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Two Case Studies of Data-Driven Improvement

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

This piece is reprinted from The Marshall Memo, Kim Marshall’s weekly summary of current research and best practices in the field of education. Drawing on his experience as a teacher, principal, central office administrator, consultant, and writer, Kim Marshall lightens the load of busy educators by serving as their “designated reader.”
The article: “Going Quantitative (But Using Common Sense) by Rob Traver in Educational Leadership, November 2015 (Vol. 73, #3, p. 34-39).
In this article in ,i>Educational Leadership, Rob Traver (Worcester Polytechnic Institute) describes how a teacher and a teacher team used data and SMART goals to improve teaching and learning.
• A high-school English teacher – Charlie was discouraged because when he read a new poem aloud and pointed out some of its features, only a handful of students responded and the energy level of discussions was low. He believed this was because (a) students lacked confidence in their literacy skills, and (b) students were hesitant to speak up when they weren’t sure what they were talking about. To get more students responding to poems with more confidence, he thought that having students write their ideas before speaking would reduce the level of risk and get more students participating.
So after reading the next poem, Charlie gave out index cards and suggested several prompts to get students writing:
- The first thing that came to mind when I heard the poem was…
- I heard this in the poem and I like it/don’t know what it means/thought it was weird/thought it was beautiful.
- This poem reminds me of another poem we heard because…
After giving students a few minutes to jot down their thoughts, he asked several students to read what was on their cards, pass them to a classmate to read, or let him read them. He then asked students to respond to the responses or responded himself, and at the end of the class had students sign their cards and hand them in.
Tracking the number of students speaking up in each class, Charlie was pleased with the results – a lot more participation, and he met his SMART goal of going from the baseline of 5-6 students participating to 10-12. But looking more closely at the class-by-class and poem-by-poem data, he also noticed some anomalies. A contemporary poem about teens and their parents got a much higher participation rate; the participation rate increased across the board as his poetry unit progressed; and one class had a much lower discussion rate than the others. So he set to work figuring out how to get more participation from students in that class. “This is rather fun,” he said, “once you see how it works.”
• A high-school science team – Alice, Brad, Christine, and Derek taught physics, chemistry, biology, earth science, and general science in a small high school. They decided to focus as a department on presentation skills, and set a SMART goal of all students doing a four-minute science presentation each quarter, evaluated on a rubric with eight domains (organization, content knowledge, visuals, mechanics, volume, vocabulary, demeanor, and pacing).
Alice and Christine’s chemistry students did the first round of presentations, and when the four science teachers looked at the results, several things stood out. First, Alice seemed to be a much harder grader than Christine (this was in line with her reputation), suggesting inconsistent application of the rubric. Second, pacing and vocabulary were the weakest areas across the board. Third, visuals and content knowledge were relatively strong. The team went to work on boosting the quality of presentations and came up with several ideas: having students with moderately good presentations do them again so peers could appreciate and critique them; making videos of students’ initial presentations so they could analyze and improve them; and having students look at their rubric data to zero in on areas that needed improvement.
Overall presentation results showed steady improvement. One boy said, “When you want us to do something right, it works better to show us than to tell us.”

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