July 1, 2023
Woman looking at spreadsheets, by John Singer Sargent, courtesy of DALL-E
Multiple ways I’ve been thinking about data lately.
Hi, I hope you’re doing well and that the close of school went smoothly. Thank you for subscribing to The Coaching Letter, I am so happy that you do. I have had several conversations lately that make me think that the most useful thing I do in these Coaching Letters is communicate that despite my decades of experience in education (I am a lot older than I look), I am still learning a ton and that I’m often wrong about things I thought I knew; see below.
A couple of quick updates. If you are not yet on the mailing list for our support of Building Thinking Classrooms, click here. We just started registration for a BTC workshop for language arts/humanities/social studies coaches on November 1; more here. We are registering for our very popular introduction to coaching, the Coaching Institute, which—as with all our coaching workshops now—comes with a copy of Making Coaching Matter. Oh, and I nearly forgot! An article I wrote about Wilton’s excellent work using our Accelerating Learning Framework is in the latest issue of The Learning Professional. Kudos to Wilton—it is an absolute pleasure to work with them, and despite the fact that there was no way to acknowledge them in the article, shout out to Chuck Smith, Karen Brenneke and Trudy Denton for all their help. You can access the June issue of The Learning Professional here.
Thank you to everyone who came to the launch party for Making Coaching Matter—it was a total blast. I loved it so much I’m working on another book, so that we can have another party this time next year. Rydell and I are writing a book on creating the conditions for equitable improvement science. We have a contract with Teachers College Press and the manuscript is due August 1, so there may not be a Coaching Letter between now and then, just so you know. Right now I am working on the chapter on data, which has sent me back to books that I have loved and hated over the years and to books that I’ve never read before and wish I had, and which has me making connections to other work that I’m doing right now. So that’s what this Coaching Letter is about—the ways I’ve been thinking about data lately.
First, I love to soapbox about formative assessment and how it’s not about end of unit quizzes or benchmark tests or data teams—even an exit slip is too late. The Building Thinking Classrooms work is very much about formative assessment—one of the absolute best things about the method is how you can see the thinking going on in the room just by standing in the middle and looking around. Peter Liljedahl talks at length—in the book and in his workshops—about Flow. It’s a really useful construct for deciding when to intervene with a group; it gives you a way of thinking about when to give an extension, when to give a hint that makes the task easier, or whether to do some micro-teaching to build capacity. But in order to be able to make the right choice about these things, you have to know where the groups currently are in their understanding, and THAT is formative assessment. It is also, for many educators, a total reframe of the way they thing about data.
When we developed the first iteration of the Accelerating Learning Framework (did I mention I wrote an article about that? See the latest issue of The Learning Professional) we didn’t use the term formative assessment because we were too afraid that people would automatically assume that we meant quizzes and exit slips. But formative assessment is the real-time collection of data in order to make instructional decisions. In other words, rather than the teacher always being the only one who gives feedback to students, the students are giving feedback to the teacher. In other words, formative assessment requires not only a fundamental reframe of the way many educators think about data, but also the way they think about feedback. The best book about formative assessment is still, in my opinion, Dylan Wiliam’s Embedded Formative Assessment. The model for high quality instruction that I’ve been using lately still doesn’t use the term—the arrows are intended to make clear that the role of the teacher during instruction is to respond to feedback that they get from students in the form of the visible manifestation of their thinking. I’ve taken to calling this model the Student-Centered Instructional Framework—because it is student-centered, and because educators use the term student-centered all the time without a clear operational definition of what that means—so now there is one. You can find the model as slide 5 of the Coaching Letter slides, and you can watch a video of me describing it. Also, I created this resource on formative assessment in the early days of the pandemic.
Speaking of Wilton, I sat in on a meeting of their middle school team a few weeks ago when they were analyzing some data collected via empathy interviews. They went through a really thoughtful process of identifying teachers who are positive outliers—teachers who are more successful even though they have the same resources as every other teacher. Then they interviewed students about those teachers. OMG! What a treasure trove of data about high quality instruction! I was so impressed. They gathered more rich description about what a teacher does during instruction to support students than in a year’s worth of supervisor observations. I confess that I was in on the planning of this, and I still didn’t know that it would elicit such great data. If you want to operationalize what high quality instruction looks like in your district, I highly recommend this approach.
