The Washington Post reported last week that parents and community activists in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia have will have new access to vital figures like test-score growth over time, graduation rates, and evidence that schools are preparing students for college and career.
This is great news. For me, “data” means much more than a set of numbers for reporting to the government or complying with regulations. I think of data as information that teams of dedicated educators can use to make their efforts more effective. Not data use for data’s sake, but for students’ sake. One school at a time, sometimes even one student at a time.
Let me offer an example from my own kids’ school district. Washington-Lee High School, in Arlington, Va., is widely seen as a good school. It has a robust offering of advanced courses, including both Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs. Its graduation rates top national, state, and district averages. Compared to other jurisdictions, it has a low percentage of inexperienced teachers. The school regularly appears in Newsweek’s “America’s 100 Best High Schools” listing.
The staff at this school, however, know that schools that care can’t rest on their laurels, and they constantly use data to find and address obstacles to the academic achievement of all students. And so when District Superintendent Pat Murphy and Principal Gregg Robertson met one day last fall, they discussed the on-time graduation rates. The 84.3 percent rate, for students enrolled in 2005-2006, was far short of what they had hoped for, so they wondered how they might intervene with at-risk seniors before it was too late.
Back at school, Robertson met with his counseling staff. They pulled out student transcripts and interim report grades. The data helped them identify 20 seniors who would likely need summer school to graduate. “Unfortunately, our data showed that oftentimes seniors don’t finish summer school, and so they become dropouts,” Robertson says. He figured if they could identify the students who were at risk, they wouldn’t have to wait until summer school to intervene. They could start working with those kids immediately.
And so the Third-Period Pilot Project was born. The 20 at-risk students were called in to change their schedules so they might take the courses they needed, but also have their third period available to get extra help in three key subjects: math, English, and government.
Three teachers were chosen to work with the students, one in each of the subjects that the kids needed to graduate but were failing. Rosa Reyes, Kevin Clark, and Wendy Taylor had a reputation as effective, caring teachers. “We wanted teachers to create a relationship with the kids, teachers who had a history of going the extra mile,” explained Jessica Baith, the director of counseling.
“In the classroom, we worked on things like organization: daily and weekly scheduling, setting benchmarks for their goals,” says Reyes, the English teacher. “We also helped them demystify the relationship with the staff, feel more comfortable talking to other teachers and counselors, getting what they needed.” The teachers noted student successes, which fueled motivation. “I had kids improving two letter grades in a short amount of time,” Reyes says.
In the end, all 20 seniors in the pilot project graduated. Only one needed summer school to do so. It is a good result, and Robertson and his staff are planning to repeat the program this year, with some modifications. They know, for example, that this particular intervention should start earlier in the school year. They also want to create new programs and improve existing ones, so that academic risk can be dealt with from ninth grade on. And of course, they will use data to drive and assess their efforts.
Successful schools know that data use is not some mystical process carried out only by experts, nor a once-a-year event, for the sole purpose of documentation. Rather, it can aid the hard, day-to-day work of educators, parents, and citizens to boost student achievement.
Exactly the kind of work people do when they really care about kids.
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Rima Brusi is the author of Ed Trust’s bilingual blog, “Cerrando Brechas/Closing Gaps.”