Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Yay! A new school year starts #letdown

I'm getting used to having the worst speaking slots imaginable. For example, at this summer's 1:1 Summer Symposium. We had three great speakers lined up for keynotes: Jamie Casap, Chris Lehman, and George Couros. As expected, they each fired up the group, got 'em going and inspired.

Each day, my speaking slots were right after the opening keynotes. And each day, I thought: "I have to follow THAT?" Sigh....Ah, everything was fine. We had great conversations.

Similarly, our new Superintendent Dr. Nick Polyak started his first inaugural address to the his new staff with a brief hello, and then...

...the Marching Band suddenly appears onstage, in the aisles, and generally blows out the eardrums of our faculty with the school fight song and the National Anthem!!!

 Awesome, rousing stuff- a reminder that the reason we're here is the kids. 

And I had to follow this

Hey, no problem. I have an awesome, rousing presentation on our school improvement goals! The crowning jewel: talking about looking more closely at data! Within Professional Learning Teams, teachers will be looking at the assessment data they collected last year and using that to adjust instruction. Wheeeooooo! 

The mood in the crowd quickly turned to something like:

Gratuitous use of Grumpy cat internet meme

So, OK. Using data isn't the most flashy, exciting thing that we all want to do. But it's necessary, although "Using educational data" has gotten a very dark reputation lately. For example:

And this is NOT what we're talking about

The simple fact is that we need to improve our data analysis practices. That is, we need to actually use data to improve instruction, as opposed to just using it to assign a grade. That's certainly happening in pockets, in certain departments more than others, within certain curriculum teams more than others. We need to be more systematic about it.  Also, if we're using the semester assessment to assign 20%, we should make sure it's a good exam. It gets to that idea of "backwards design"- you make sure you know how students are going to be assessed before you start instructing them, and that the assessment matches course objectives.

Use of data to improve instruction was identified as one of our areas for improvement by our AdvancEd accreditation review several years ago, and we've spent about 2 years building our capacity with a new data analysis system. We've had teachers spending lots of time assigning standards to test items so we can "dig deeper" into these exams- we actually want it to be helpful info, not another hoop to jump through. Regardless we have to make this type of data analysis a part of how we do business.   

The process is going to be clunky to begin with, but it will get more fluid as we do it more consistently. I don't expect faculty to be statisticians by any means, but I want them to get used to the idea that you should use student work to constantly improve what goes on in the classroom, and to use it to set goals as a team.  And are multiple choice-bubble sheet assessments the BEST data we can come up with? Probably not, but it's a start.

And maybe if we call it "student work" (which can include anything our students do writing, projects, speaking, whatever) and quit calling it "data" we might have a better conversation anyway. "Data" makes you think of cold, unfeeling, uncaring numbers. Androids from Star Trek. Stuff like that. 

When you look at what "Professional Learning Communities" are supposed to do with the time that we've carved out for them (in our case, it's a late start on Wednesdays), it's basically this cycle: We look at student work and set about how to make some instructional adjustments. We see how that went, look at more student work, make more adjustments, etc.

For a FAR more lucid treatment of what Professional Learning Teams are supposed to do, take a look at these resources. I've got some links to a great article by Mike Schmoker, a template for a team learning log, and some amazing stuff from what Michael Fullan did in the Ontario school system. 

Here's the key phrase from Schmoker:

"This simple, powerful structure starts with a group of teachers who meet regularly as a team to identify essential and valued student learning, develop common formative assessments, analyze current levels of achievement, set achievement goals and then share and create lessons to improve upon those levels. Picture these teams of teachers implementing these new lessons, continuously assessing their results and then adjusting their lessons in light of those results."

We're just about there. We just need to focus a little more on the "analyze current levels of achievement" part. Like curriculum mapping, this process is all about conversations that lead to student learning, which IS pretty awesome, rousing and exciting. Really.

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