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Data That Matters:  Pandemic Recovery Ideas

Recently, my seventh-grader took a math skills test and came home triumphant as he shared the results. “Guess what? I get to go to high school!” As thrilled as he seemed to be, I had to wonder how we decide whether kids are ready for a level of math learning that is still over a year away. How do we know what kids know? This past year has been confusing in so many ways, but one issue that continues to flummox us is how to look at student progress during a time period that has less quantifiable data than usual to inform what we do moving forward. In the spirit of making the most of what we do know, here are some ideas for taking advantage of the information at our disposal so that we can look more closely at data that really matters.

Just Ask

It took me years to get direct feedback from students and teachers about their experiences, often because I was too busy hypothesizing about what they would say instead of just doing the sensible thing: asking. Our assumptions about other people can be completely off-base. When we gather teacher and student voice data, we learn a lot about the reality of a situation. Qualitative data tells us about anything from well-being to academics, and the better our questions are, the more we learn. One tip for gathering the best kind of voice data is to develop questions collaboratively with our colleagues. That way, any surveys we administer are the product of group thinking and are therefore also a better reflection of multiple perspectives. Going a step further, forcing ourselves to ask some of the toughest questions (the ones we may not want to hear, but need to) is an opportunity for growth. For example, we might want to ask students what we as teachers need to improve in order to better facilitate their growth. While those answers might be hard to hear at first, we can gain so much from reflecting upon the honest feedback we receive.

Holding Off

I used to think that my students had to write an essay as soon as they returned from summer break so that I could study writing samples and make some determinations about how to move forward. While that may have been standard before a pandemic, things are different now. In prior years, we have felt an urgency to assess students in the first week of school. Now, we might wish to consider waiting to gather baseline data until we have given our students more time to acclimate to being back in school. Once they have established a relationship with us and with classmates a few weeks in and become a little more comfortable sharing what they know, their performance on assessments may be more telling than what we collect right out of the gate. For that reason, incorporating an intentional waiting period before beginning to assess students formatively gives them the opportunity to really show us what they can do, just a little bit later. Instead, it would be advantageous to use the first few weeks of school to build meaningful relationships with our classes so that when it comes time to assess students, what we know about them as people can provide a better environment for academic risk-taking.

Attendance Considerations

Maybe students are not always with us mentally when they are sitting in class, but that does not mean we should disregard their experience in our classes. A student’s physical presence in class tells us a lot more than we realize. Suppose a student who is present every single day is failing. What does that tell us about how to proceed, especially in comparison to a student who is absent and failing? Or to go a step further, absent and thriving? It can be difficult to reflect upon the impact simply being in class has on the success of our students, but it’s an important topic to consider. If a student is with us each day and is still not successful, we have some element of influence over what happens next. After all, they showed up. The next steps are up to us as we determine what conversations to have with students who struggle and how to have them (focus groups are often a good way to go), how to engage students on their terms, and how to collaborate with both kids and their families to develop an academic plan that will lead to success.

Beyond Presence: Engagement

This morning as I sat in a meeting, I kept zoning out as my brain made a mental to-do list of everything that remained undone. Why should kids be any different? Students are often with us, but uninterested in what the class is doing. We can change that with intentional effort. The million-dollar question we have asked throughout the pandemic is, how do we know if a child is not just present, but also engaged? What does engagement data look like? Some teachers like to measure engagement through keeping track of both verbal and non-verbal participation. Others look at student work to see whether the product reflects attentiveness in class. If we see patterns, such as a student who is turns in assignments but is rarely participatory in class, we can begin to make a plan that helps involve them more actively in the learning process. If we see a widespread engagement issue, we might wish to look inward to determine whether our classes are authentically meeting student needs.

Common Understanding

We all love sharing stories about our students, but we also need to talk more about how kids are doing in a targeted way to maximize their success. People might work in the same school building, but how often do we truly communicate about student performance goals? Until we can reach a common definition or understanding of what success does or does not look like, it is hard to ensure that student growth is both an intentional pursuit and a schoolwide priority. Each year, the principal typically shares an overall vision for the year. Then, we work to align that vision to the work of each department, class and student. This task sounds incredibly daunting, but it can help to begin by agreeing on just one area of focus. Maybe we want to work on building our capacity to look at standards and determine which skills students need to work on most urgently. Maybe we want to think about how we collaborate as teams and ensure that teachers have the same process schoolwide. Whatever the “It” of our work becomes, it must be clearly identified so that every individual in the building can use the same language to elevate a shared ownership of school progress and growth. Then, once we all know what our desired state is, we can gather targeted data to measure our goals.

When push comes to shove, data isn’t about numbers, especially in education. Data is about the only thing that matters: kids. To that end, we can gather information and learn about experiences in any number of ways. It’s not how we gather the data so much as our intention around why we are doing it and what we are looking for. Once we have those big questions answered, we can learn anything we need to know about students, even with a pandemic year behind us. In fact, we can emerge stronger, more aware, and ready to serve the children who join us in school each day.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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