A few weeks ago I wrote how the dispassionate examination of assessment data by groups of teachers can unlock expertise that would otherwise be trapped in individual classrooms. The example I used was a data meeting I observed back in 2009 at Graham Road Elementary School. Laura Robbins was the second-year teacher I wrote about, and she e-mailed to say the column brought back a flood of memories, causing her to reflect on her experience. I asked her to write a guest blog because I thought you would like to hear directly from one of the educators I write about. Here’s what she had to say:

From the moment I walked into my first teaching job, at Graham Road Elementary, there wasn’t a moment I felt unsure about what I was teaching or what my students knew. I was confident not because I thought myself great, but because of the structures that were put into place to support my teaching. Teachers at Graham Road were researchers, planners, and scientists. Through a process called “unpacking,” we pulled standards apart and discussed prerequisites, what was strictly required for students to know, and how to expand the standard for our classrooms. We knew exactly where students needed to get and developed common assessments before teaching to ensure we did not [veer] away from our focus. With all that planning and researching, we hoped our students would be successful. 

However, we knew we needed more than hope. We collected data. Each teacher placed data in an Excel spreadsheet. Knowing that each score only told a small piece of a student’s knowledge, we allowed the data to build and expand. The data displayed stories of how students functioned in the education setting. The data was visible and open for anyone to look at anytime. Teachers were not punished for “bad” data, but rather encouraged to problem solve and collaborate with other teachers to pinpoint differences in teaching.            

Regardless of how much planning, collaboration, teaching, and reflecting took place, some students popped up on the data as struggling. We developed specific goals for them and made action plans based on elements we could control within our classroom. 

Was it a lot of work? Yes. Was it worth it? Yes. “This is teaching,” I thought. “This is what it takes to make students successful.” When my time at Graham Road came to an end, I walked away ready for my next teaching adventure. Since then, I have taught in three states and have yet to find a school that functions like Graham Road. It breaks my heart to watch teachers and students work so hard without making substantial gains in a reasonable time.

So what is the difference? Through the eyes of a teacher, a lot. 

At many schools, data are collected by others outside the classroom and analyzed by a team. Many teachers pay no attention to the data. As a result they miss an intricate part of that child’s education story. Without data, students who excel often sit through class working hard, but never being pushed to their next level. Students who struggle become a “problem.” Unknowingly, teachers get trapped into blaming students and parents. It is easy to get sucked into looking outside the classroom for reasons a child is not succeeding. Factors outside the classroom do impact students, but it is a waste of time to blame others when you have not looked at the child through a scientific lens.

At many schools, teachers demonstrate the caring, supportive, hopeful, and artful side of teaching, but are missing the scientific side. Teaching is two-fold. It is an art, where each little caring piece must delicately be placed; but it is also a science where nothing can be left to hope and must be supported by data, research, and reflection.

To read more about Graham Road Elementary — and seven other “It’s Being Done” schools — see How It’s Being Done: Urgent Lessons from Unexpected Schools.