Data-Driven Decision Making: Who’s the decider?

After I shared out my previous post, describing my confusion about making sense of certain types of data, the International Literacy Association (ILA) replied with a link to a recent report on this topic:

It’s a short whitepaper/brief titled “Beyond the Numbers: Using Data for Instructional Decision Making”. The principal authors, Vicki Park and Amanda Datnow, make a not-so-provocative claim that may still cause consternation in education:

Rather than data driving the decision-making, student learning goals should drive what data are collected and how they are used.

The reason this philosophy might cause unrest with educators is that data-driven decision making is still a mainstay in schools. Response to Intervention is dependent on quantitative-based progress monitoring. School leaders too often discount the anecdotal notes and other qualitative information collected by teachers. Sometimes the term “data-informed” replaces “data-driven”, but the approach largely remains aligned with the latter terminology and practice.

Our school is like many others. We get together three times a year, usually after screeners are administered. We create spreadsheets and make informed decisions on behalf of our students. Yet students nor their parents are involved in the process. Can we truly be informed if we are not also including the kids themselves in some way?

To be fair to ourselves and to other schools, making decisions regarding which students need more support or how teachers will adjust their instruction is relatively new to education. As well, our assessments are not as clean as, say, a blood test you might take at the doctor’s office. Data-driven decision making is hard enough for professional educators. There are concerns that bringing in students and their families might only contribute to the confusion through the fault of no one.

And yet there are teachers out there who are doing just this: positioning students as the lead assessors and decision-makers in their educational journey. For example, Samantha Mosher, a secondary special education teacher, guides her students to develop their own IEP goals as well as how to use various tools to monitor their own progress. The ownership for the work rests largely on the students’ shoulders. Samantha provides the modeling, support, and supervision to ensure each student’s goals and plan are appropriate.

An outcome in releasing the responsibility of making data-informed decisions to students is that Samantha has become more of a learner. As she notes in her blog post:

I was surprised that many students didn’t understand why they got specific accommodations. I expected to have to explain what was possible, but didn’t realized I would have to explain what their accommodations meant.

“Yes, but older students are able to set their own goals and monitor their own progress. My kids are not mature enough yet to manage that responsibility.” I hear you, and I am going to disagree. I can say that because I have seen younger students do this work firsthand. It’s not a completely independent process, but the data-informed decision making is at least co-led by the students.

In my first book on digital portfolios, I profiled the speech and language teacher at my last school, Genesis Cratsenberg. She used Evernote to capture her students reading aloud weekly progress notes to their parents. She would send the text of their reflections along with the audio home via email. Parents and students could hear first hand the growth they were making over time in the authentic context of a personalized student newsletter. It probably won’t surprise you that once Genesis started this practice, students on her caseload exited out of her program at a faster rate. (To read an excerpt from my book describing Genesis’s work, click here.)

I hope this post comes across as food for thought and not finger-wagging. Additionally, I don’t believe we should stop with our current approaches to data analysis. Our hands are sometimes tied when it comes to state and federal rules regarding RtI and special education qualification. At the same time, we are free to expand our understanding and our beliefs about what counts as data and who should be at the table when making these types of decisions.

Five Apps for Reducing Isolation and Increasing Connectedness

The principalship, as well as other leadership positions in schools, can be isolating. We typically don’t have a team of our own within a building. Even when part of a district, it can be hard to build a professional community with colleagues; competing for limited resources plus the busyness of our days too often keeps us at a distance.

I recommend five apps that have helped me bridge this divide and foster a sense of connectedness with other educators.

  • Google+ Communities – While I know a lot of educators use Facebook groups for connecting with colleagues, I prefer Communities. It feels less like social media and more like a chat room. You can create categories for organizing posts. Being a part of the Google ecosystem is also helpful for sharing content.
  • email – Whether Gmail, Outlook, or Apple Mail, email is still a tried and true method for connecting with others. What I am referring to here is different than work messages. I use email as an ongoing correspondence with close colleagues: timeless technology for writing back and forth with each other. So…rethink email!
  • Slack – I’ve used this communication tool during educational conferences and for technology discussion boards. I find Slack a cross between email and a discussion board. It takes some getting used to but I do like the interface and feel of it.
  • Tweetbot – This app is my preferred Twitter client. I don’t get all of the ads or suggested tweets like I do with the native application. Twitter chats, direct messages, and lists all help me stay connected with other educators. The only part of Tweetbot I find lacking is the inability for group chats in direct messages.
  • Voxer – I’m not a heavy user of Voxer but I do enjoy the back-and-forth you can have with this walkie-talkie app. Communications can be light, mostly chatting about topics that have nothing to do with school. Other times I am reaching out to a principal regarding a prospective teaching candidate or for problem-solving.

