Using student data to inform instruction these days is akin to connecting dots of various shades and sizes that are arranged on different pieces of paper. It is difficult to know where to begin, and rarely does the picture turn out very clear.
The data stream is deep: fluency scores, reading comprehension levels, math facts, cut-scores, subgroups, safe harbor targets, intervention logs, high-stakes test results, language proficiency levels. To top it all off, these data points are located in an array of binders, notebooks, and computer programs.
Instead of getting a synthesized view of a student’s data, teachers are left to interpret the numbers by single-handedly compiling and analyzing figures. It demands extra time that teachers don’t have. Between planning differentiated lessons, grading, analyzing student performance, increasing one’s instructional prowess, and tending to the range of additional responsibilities that comprise an educator’s day, teaching effectively requires more hours than the traditional school day can provide. Data analyis is very often a priority that falls to the bottom of a teacher’s to-do list.
And while those without exposure to an ordinary day in the life of a principal may beg to differ, effective school administrators also struggle against time to meet the increasing demands of maintaining an environment that allows teachers to flourish. Any analysis of the mountain of potentially useful data must compete with overseeing six- or seven-figure budgets, managing 50 or more overwhelmed professionals, and interpreting and complying with bureaucratic directives—all while being legally responsible for the safety of hundreds or thousands of children.
A Flattened-leadership Solution
To address these issues in my Las Vegas school, I was invited to assume a hybrid teacher role as Data Strategist. I was charged with the task of organizing the various data points that, taken collectively, offer useful clues about student achievement, progress, and deficiency. The data lens could zoom out to a schoolwide perspective that might inform staff development planning, narrow to a classroom or grade-level view offering insight on skills requiring remediation, or focus on a single student being considered for referral to the school psychologist for a learning disability.
Roles like mine are still rare in American public schools today. The hierarchies that presently characterize the organization of schools have erected a wall between classroom instruction and school leadership. Teachers and administrators, overwhelmed by mounting responsibility and accountability measures, toil away in their separate spheres without enough time to collaborate or give thoughtful consideration to the diligent work of one another. Administrators are stretched too thin to meaningfully observe instruction and provide feedback, while teachers are scarcely able to affect change beyond the walls of their classroom.
If we are to shed the antiquated management strategies that produce sub-par student outcomes, then we must begin blurring the lines of distinction between those who lead and those who teach. Accomplished teachers deserve the opportunity to be central decision makers at their schools.
Research supports that conclusion. There is growing evidence that teacher empowerment as school leaders is linked strongly with teachers’ tendency to engage in behaviors that accelerate student growth: soliciting parent involvement, communicating positive expectations, and being willing and able to innovate in the classroom.
In addition to measurable student impact, teachers that lead schools are better equipped to guide their own professional development, share their expertise, and develop explicit and implicit systems of accountability, while experiencing more respectful, trusting, and professional cultures.
In Teaching 2030, recently published by Barnett Berry and a team of accomplished educators from across the country, the notion of hybrid teaching roles is identified as an emergent reality of the education landscape. Ideally, teachers would develop their own leadership work based on how their experience and skills intersect with the needs of the school. Teachers would continue to teach during part of the day and serve in leadership roles during the remaining time. Singapore has relied on such a model for decades to produce one of the most effective teaching forces in the world.
My Own Hybrid Experience
My own experience in a hybrid role stemmed from an interest in the conclusions that could be drawn from student assessment data. Although tests are an imperfect means of measuring achievement, the insights I gleaned over an extended period of time provided a basic foundation for self-reflection and evaluation of my instruction. After a few years applying such analysis to my classroom and the grade-level, a colleague commented on how useful such data-informed insight would be for the entire school. Title 1 funding that traditionally would have paid for an additional literacy specialist was allocated for the data strategist position. I devoted half my day to crunching numbers and the remainder to teaching writing and providing reading intervention.
The possibilities are endless when an individual’s interests and skills are considered within the context of a school’s needs. Such roles might also include community liaisons responsible for connecting families with various social services while plugging students into local job, volunteering, or community service opportunities. A keen interest in 21st-century skills might develop into a role that guides students to collaborate with others, synthesize information, and create something unique and useful for their peers.
The most prevalent barrier to hybrid teaching roles is the district-mandated staffing plan that leaves buildings with little opportunity to determine how personnel are allocated. Rather than create new positions, administrators should begin by elevating the decision making and leadership responsibilities of teachers. There are plenty of school committees crying out for teacher leadership and principals willing to hand over the reins. Master instructors could emerge in each grade-level or department to oversee coaching, informal evaluations, and professional development.
Hybrid roles can be instituted in a number of different ways, but the most important element for administrators to establish is time for teachers to be leaders. Our site opted to start school 10 minutes earlier than usual, which accumulated enough extra instructional minutes throughout the year for 12 early release days. Every few weeks, students leave at lunch time and the staff spend the remainder of the day tending to their classroom and leadership responsibilities. For some that includes new teacher mentoring, organizing tutoring programs, writing grants, compiling student data, planning with co-teachers, coordinating fundraisers, or creating assessments.
For me, it has been an opportunity to help connect the dots.