I spent Monday and Tuesday of this week at RISE Network’s Grade 9 Summer Symposium. This was a humbling experience—I knew that there’s a drop-off in grades from middle to high school, and I thought I knew why. I knew that 9th grade on track performance was a key indicator of likelihood of graduation, but I didn’t know how poorly it correlates with previous test scores and other indicators of achievement. And I hadn’t really thought about taking a hard look at how to use that information to change students’ experience. So learning about RISE’s work with 9th grade teams to use data to define, measure, and monitor on-track performance in order to intervene when students are not on track was salutary—I was a little embarrassed that I wasn’t better informed.
And if that wasn’t enough, I went home and started reading the book that participants received, The Make or Break Year by Emily Krone Phillips. This, especially Chapter Three, was mind-blowing. The book is about Chicago as a case study for how to raise graduation rates by focusing on 9th grade transition—because on track performance by the end of 9th grade is such a powerful leading indicator that focusing on improving it is a very high leverage move. The book is one of what I think of as a suite of books about Chicago’s long slog to improve its schools—this is the third one I’ve read, I think, and I recommend them all. The others are: Bryk et al, How a city learned to improve its schools; Bryk et al, Organizing schools for improvement: Lessons from Chicago. And then of course there are the other Tony Bryk books: Learning to improve: How America’s schools can get better at getting better; and Trust in schools: A core resource for improvement.
So, if you are not already connected to RISE, I highly recommend that you use this link and scroll to the bottom right-hand corner, where you will find a space labeled EMAIL SIGNUP, to join their mailing list. And if you are in Connecticut and would like me to broker an introduction, please email me. I was surprised that there weren’t more school teams, more districts, and more central office folks in attendance at the Symposium—if your graduation rate is less than 100% and you are not confident that you know when or why students get off track, I recommend that you start thinking about how to prioritize 9th grade attendance and grades—you will need systems, structures, and routines for doing that, and that’s where RISE can help.
Here are the other books about data and equity that I have had to read or re-read to write the chapter on data for the new book; I’m not providing links to Amazon for all of them, but they are easy enough to find if you want to read them. And if you do decide to read one, let me know, I would love to know what you think.
Beach, J. M. (2021). Can we measure what matters most?: Why educational accountability metrics lower student learning and demoralize teachers. Rowman & Littlefield.
Belenky, M. F., Clinchy, B. M., Goldberger, N. R., & Tarule, J. M. (1986). Women’s ways of knowing: The development of self, voice, and mind. New York: Basic Books.
Deming, W. E. (1982). Out of the Crisis. MIT Press.
Gilligan, C. (1993). In a different voice: Psychological theory and women’s development. Harvard University Press.
Gould, S. J. (1996). Mismeasure of man. W. W. Norton & Company.
Rose, T. (2017). The end of average: Unlocking our potential by embracing what makes us different. HarperCollins Canada. (OK, I haven’t read this yet, but my friend Tom tells me I need to.)
Safir, S., & Dugan, J. (2021). Street data: A next-generation model for equity, pedagogy, and school transformation. Corwin.
Saini, A. (2019). Superior: The return of race science. Beacon Press.
Zuberi, T. (2001). Thicker than blood: How racial statistics lie. University of Minnesota Press.
Zuberi, T., & Bonilla-Silva, E. (Eds.). (2008). White logic, white methods: Racism and methodology. Rowman & Littlefield.
Finally, while writing this Coaching Letter, I had to do a couple of searches through old ones, and while looking for anything I’d written about positive outliers (which is nothing, it turns out), I came across a recipe I’d included for carrot cake. So just to be clear, this is no longer my default cake to go with afternoon tea; this is, partly because it’s delicious and partly because it takes less time to make than any other cake I’ve ever made. Word to the wise: add walnuts to the glaze. Happy summer! And if I can do anything to help you, please don’t hesitate to reach out. Nothing makes me happier than to be helpful to readers of The Coaching Letter—I’m very proud of how often I’m able to do that. Best, Isobel
Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
Author of The Coaching Letter
Author with Jennie Weiner of The Strategy Playbook for Educational Leaders: Principles and Processes Routledge, 2021
Author with Sarah Woulfin & Kerry Lord of Making Coaching Matter: Leading Continuous Improvement in Schools Teachers College Press, 2023