Of course, the best app for reducing isolation and increasing connectedness is the physical presence of others. It’s a big reason why I attend educational conferences and participate in monthly regional school leader meetings. But during the in-between, my personal/professional connections mediated online are the next best thing.

What app or digital tool do you prefer to stay connected with colleagues? Why do you like it? Please share in the comments.

Reading Deeply in Digital Spaces

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Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

For too long, I have deleted all of the blog updates that come through my email. I “subscribe” to other educators and thought leaders who post frequently on their site. Yet it has become my habit to Select All when these updates show up in my inbox and promptly delete. This practice has become a habit, a ritual that in reflection seems silly.

Why do I do this? What is the reason why I am not learning from others through their blogs and newsletters like I used to?

I suspect some of it has to do with priorities. I have prioritized checking Twitter for any interesting bits of information such as news updates, journal articles, and videos. But I tend to stick a toe into these information streams and rarely dive into an in-depth article or post (exceptions include The New York Times and The Washington Post, which I subscribe to both). To reprioritize, I probably need to revisit Twitter lists with more intent to read/view what is shared in their entirety.

Maybe my reluctance is due in part to the assumption that blog posts and other more opinion-based writing may not be as reliable or accurate as the information I read from major news sources. But this assumption is false. What educators and other thought leaders share online is just as “true” as anything a professional journalist might publish. In fact, some of the best content online is often from teachers and principals who reveal the challenges and struggles they have in their professional lives. I need to get back to this frame of mind more often, that recognizes process as just as important as any product.

The world is changing at such a rapid rate that it’s turning us all into amateurs. Even for professionals, the best way to flourish is to retain an amateur’s spirit and embrace uncertainty and the unknown. – Austin Kleon, Show Your Work! 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered

Coming back to this idea of reading more deeply when online, I believe the other challenge is a technical one. Most sites are cluttered with advertisements and pop-ups (a big reason why this blog remains ad-free). Even the cleanest sites are still online which gives access to a host of other social media platforms and websites that we could explore instead. There always seems to be something more interesting on the other side of the digital fence. We need to be aware of this mental pull when reading and consuming information online.

Researcher Dr. Maryanne Wolf emphasizes the concept of “bi-literacy”, in which we take different approaches to read online vs. reading in print. In her recent article for The Guardian (which ~ahem~ I read on my smartphone and discovered via Twitter), Wolf shares studies on how the reading environment itself influences how people learn to read:

We know from research that the reading circuit is not given to human beings through a genetic blueprint like vision or language; it needs an environment to develop. Further, it will adapt to that environment’s requirements – from different writing systems to the characteristics of whatever medium is used. If the dominant medium advantages processes that are fast, multi-task oriented and well-suited for large volumes of information, like the current digital medium, so will the reading circuit.

In other words, if a person’s daily diet of text is comprised primarily of digital, then their capacity to read and think deeply will more likely be shallow and cursory. Wolf notes that this phenomenon can occur at a pretty young age, “starting around 4th or 5th grade”.

Does this mean we eschew all things digital from our instruction? Of course not. There is so much excellent content out there that students and teachers should include as part of the curriculum. In addition, specific skills can and should be taught when reading online. Coming back to the concept of “bi-literacy”, Wolf recommends embracing a comprehensive approach to reading (and writing) for today’s learner.

We need to cultivate a new kind of brain: a “bi-literate” reading brain capable of the deepest forms of thought in either digital or traditional mediums. A great deal hangs on it: the ability of citizens in a vibrant democracy to try on other perspectives and discern truth; the capacity of our children and grandchildren to appreciate and create beauty; and the ability in ourselves to go beyond our present glut of information to reach the knowledge and wisdom necessary to sustain a good society.

