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School reform, Chicago-style: Digging deeper than the headline for lessons in data-driven education

A recent Wall Street Journal article described the data-driven culture at Marshall Metro High School in Chicago, one of the schools the city is attempting to turn around. Dubbing the effort “School Reform, Chicago Style,” the article highlights the organized way in which district officials, school leaders and teachers have analyzed and acted upon student data. It also reports on results one year into the turnaround effort. So far, signs are pointing in the right direction: “Average attendance rose 22 points to 75% for the year, and 79% of freshmen were on track to advance to 10th grade, up from 34%,” notes the story. Standardized test scores improved as well.

What really caught my attention were the four critical lessons it highlights for all schools seeking to harness the power of data to improve student growth:

  1. Leadership must be visibly involved: In the transition to a truly data-driven educational culture, just making data available to educators is not enough. At Marshall, the leadership team realized that simple access to data would not lead to change. To ensure that teachers used the data, leadership prioritized time for meetings to analyze data and outline solutions and also proposed more training to help teachers build their data skills.
  2. Data must be viewed as more than just test scores: People too often see the word data and think “test scores.” Data is much richer than that – a fact that Marshall Metro High embraced. The information used in data analysis at Marshall included formative test scores, but also focused heavily on attendance, on-track rates, course grades, discipline reports and even homework tracking. Using these multiple data inputs, teachers could then adjust their tactics to reach students at risk of falling behind or dropping out.
  3. Educators must change tactics based upon the data: Knowing what a kid didn’t get, and knowing how to go back and help him get it are two very different (and equally critical) skills. Educators at Marshall employed both. A recurring theme throughout the article is that educators at Marshall didn’t just analyze data – they did something differently after analyzing the data. For instance, the attendance team realized their early efforts weren’t working, “so they changed tactics” until more habitual truants were coming to school. One teacher, Mr. Birch, realized that “just 17% of his students could graph a sloped line, despite his spending days teaching the skill.” Empowered with this information Mr. Birch developed an innovative lesson plan, different from his initial lesson plan, and re-taught the students.
  4. Data can be used to facilitate a human connection: Perhaps the most important theme the Wall Street Journal article uncovers is the way educators at Marshall have begun using data to forge connections with students. The educators use data to understand their students and then put it to work it as a tool to reach those who are struggling. As one struggling student said, “I saw Dean Calhoun was trying to help me … I didn’t want to let her down.”

It will be interesting to see if the educators and students at Marshall can continue their progress in the coming years. In the meantime, we should celebrate their improvements and share some of the lessons they are learning.

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