The beginning of a new school year brings sharpened pencils, new shoes and a clean slate. It is also a time when educators across the nation take stock of where their students stand in relation to what they should know. At Goochland Elementary School, in Goochland Virginia, there is a culture of innovation among educators as they develop pathways to help students reach their academic goals. Under the leadership of Goochland County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. James Lane, teachers regularly assess educational data to monitor how students are performing in the classroom and assess areas of strengths and weaknesses.
At the end of each school year, students across Virginia take a statewide assessment known as the Standards of Learning (SOLs). According to the Virginia Department of Education, these tests, “establish minimum expectations for what students should know and be able to do at the end of each grade or course in English, mathematics, science, history/social science and other subjects.” As a fresh school year commenced, fourth grade teachers at Goochland Elementary School were setting academic goals for their students including an eye on the end of year assessments. Teachers were provided historical data and predictive analysis on their new students’ standing and fourth grade teachers were alarmed that a group of nine students was on a predicted trajectory to fail the end of the year reading SOL. In the past, without this data and projections, teachers would have started all students on identical fourth grade reading journeys. With this data, the teachers swiftly developed action plans to change the course of the future. According to Principal Tina McCay, “We refused to accept the outcome as inevitable. The data gave us a peek into one possible future, but it also gave our team time to develop a strategy to reverse the trend and set our students on a solid path to achievement and success.”
A Solid Path to Success
Goochland Elementary Team
Goochland Elementary School is one of three elementary schools in the Goochland County Public Schools system (GCPS). It is a relatively small rural school division, with just 2400 students in five schools. Located in the heart of Virginia, just west of the state capital of Richmond, Goochland doesn’t have the revenue or resources of some of the larger school districts in the state, but it has emerged as one of the state’s leaders in using data dynamically to enhance instruction.
Ms. McCay and her team of teachers developed and launched an aggressive strategy with a goal of not only preparing the lower performing students to master the skills necessary to pass the SOL, but to get them to an appropriate reading level. According to McCay, “We knew our plan was ambitious and that many people might have settled for just getting the kids ready to pass the SOLs, but we wanted to go beyond the minimum because reading affects how students perform in every other subject. And, we wanted these kids to have the sense that they could succeed. We wanted them to feel that sense of accomplishment and boost in confidence we knew they would have if they could pass the test and increase their skills.” When asked why this was so important, fourth grade teachers agreed. Megan Kelley explains, “The lessons of hard work and persistence are just as important as learning to read and calculate. We had an opportunity to change lives. It was important to us because we knew it would forever change the way these students viewed themselves. We decided that even if they only passed the SOLs, that alone would be a tremendous achievement. It would be a win-win.”
So, what was the plan? The team decided that the students would benefit most by the creation of small instructional groups that would reinforce what was being taught during regular reading lessons. These small groups would provide students greater opportunities to be engaged in lessons and lesson activities and, perhaps, to develop more self-confidence. Since student schedules allow 45 minutes per day for intervention or enrichment, the team decided to use this time to meet together with the small groups. According to Krystle Demas “We quickly found that as a result of the small groups, students who previously were crying from frustration suddenly became engaged and confident. It was exciting to witness. Just to see that spark in their eyes and a return of the excitement and passion for learning was so rewarding!”
The team continued using data to monitor student progress, adjusting lessons and plans and developing new interventions, as necessary. Once the SOLs were administered, the results for all students came in small batches. The team waited anxiously for all results and with optimistic apprehension for the nine students who had worked so hard. As the results were revealed one by one, the teachers described it as opening one amazing gift after another. All nine students passed the SOL. According to Ms. McCay, “This extraordinary success might never have happened without real time access to data at each step of the process.”
What’s the Big Deal About Data, Virginia?
Across the nation, educators and school districts increasingly are using data to inform their decisions, and Virginia has made a commitment to create a culture of data-driven decision-making. According to Bethann Canada, the Director of the Office of Educational Information Management at the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE), “Access to and effective use of data enhances decision making in all areas of education and can have a profound effect on both teacher and student outcomes. Data can be used to help educators tailor curricula, identify at-risk students, customize classroom learning and improve their students’ college readiness. “
Over the past decade, the education data industry has churned out a plethora of advanced technologies, new models of data use and innovative data systems that provide teachers and schools tools to conduct robust analyses of their local data and to see information and trends that never would have been possible to spot in the past. These factors led officials at the Virginia Department of Education to decide that it was important to redefine its role in supporting school divisions and to develop a new model that would meet their needs for the next decade. To achieve this goal, VDOE partnered with the Center for Innovative Technology (CIT), a non-profit organization with a mandate to accelerate technology adoption, to conduct a multi-phased process for identifying an effective solution for the data needs of Virginia educators and school divisions and to assist VDOE in developing its new role in supporting school divisions. The overarching goals of the project: find a solution that would be most likely to promote a statewide culture of data-driven decision making and to help shift VDOE’s role as a static one-way collector of data with a focus on accountability to one of support and service in data use.
