Mary Rooney Thorp teaches 8th graders at John Welsh School, but up until two years ago, it seemed like she was trying to reach a room full of moving targets. Rampant truancy and family transience at the north Philadelphia school made it exceedingly hard for her to keep track of how well her students were doing.
Then a new piece of technology put her and other teachers at the K-8 school in the driver’s seat. Now, 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, review their academic histories, see whether they are at risk for academic failure, and gauge how they scored 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, SchoolNet, that was first piloted two years ago in 18 Philadelphia schools, including Welsh. Developed by the New York City company SchoolNet Inc., the online database rolled out last spring to all of the district’s 270 schools. It allows everyone from district-level administrators to teachers to analyze schools’ performance.
Number of states with technology proficiency standards that test students on that knowledge:
Number of states that require administrators to complete technology coursework or pass a technology test before they can receive an initial license:
Number of states that require teachers to demonstrate technological proficiency before receiving an initial license:
SOURCE: EPE Research Center
Of course, such utility doesn’t come cheap. The 217,000-student district’s $11.5 million, five-year contract with SchoolNet is highly subsidized, and company spokeswoman Janet Pinto says equipping a hypothetical 80,000-student district with a system comparable to Philadelphia’s would cost around $5 million over five years.
But Thorp, who has been using SchoolNet since it was introduced in the 2003-04 school year, says the system has been worth the money. She particularly likes the way it immediately displays benchmark test results, which makes it easier to identify problems and respond quickly. For instance, last November, the dashboard told Thorp that almost everyone in her class had answered the last three exam questions wrong. All were on poetry.
“The specific questions were on rhyme, rhythm, and meter,” recalls Thorp, a 28-year-old who holds her class’s attention with a lively personality and crisp instruction. After using the dashboard to help dig up different types of poems that used those devices, she had students read poems by Maya Angelou, Edgar Allan Poe, and others over the next few weeks. “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.
By the next benchmark test, she says, her students’ improved understanding was evident: Most correctly answered the questions on figurative language.
Thorp and others at the school give the data system, along with increased professional development and other enhancements, credit for improvements in student achievement over the past few years. In 2002-03, the year before SchoolNet was installed at John Welsh School, 23 percent of 5th graders scored “below basic” in math on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, and 32 percent scored at that level in reading. In 2005-06, only 2 percent of 5th graders fell below basic in math, and only 14 percent did so in reading.
“We’re hitting on all cylinders,” says school system CEO Paul Vallas of the program. “We think we’ve hit gold here.”
A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 2006 edition of Teacher as Data Wise