Where are students in your school reform efforts?

Posted by Matt Berringer on July 13, 2010

We live in an era of accountability, where everywhere we turn the issue of school reform is in the headlines. With the onset of No Child Left Behind, U.S. schools were expected to make a paradigm shift seemingly overnight. Where once educators used data to rank children and create the ever-familiar "bell curve," we are now expected to use data to inform us of where specifically on that bell curve children reside. The idea here, of course, is to use data to identify children’s strengths and needs and then differentiate our instruction and adjust our curriculum to accommodate for those needs. The intended result is that by the time of the summative assessment all students will produce evidence of proficiency on standards, thus eliminating the bell curve and creating the mountain where all children achieve and no one is left behind.

Nearly every school reform effort echoes the same sentiments of this shift – leaders and teachers are committed to using data to meet the needs of all learners. At the heart of school reform initiatives is the commitment of leaders and teachers to make data-informed decisions regarding the alignment of standards, assessment, curriculum, and instruction.

Through professional development, school improvement measures across the country outline efforts by educators to use summative assessment data to determine areas of needed improvement and then work collaboratively to unpack their standards to identify the embedded content and skills required for proficiency. Next, in learning communities educators explore curricular data for evidence of best practice and then work in data teams to mine formative assessment data to determine how children are progressing on the path toward proficiency so together the school can respond with interventions as needed.

It all seems sound. It all sounds familiar. Yet implicit in these initiatives is the use of data by adults for adults.

What seems to be missing in all this chatter about improving our schools is the word "student." Where is the student in this quest for school reformation? Why do we seem to be focusing on professional development for the adults and their tools rather than the students and their needs? We are asked to look at what we as educators need to know and be able to do in order to improve student learning and to alter our actions in order to create a different outcome for students. What is missing, however, is an investigation of what the data might mean to our students.

In a data-informed culture educators pose questions and use data to elicit answers used as the impetus for our school reform efforts. As a matter of habit, the questions educators ask result in the identification of needed changes in adult practice. For example, if we search the data to discover which standards students struggle with most, the answer often manifests itself in an all-out assault on the content by teachers with more text driven assignments, more independent practice for homework, and more quizzes to alert children that their efforts are not fruitful.

How different might our school improvement plans look if we used assessment and curricular data to help children recognize themselves as learners, and to assist them in the identification of what they needed next on their journey toward deepening their own thinking and learning? How different would our schools behave if the focus of our professional learning communities was to more clearly understand the alignment of standards and assessment in order to share those connections with students? What change in student motivation might we experience in schools if students were to record and track their own progress, using assessments not merely as grades but as evidence of what they know and are able to do?

If educators were to share curricular and assessment data with students and involve them in the discovery of themselves as 21st century learners, school reform might take on a whole new meaning, where meeting the needs of all learners might become an enriching experience for educators and students alike.