Education Opinion

Leaders Can Improve Student Performance by Identifying Effective Evidence

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — February 03, 2015 5 min read
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Especially in these times when opinion is often expressed as fact, it is at least important to learn the source of the information upon which the opinion is based. But, pushing for evidence is not always well received; it isn’t welcomed as intellectual curiosity or a pursuit of truth. One challenge to the idea that evidence is necessary has to do with its role in our legal system. It is grounded in evidence but there are two sides in its presentation. It causes one to wonder how evidence and truth relate.

When asked, “What evidence do you have?” a frequent response is defensiveness. The evidence we have reinforces our hold on what’s true. If we open up to hear another’s evidence, it may make us change our minds or see an issue more wholly. Education has moved into the domain of “show me the evidence”. Evidence can help facilitate momentum as leaders do their work.

Are Grades Alone Evidence of Learning?
As the list of 21st century learning attributes grows, what is included in the learning process to be evaluated grows along with it. Are we willing to rely on the existing manner of assessment and grades as evidence of learning? Or, is evidence of successful teaching and learning a mixture of achievement on tests, motivation of all learners to engage in the process, reduced discipline incidents, increased attendance rates, and, just maybe, increased student membership in the school community? If you agree that it is a combination of multiple factors, how do we define and collect the evidence?

Well planned lessons that engage students in learning and motivate them to attend school and succeed may very well result in a higher achievement grade. That is good for some students. But we are committed to the success of all students. Unless we break down the facets that are contributing to the successes and see where in that complex mix of facets some are lacking, we are flying blind in the attempt to improve teacher and student performance. Where is the evidence? Are the students who are “not making the grade” part of a similar group of students? Do they have things in common? If so, what are they? Is there a history of this level of achievement? Have interventions been put in place? What were the considerations made when planning an intervention? Have they made a difference?

Most students who do not succeed in school are not surprises. They have been struggling all along. But do we know with what they have been struggling? Here is where it gets tricky. A familiar scenario? A student is close to failing some or all classes in the grade level. A meeting is called. Teachers gather, perhaps with an administrator, a guidance counselor, a parent, and assumptions are made. The first assumption is the student is not doing well because of absences and as a result skills and information are not being built cumulatively. The student is disengaged and has little interest in coming to school, even sometimes feigning illness. The team decides the solution is getting the student to school. Counselors are assigned to meet with the student to help the student see the value of attending school. Those charged with monitoring attendance are assigned the task of calling the parent if the student does not come to school. The principal may keep an eye out for the student in the mornings to be sure to welcome him or her with a joyful and proud, “Welcome” to make the student feel seen and hopefully valued. When no change in the students’ behavior is noted, “we tried everything” is a familiar mantra. Where was the evidence that this business of not doing well was a result of attendance?

Ask Good Questions To Locate Good Evidence...Then Question Assumptions
When looking at a student’s failure to achieve, most likely looking at grades from assignments and tests along with attendance are fueling assumptions. Only one value is being questioned. Instead, ask questions like:

  • Do students who are “not making the grade” have something in common?
  • If so, what are the common factors?
  • Is there a history of this level of achievement?
  • Have interventions been put in place?
  • What were the considerations made when planning an intervention?
  • Have they made a difference?
  • What skills are being required in order for the learning to take place in this (these) classrooms?
  • How are these skills being taught and developed?
  • Are the same skills and learning behaviors being used over and over again?
  • Or are there opportunities for learning and demonstrating learning to be varied and observed?
  • Are there issues regarding the manner in which learning is designed in that (those) classrooms that challenge the student(s) and result in disengagement.
  • What aspects of teaching and learning might we observe and measure in order to collect the evidence that this is, in fact, the root cause of the failure and thus inform the solutions?

Once root causes are identified, decide on how to observe and measure change, try targeted interventions, set a time limit for review and determine whether to continue or try something else. This is right out of Response to Intervention practice. Spending time determining the root cause(s) of the failures better focuses attention on the right questions and gives a better chance for targeted and successful solutions.

It’s All About the Leadership
In John Hattie’s article in February’s Educational Leadership, he says,

The process of clarifying what counts as evidence and then using that evidence as a guide for deciding which interventions to keep and which to drop is no easy task, especially when pet projects turn out not to be having the desired effect. It all requires strong leadership driven by a relentless determination to maximize the impact on student learning, improve the nature of the evidence about that impact and make the right decisions going forward (p. 39).

We agree. All of this is dependent upon a focused leader. There is a direct connection between the leader’s actions and the students’ success or failure. Hattie’s research reveals that if leaders are “driven by a relentless determination to maximize the impact on student learning” and they improve the “nature of the evidence about that impact” improved student achievement follows. Teachers are the closest to the students and much is written and talked about regarding their impact on student achievement. A strong and informed leader can impact the faculty and change the way students engage in the learning process. Who wouldn’t want that?

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.