Data Walls Guide OSSU Instruction

By Katie Jickling, Courtesy of The Herald, June 9, 2016

There’s a data wall in a meeting room at Randolph Elementary School. Not at all the Minority Report-style technology the name evokes—just a wall-hanging holding a notecard for every student in the school, divided into rows by grade and all coded in an array of primary colors.

Red, yellow, green, and blue sections represent progress in reading and literacy, representing the students’ standing significantly below, at, or above grade-level proficiency.

For teachers and administrators at Brookfield, Braintree, and Randolph, the data wall is a “monitoring process,” said Co-Principal Erica McLaughlin, “an intervention indicator.” This week, teachers in each grade team meet and move each student’s card along the continuum to reflect his or her progress over the last few months.

McLaughlin, Pat Miller, and Susan McKelvie, co-principals of the three schools, focus on using the data to create tangible changes in approach and methodology.

“The question for us is ‘so what?’” McLaughlin said. “We say, ‘great, they’re in the green...now, so what?’”

Student progress is measured by a variety of metrics: spelling tests, district-wide writing prompts designed by teachers, and the national Fountas & Pinnell literacy test.

Transient students who have moved within the last year, students with special education needs, and those who qualify for free or reduced lunch will get a color-coded dot on their card, so those factors can be monitored in the overall picture.

Students’ progress can be tracked over time as they move through the year and from grade to grade. 

Long-Term Data

This is not a new project. Brookfield, Braintree, and Randolph elementary schools have been using data walls to track student progress for five years, McLaughlin said.

National speaker and author Linda Dorn came to talk about the place of data walls in education in 2011. The schools instituted the walls the following year and the literacy data wall has been informing teaching ever since.

Just recently, the schools are starting to establish enough data to draw long-term conclusions.

“It’s funny, you get a little piece of data and you want more data,” McLaughlin said.

Next year, the elementary schools will make the data walls digital, subdividing the four categories into 16 categories to track individual students in more detail.

The schools also plan to institute a math wall, and eventually, perhaps, a behavioral wall as well.

The data wall “focuses the conversation,” said Nora Skolnick, who has taught 3rd and 4th grade at Randolph for 21 years. She’ll be sitting down soon with the other third- and fourth-grade teachers at Randolph to discuss each student’s successes, struggles, and strategies for growth.

Because of the data wall, teachers come in to the thrice-yearly conversations with specific measurements and data points to discuss and address a student›s reading ability, Skolnick said.

“It’s not just decoding, but what aspect of decoding and not just comprehension, but what aspects of comprehension.”

The walls have led to changes in policy and programming.

Teachers have been able to identify specific gaps in learning across a grade level and create intervention with a handful of students from different classes. Groups focus on developing specific skills, such as comprehension, on providing more challenging material for students who need it.

“What I like,” Skolnick added, “is that it’s not just about the struggling readers, but the high-level ones as well.” 

Analysis Means Success

Last year, educators found that first graders were showing vast disparities in their reading and writing abilities. After a summer without schoolwork or reading, first graders would be months behind where they left off the previous June.

So over the summer, the elementary schools started a four-week program to teach literacy for kindergartners at risk of losing what they’d learned.

This year, that program, which is free and by invitation only, will be expanded to students entering first, second, and third grades.

Across the board, students qualifying for free and reduced lunch are performing approximately equally as well as their classmates, “something we should really celebrate,” McLaughlin said.

“Now when we say we are meeting the needs of kids in poverty, we can say, “look, the data says so.”

Public preschool has also helped level the playing field, McLaughlin said.

To further mitigate the effects of poverty, administrators and teachers have focused their efforts on early intervention; a preschool teacher offers to visit the home of each student to establish a relationship with parents early on.

They keep close watch on students with problems at home to offer supports and to see where they can step in.

“A rising tide rises all ships” is the catchphrase McLaughlin uses to encourage her teachers.

Indeed, within the elementary schools, the data walls facilitate teamwork and camaraderie between educators.

“You’re in your classroom with 17, 18, 19 kids every day and you sometimes lose sight of the big picture or you get stuck in a certain pattern,” Skolnick said. “So to have a chance to sit down with your colleagues and discuss each kid is very important.

“It’s not just my brain working on how best to help a student be successful, I have the collective brainpower of my entire team.”

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