I’ve started doing this for myself with more intentionality. For example, one educator’s blog I subscribe to, Tom Whitby, is clean and uncluttered. Still, for me, there is a need to trim down these posts to text only. I am using a Chrome extension called EasyReader. Select the button at the top right of your Chrome browser after downloading it, select the text you want to read, and you get a text-only interface.

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Before EasyReader
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After EasyReader

Free from distractions (except for that Twitter feed I need to close down), I now have the cognitive space to read this post critically and with my fullest attention. Mind you, no one taught me these types of skills, beyond the wise and generous educators and people online who were willing to share their ideas with everyone. Also, I chose to seek this information out because of my interest in literacies (vs. literacy).

So here it is to you. And what will we do with this information? How can we implement these necessary yet generally unknown reading practices into the curriculum? When will print text no longer be viewed as the only game in town during the literacy block? I believe by sharing and reflecting on our current work, to embrace being an “amateur” again as Austin Kleon recommends, especially when practices aren’t working like it was for me. Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.

Getting Curious About Change

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Photo by Bing Han on Unsplash

It’s mid-August. That means educators are starting to think about coming back for a new school year. When you read this last sentence, what feelings arise? Excitement? Anxiety? Maybe a mix depending on your situation and status. (Hopefully not dread…)

One anxiety-inducing event that a school leader is often responsible for is introducing a new initiative as part of a building goal. I don’t think I need to list all of the emotions that might arise when we prepare for any type of organizational change. Regardless of where a school faculty is heading, it’s generally expected that the destination is somewhat unknown. No SMART goal can accurately predict the outcomes of a true learning experience.

While I think it is wise to address any possible emotions with faculty, especially if they have been fatigued by many initiatives from the past, I believe the most important feeling we want to cultivate with our colleagues experiencing change is curiosity.

When we get curious about a change, we make mental room for considering what’s possible. There’s a focus on the future instead of dwelling primarily on what has come before. For example, in our school we are exploring effective reading instruction. In the past the leadership team and I have prepared PD session topics for the entire school year in the prior summer. This year we are offering teachers a variety of professional resources to explore together in self-selected groups. Our learning will be directed by the questions we ask, the discussions we facilitate, and the ideas we discover, share and try out. This independent study will comprise our entire fall professional learning.

Eventually, we will come together on specific and common studies regarding reading instruction. Yet this PD focus – our collective change – will be the product of our initial curiosity. One teacher emailed me this summer, reflecting on some of the changes for 2018-2019. “I am really looking forward to the possibilities for this school year.” She wasn’t wishing away her summer. She probably had some nervousness about the fall. But there seemed to be a healthy balance in her message, a sense of calm and confidence during a time that can often feel turbulent.

How are you feeling about the upcoming school year? How might you get curious about any expected changes? Please share in the comments.

 

 

Priorities

Last week I sent an email out to our contributors, thanking them for their continued presence and participation on this site after this summer’s book study. Like last year, I inquired about their current interest in staying involved with the blog as well as shared ideas about how to improve the learning experience here for everyone.

One thing that impresses me about this group is how willing they are to contribute their time, energy, and ideas to this site. I am also impressed when they say, in so many words, “Sorry, can’t write or participate right now.” In either case, what they are communicating is their current priorities. Family, friends and outside interests (i.e. beyond the bubble of education) are necessary to stay balanced and to live an interesting life.

Thinking about priorities, I am reminded of a passage from author David Mitchell, in his essay “Neglect Everything Else”. It comes from the anthology Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, edited by Joe Fassler. (Thanks to Brenda Power, editor at Choice Literacy, for discovering and sharing this book.)

The world is very good at distracting us. Much of the ingenuity of our remarkable species goes toward finding new ways to distract ourselves from things that really matter. The Internet – it’s lethal, isn’t it? Maintaining focus is critical, I think, in the presence of endless distraction. You’ve only time to be a halfway decent parent, plus one other thing. (117)

I bolded the last sentence in my copy of this book. I also plan on writing it out in my planner before the school year begins as a constant reminder.

When I put out an inquiry to contribute here, or maybe to ask teachers in my school to complete a task or take that next step in our journey, I have to remember that we too can be a distraction. I’d like to think that what I ask for is of more value than some of the rabbit holes that can we fall into online. But still. When we request the attention of our colleagues, I want it to be worth everyone’s time which is invaluable and irreplaceable.

