Special Report

Information Exchange

By Jeff Archer — March 22, 2007 5 min read

At Maplewood Elementary School, the signs of data-driven instruction are impossible to miss.

The halls are plastered with computer-generated charts of student performance. Students talk of their “aim lines”—plots of test scores showing how much they need to improve. Even kindergartners fill in graphs of their results with crayons.

Ten years ago, things looked very different, say teachers who were at the school then. Students didn’t track their own progress. Teachers had no idea how one another’s classrooms were performing. And they had little way of pinpointing which children needed help with what skill.

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Executive Summary

“Before, you’d open the book, start at chapter one and go on to chapter 12,” says 3rd grade teacher Tony Newland, now in his 25th year at Maplewood, a 670-student school in a largely working-poor neighborhood at the western edge of Indianapolis.

Driving the transformation has been Principal Janet Ham, a straight-shooting veteran of the Indianapolis public schools who came to Maplewood seven years ago. Over time, she says, the use of data has changed attitudes about what students can achieve.

“When you start looking at the data, it takes away from all the focus on the story and drama of students’ lives, and brings it back to achievement,” Ham says. “That doesn’t mean you don’t care about them anymore, but it does take away the woe-is-me attitude.”

The changes didn’t happen all at once. First, Ham formed a team of teachers from each grade to analyze student information and help others do the same. She then had teachers create “data walls” outside their classrooms, showing not just performance trends, but also inferences about them.

Since 2002, teachers here have tested students in English language arts and mathematics five times a year using common, computer-based assessments. A federal Reading First grant provided the school with palm-held computers for teachers to gauge student progress in literacy.

Sharing Practices

By most accounts, the data have greatly altered how teachers work. Teachers say they catch problems earlier, with more specificity, and they work more collaboratively to find solutions. And, many say, they can see more clearly if an instructional intervention is working or not.

A case in point: Last year, a new 4th grade teacher saw her students’ results fall off with the second administration of a common assessment in language arts. Her colleagues responded by showing how they create “teaching charts” to frame students’ thinking about reading skills.

“We just stepped back and made sure we were sharing common practices,” says Michele Macy, another 4th grade teacher, who chairs the school’s data team. “When her students took [the common assessment] again, her scores were comparable to ours.”

The targeting of strategies takes place for individual students as well. Every month, teachers review folders of their students’ literacy results, placing the students’ names on color-coded Post-it notes indicating their skill levels and drafting short action plans for those needing extra help.

Delivering Data Online

The use of the Internet to inform teaching and learning has become common in both elementary and secondary schools. In 2005, most public schools used the Internet to provide educators with access to data and other information to inform instructional planning and individualize instructions, as well as to offer educators high-quality digital content.

*Click image to see the full chart.


SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics, 2006

Students themselves have become sophisticated data users. When she arrived at Maplewood Elementary, Ham began the practice of annually sitting down with each student and his or her state-test scores—the first time most students had ever seen them. Now, children are asked to analyze their trend lines almost daily.

“If expectations aren’t being explained to kids, how can we expect them to meet them?” says the principal.

In the computer lab recently, 3rd grade teacher Talia M. Fehrenbach led her students through an analysis of a recent test, asking them which of a dozen state standards they had successfully demonstrated, which they had not, and what they might do to improve the next time.

One pupil wrote that she wasn’t good at telling time from the hands of a clock, and so would practice more at home. Another said that it was hard for him to identify the main idea of a story, and that he would write his own story to help in learning how.

Transition Not Easy

Ham says her district, the Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township, played a big part in helping the school become so data-driven. Its superintendent, Terry Thompson, has stressed the strategy in professional development for his principals. The 14,000-student district created the common assessments and provides an online system to manage the data.

But the transition wasn’t easy. Teachers who hadn’t used computers much before had to learn spreadsheet software. Three years ago, Ham had her teachers write down—anonymously—what was causing them the most stress. The No. 1 answer: data walls.

At first, some teachers say, it wasn’t clear to them why they were putting up so much performance data. In addition, they noted that teachers with the largest numbers of students with special needs could look bad because their results were lower.

“It was just one more thing,” says 2nd grade teacher Staci Miller, echoing many of her colleagues, when asked how the data walls were first viewed in the school.

But Ham was adamant. A couple of years ago, she issued what she called her “Die on the Mountain” list—a handful of schoolwide strategies she considered non-negotiable. At the top was the posting and analysis of data throughout the building.

Today, few teachers dispute that Maplewood is better off than it was several years ago. Once one of the lowest-performing of Wayne Township’s 11 elementary schools on state tests, it is now its highest-scoring. Two years ago, it won a national award for having shown so much continued improvement.

To be sure, other factors have helped, including concerted efforts to improve student behavior through consistent discipline policies, and a multimillion-dollar renovation of the building. But most here say it is hard to imagine the success without the extensive use of data.

“It’s become such a teaching tool for us,” says 1st grade teacher Kimberly Lipton, who has been at Maplewood for 15 years. “I don’t see it going away.”


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