are at risk for academic failure, or how they scored both on state tests and the benchmark assessments the district administers every six weeks.

She can also parse the data to see the collective strengths and weaknesses of each of the three classes she teaches.

“It allows me to see the deficits in my teaching,” says Thorp, adding that she can then create lesson plans that will help her fill those gaps.

The teacher dashboard is an element of a larger data-collection and assessment system, SchoolStat, that was first piloted two years ago in 18 Philadelphia schools, including Welsh. Developed by the New York City-based company SchoolNet, the online database was recently rolled out to all of the district’s 270 schools. It allows everyone from district-level administrators to principals and teachers to analyze schools’ performance, identify “hot spots,” and figure out strategies for improvement. District leaders and principals meet every month to review school performance data.

“The system allows us to see who knows what, and who needs to know what,” says Gregory Thornton, the chief academic officer for the 217,000-student district. “It is like driving a car—we know when people are running out of gas.”

SchoolStat, implemented along with such measures as a standardized curriculum, benchmark assessments, and increased professional development, has helped improve test scores in the struggling district, says Paul G. Vallas, the school system’s chief executive officer.

Soon, the district will introduce another phase of the system, FamilyNet, which will give parents access to their children’s data, including their final report-card grades and benchmark scores, as well as online resources for parent and student learning.

“We’re hitting on all cylinders,” Vallas says. “We think we’ve hit gold here.”

Identifying Need

The University of Pennsylvania’s Fels Institute of Government helped develop and deploy SchoolStat, and its students provide data analyses and support for Thornton and the district’s regional superintendents.

SchoolNet made the program available to Philadelphia schools at a highly subsidized cost: According to district spokesman Joseph Lyons, the school district negotiated a $3.7 million, five-year contract with SchoolNet, including selected modules of the SchoolNet suite.

Over time, Lyons says, the district plans to add extra elements to make the system more robust. While SchoolNet refuses to disclose the total price tag for the Philadelphia package, spokeswoman Janet Pinto says the cost for a hypothetical 80,000-student school district to start out with a system of the level now available in Philadelphia would be around $12 million over five years.

Philadelphia teacher Mary Rooney Thorp uses her laptop computer to mine her 8th graders' test data for clues on adjusting her instruction, and then to find resources for doing so.
Philadelphia teacher Mary Rooney Thorp uses her laptop computer to mine her 8th graders' test data for clues on adjusting her instruction, and then to find resources for doing so.
—Mike Mergen for Education Week

Teachers like Thorp, who has been using SchoolStat since it was piloted at her school in the 2003-04 school year, say one benefit of the system is that it gives them access to results right after students have taken the district’s benchmark tests.

That immediacy makes it easy to identify remediation measures for students having difficulty, they say. For instance, last November, the dashboard told Thorp that almost everyone in her class had answered the last three questions wrong. All were on poetry.

Thorp, a 27-year-old who holds her class’s attention with a lively personality and crisp instruction, knew instantly that her students needed help with understanding poetic devices. “The specific questions were on rhyme, rhythm, and meter,” she recalls, adding that she went to the dashboard to help dig out instructional resources, including different types of poems that used those devices.

Over the next few days, students read the poems of Maya Angelou and Edgar Allan Poe, among others. “When we read a poem, we would post it on the wall and try to find something specific, like a natural rhyme scheme,” she says.

The improvement showed up in the next benchmark test, she says, with most students getting the answers on poetic devices right. But, this time, they miscued on a question about the author’s purpose, so the lesson plan changed accordingly. “It is an evolving process,” says Thorp.

Assignments for Teachers

Welsh’s principal, LaVerne Wiley, says most of her teachers use the system, and others are learning to. The few who still struggle to go online get printouts of all relevant data in their mailboxes, so they can tell how their classrooms are doing.

In 2001, only 1 percent of the John Welsh School’s 5th graders scored at the highest level in mathematics, and none scored at that level in reading, on the Pennsylvania State School Assessment. Last year, 73.5 percent of 5th graders scored at the highest level in math, and 32.8 percent did so in reading.

Wiley says she holds weekly meetings in which teachers grouped by grade level sit together “in a horseshoe arrangement.” Each teacher is provided with a laptop by the district “because you cannot give them HBO without giving them a TV,” Fran Newberg, the project manager for the program, explains by way of analogy.

Together, at the meeting, teachers look at and assess data on their students. “They get a lot of perspective through their colleagues,” Wiley says.

The principal also gives teachers their own data binders, in which they are required to enter information based on their analyses of data from benchmark tests. That process includes identifying their classes’ weaknesses, figuring out how to regroup students, and changing teaching tactics.

Every six weeks, the teachers turn the binders in to Wiley, who reviews them and signs off on the proposals.

Thorp, who describes herself as “not as computer-savvy as someone my age should be,” says the dashboard makes it much easier for her to cover the curriculum.

“I can’t teach irony for six months just because I like it,” she says. “The system has made me a more comprehensive teacher and helped me pay attention to what my students are learning.”

Vol. 25, Issue 35, Pages 38-39

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Correction: 
This article should have made a distinction between SchoolNet, an online instructional-management system that gives administrators, teachers, and parents access to student-level data, and SchoolStat, a performance-management system designed by the University of Pennsylvania’s Fels Institute of Government that involves monthly data-review meetings among administrators districtwide.

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