Talk to Stakeholders
The team realized that before investigating technologies or consulting the latest research, the single most important factor in the success of any new solution would be, first and foremost, to understand the needs, wants, resources, and capabilities of the people who would be using it. The development of an action plan to transform the data culture in Virginia, therefore, would be reliant on the engagement of stakeholders, those “on the ground” users who could use the data to produce the most impact on improved educational outcomes. Input was solicited from all types and levels of these stakeholders, from parents and teachers to administrators and school board officials. They met with the research team and VDOE officials to discuss their data needs and the barriers to data use in focus group meetings, through webinars, in one-on-one meetings, and through surveys. They also weighed in on whether solutions to these needs and barriers already existed. The team took pains to ensure that all regions of the state had an opportunity to be heard. By the end of this phase of the project more than 400 individuals across Virginia participated in focus group activities. In all, 97% of Virginia’s school divisions elected to participate in this outreach effort, a clear indication of their deep interest in developing a new data strategy for the next decade.
While feedback from all stakeholder groups and throughout all regions was immense and varied, there were common themes that emerged. Stakeholder requirements generally fell into four main categories:
Access: Ensure that those who need the data have access to it. Teachers and guidance staff need access as well as administrators and central office staff.
Data: Data should be real-time, interpreted for users and linked to predictive analysis tools and customized resources.
Reporting: Users want advanced, customizable, quick reporting and filtering capabilities, as well as the ability to manipulate the data.
Training and Professional Development: To ensure participation and buy-in, and to hep everyone understand how data can be used, provide customized training focused on each stakeholder’s needs.
It’s More Than Just Access to Data. In addition to issues of access, permissions, and reporting, educators can be overwhelmed by the overabundance of data and are not always equipped to modify instruction based on analysis. Paul McGowan, Vice President of Consulting Services at CIT explained, “It’s more than just having access to the data that’s important, it’s knowing what to do with it.” Or, as some focus group participants explained, “Even if we’re able to run reports, a lot of teachers say, ‘now what?’ Many of us don’t know what to do with the data once we have it.”
“Build a professional development program that employs a meaningful sequence of training that fits the many stages of data use that will allow users to graduate to different steps to become expert data users.”
- Stakeholder Feedback
Participants agreed that it is critical for all stakeholders to have professional development support that provides concrete examples using real student data so they can make immediate changes that will enhance students’ day-to-day classroom experiences. Professional development, they agreed, must surpass basic training on how to use a new system, what data is available, and how to navigate it. For there to be a real impact on students, teachers and schools, professional development must be made available on how to use data, tailored for all levels of user experience. Participants suggested developing a professional development program that would allow users to progress through a sequence of courses or modules for all levels of data knowledge (from beginners to “power users”) that would allow users to ascend training and development steps to become more efficient data users. The most efficient way to accomplish this, they concluded, is to create a single site for training and resources.
Virginia’s New Strategy
Virginia’s new strategy, dubbed an Instructional Improvement Architecture, will have two primary components: (1) Technology and Integration and (2) Professional Development and Division Support. From what the team learned, to build a data culture in Virginia and to eliminate the “if you build it, they will come” mentality, the new solution will combine a unified data system that will integrate the use of state, division, and classroom data with the development of a center for the promotion of ongoing training and professional development on the value of data use in decision making and how data can be used to strengthen Virginia’s K-12 community.
Model for Virginia's New Technology and Integration Component
Technology and Integration. According to Ms. Canada, “Since the technology will be the foundation of an ongoing and successful data support design, the statewide system must meet the multiple demands of many different stakeholder types, a variety of division policies and processes, and must be compatible with an array of SIS vendors.” This will be accomplished via an online interface that will allow divisions to access the state-level data and combine it with local data within their local student data systems.
Professional Development and Division Support. Given all stakeholders’ needs for strong, comprehensive professional development in data use, analysis and interpretation for all user levels and their desire for strong division support, VDOE will embark upon establishing a central data center that provides a single site for resources and all training and professional development needs on data and data use. Some of the themes cited by stakeholders as critical to building a culture of data-driven decision making included professional development opportunity vetting, and real-time immediate assistance in understanding data.
But One Size Doesn’t Fit All!
Like the educators from Goochland Elementary School, even in smaller divisions where fewer resources are available, a strong commitment to data use can effect powerful change. In recent years, some Virginia divisions have come together to form consortia to negotiate with vendors, to share resources, and even to develop data warehouses at a substantial cost savings. These efforts have resulted in a greater ability to focus on using the available data to make real changes. It is clear, however, that with such a large number of school districts and educators in the Commonwealth, there will be varying degrees of interest, capabilities and resources. VDOE and stakeholders agree that it is critical that all school districts derive some benefit from the new solution. A tiered solution will be necessary to accommodate the needs of all divisions.
The project team from VDOE and CIT continues to push the project mission in a second phase with an emphasis on building the solution that will allow other students, classes and schools in the state to enjoy the kind of success in turning around student performance shown by the Goochland Elementary team. Phase II will focus on the implementation of the technology and integration solution, which will rely upon the development of a stakeholder-driven Request for Proposal (RFP) and the building of a blueprint for the architecture of a new Education Data Professional Development Center to address educating the state’s K-12 community on data and how it can be used to transform education in Virginia. Ms. Canada concludes, “We hope to attract, persuade and retain support for data use and to persuade all K-12 stakeholders to include data as an integral component of their work and educational plans and intervention strategies. Generating a viable solution will take time and hard work, but will bring numerous dividends in the form of customized learning, stronger curricula, identifying and aiding at-risk students, and much more.”
 Virginia Department of Education. (2012). Standards of Learning (SOL) & Testing. Retrieved October, 2014, from http://www.doe.virginia.gov/testing/
 In Virginia, school districts are referred to as “divisions.”