Building a Literacy Culture – a @StenhousePub Blog Series #litessentials

 

When I am not blogging, it usually means I am on a tech sabbatical, on vacation (I wish!), or working on a writing project. Lately, I have been reading and enjoying Regie Routman’s new resource Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All LearnersLike Regie’s previous work, this book is a necessary text for any teacher of literacy (see: you).

As a way for me to connect with and reflect upon the ideas in Literacy Essentials, I have written three articles for Stenhouse’s blog. They describe the importance of building a literacy culture, addressing the elements of trust, communication, and relationships. You can read the first two posts by clicking here and here. Look for the third post on the Stenhouse blog in the near future.

Reading Literacy Essentials, it could almost be called “Life Essentials”. Regie mixes research and practice with personal stories as a wife, parent, grandparent, friend, and unique individual. She offers suggestions for becoming a better teacher and a more interesting person. Joy can be had in the classroom and in life; they are not mutually exclusive. This makes Regie’s new book essential reading for all educators.

Literacy Essentials

What if we are heading in the wrong direction? #litleaders

“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”

– J.K. Rowling

This question recently cropped up from one of our faculty members. We are deep into exploring the connection between reading and writing, building a foundation for literacy instruction schoolwide. My response was off-the-cuff, sharing some general ideas, but maybe a little too vague and lacking coherence. The source of their concern was likely our high marks on our school report card. Here is what I wanted to say in my preferred mode of communication (writing).

When a school decides to pursue a literacy initiative as a whole faculty, they are already heading in the right direction. Anytime we can get everyone on the same page around reading and writing instruction, we build a common language and understanding for what will occur regularly in each classroom. Actually, the only wrong direction is by making no decision. By allowing everyone to have 100% autonomy in how reading and writing instruction will be delivered in classrooms, we create the conditions for student inequity.

A quality schoolwide literacy initiative should allow for some flexibility with teachers to personalize their approach. There should be enough room for teachers to have voice and choice in how instruction will be delivered. It’s the same thing we want for our students, right? We need to model this belief at every level.

For literacy initiatives that start to feel more closed in the level of autonomy for teachers as time progresses, be sure to check student assessment results. In my previous school, we felt like two years of writing training was possibly too scripted and squeezed some of the voice out of our students’ work. We facilitated a mid-year writing check. Sure enough: lots of structure but little style in students’ writing. As one teacher noted when we debriefed after the assessment, “Our kids will be able to nail a college essay, but do they love writing?” This information guided our decision to come back to a more holistic approach to teaching writing in the classroom.

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Photo by Jamie Templeton on Unsplash

This decision to pursue a more structured writing approach was not wrong; our intentions were good and were based on what we believed our students needed. The only wrong approach would have been to forge ahead with our current efforts, ignoring what our students’ writing was telling us. This is different than what a lot of schools do: jumping from one initiative to the next, year after year. We knew that our students needed consistently strong literacy instruction year after year. Hopping from rock to rock along a stream of new ideas wasn’t going to help our kids become literate individuals, as tempting as it might be.

That’s why decisions for pursuing a schoolwide literacy initiative should be a part of a long-term plan. Three years is probably a minimum. A long-term plan reduces the desire for rock hopping. It’s easier to say “no” to a new and exciting professional learning opportunity when you have a pathway already laid out. Part of this long-term plan should include multiple points of celebration. These opportunities to highlight school success have to be tangible and genuine. In our school, we re-examine our beliefs about literacy, owning new beliefs after a year of schoolwide professional development work. We also set aside the beginning of staff meetings for staff celebrations. Teachers can share quick wins and victories. I also make a point of taking pictures of teachers innovating in their classrooms as they try and apply new strategies. These images are shared and celebrated before we begin learning about a new literacy strategy. All of our celebrations build on where we have been and inspire us to learn more.

That might be the biggest point in a response to this question about heading in the wrong direction: If our intentions are based on students’ needs and teachers’ informed beliefs, and we were are willing to adjust course in light of the evidence, then we cannot make a poor decision. The constant pursuit of becoming better in our practice is always the right choice.