Let’s face it. Data is king. Companies salivate over your web-browsing habits and recent purchase history. Electoral politics can’t wait to dissect your voting tendencies based on your demographics and behavior. In the education world, we quantify students’ progress based on numerical scores on tests; we determine funding for schools based on income statistics, as determined by free/reduced lunch numbers. We are increasingly tying educator job security to numbers as well.
But, to what extent is what we call data actually useful — and how effectively are we marshaling its power to improve the lives of actual children?
We don’t seem to have any problem turning kids into numbers — what seems to be the challenge is translating those digits back into real people.
“There’s a misnomer right now in public education and society that there’s a lot of data. There’s a lot of numbers — there’s very little data,” explains Dr. Joshua Garcia, the celebrated Deputy Superintendent of Tacoma Public Schools.
While we maintain vast amounts of numbers connected to each child — and administer countless tests and other assessments — these efforts do not always translate into better opportunities. Wide discrepancies still separate the school experience of lower-income students with those of their wealthier peers.
This Opportunity Gap also shows up when we look at our children by ethnicity. Outcomes for African-American, Latino, Native American, and Pacific Islander students, not to mention English Language Learners of any background, still lag behind white and Asian American students. The cumulative effect of unequally distributed resources and materials, cultural and racial bias and inequitable structures is ensuring that American society is undervaluing and underinvesting in the incredible potential of the emerging majority of students — just because they are poor or students of color.
A visual representation of the Opportunity Gap between reading standards of seventh grade non-low- and low-income students.
Among schools that are making measurable progress in closing the Opportunity Gap — including the three honored with Pathways to Excellence Awards this year — there is a common theme: These schools are using data effectively to see trends for individual children, as well as groups — and they are using that data effectively to create highly tailored learning experiences. In other words, these schools generate and analyze the numbers, but then turn them back into real actions for unique students.
Following are some examples of how effective use of data, coupled with dedicated staff and other factors, has helped these schools make double-digit progress in closing the gap between diverse student populations.
The Opportunity Gap represented by reading standards of students of different races.
The school day has ended at Lacey Elementary School. In one classroom we find adult bodies crammed into the little chairs the students left behind earlier that afternoon.
“What would be a skill that should be standing out at this point?”
“Anything with number sense.”
Fourth and fifth grade teachers are reviewing student work and setting a course for future instruction. Peer Learning Communities — or PLCs — have become more common. They are designed to bring teachers together to regularly review student progress, identify challenges and seek solutions collaboratively. It’s a structure that has become more common in schools. But, what propels the Lacey team forward is a shared sense of commitment to each child.
“The kids in my class aren’t just my kids, they’re everybody’s kids,” says third grade teacher Jennifer Trinidad.
Essential to the approach at Lacey is that there is a community of educators serving a community of students. Gone are the old notions of a student belonging to one teacher this year and another teacher the next. Everybody fosters the well-being of every student.
Once teachers review numbers on student progress and choose an instructional strategy, the next challenge is to make learning personable.
Two teachers at Lacey Elementary School discuss the skills they want to teach their students.
“What did you do?”
“I did 8 x 5, which is 40, which gives me a zero and I know 4 x 4 is 16; add the zero which is 160.”
Math specialist Jodi Kimizuka explains: “The number one thing I do is raise the confidence of these kids. A lot of times with math they feel they aren’t good at it and they shut down. And I have to turn things around.”
Data, meet delivery.
Kimizuka demonstrates the critical step of taking the knowledge we glean from data and delivering it to students in personable, uplifting interactions.
Math specialist Jodi Kimizuka works one-on-one with students to help them understand math concepts and raise their confidence.
Tucked along the low range of hills that separates the Upper and Lower Yakima Valleys, Union Gap School serves children pre-K through eighth grade. At about 650 students — serving a high number of farm-working families and English Language Learners — this small one-school district uses its compact size to move with great agility.
Several years ago, Principal Lisa Gredvig made an unorthodox move. While many districts have leaned into more rigid curricular programs that insist on all teachers using the same materials and pacing, Union Gap went in the opposite direction. They ditched the prescribed textbooks.
“It’s all up in storage. Not one person uses it today,” says Gredvig. “Today their guide is the [Learning] Standards. You’re going to be able to ask any teacher in this building, ‘What standard are you teaching to today?’ and they’re going to tell you.”
Teachers enjoy a great deal of latitude in designing lessons and activities they think best fit the learning needs of their students.
“We have the opportunity to be creative with our curriculum,” shares teacher Nicole Thornton.
How do teachers determine which standards they should focus on?
That is where data comes in. Based on student assessments, teachers use their curricular freedom to tailor-fit instruction to the children in front of them: another example of marrying data with the real world.
“One thing that I feel the district has done a really great job with is teaching us how to evaluate and interpret our data,” concludes Thornton.
Nicole Thorton, first grade teacher, meets with other teachers to talk about how they will teach learning standards.
That use of data extends beyond the typical classroom. After assessing parental concerns, the school expanded the English Language Learner (ELL) program. Now Union Gap can point to the fact that over 95 percent of the school’s ELLs are making progress on English proficiency.
“I have seen a lot of progress for my kids,” parent Teresa Valencia shares in Spanish.
Investing in teachers, a strong focus on learning objectives, effective use of data and high family involvement are all crucial strategies for closing the Opportunity Gap. Working these approaches in tandem is golden.
Teresa Valencia has seen a lot of improvement in her daughter after Union Gap expanded its English Language Learning program.
Speaking with Pat Larson at Foster High School, you might wonder if you are speaking to a principal or the chief engineer at a waterworks. Larson uses the metaphor of moving water to describe how educational systems open or obstruct the flow of students toward end goals.
When Larson arrived at Foster High School three years ago, the waterworks were a mess. There were downspouts where there should have been pumps sending water upwards. There were leaky holes in the pipes that sent kids spattering or left them languishing in stagnant ponds instead of moving them onward. The school had experienced long years of tumultuous change, including high administrative turnover and what many would describe as a “challenging” setting with low achievement and high dropout rates — particularly among students most vulnerable to the Opportunity Gap. By the time students reach high school, this gap can grow so expansive that it can become insurmountable.
But Larson also found a core of deeply dedicated teachers who saw beauty and resilience in the diversity of economics, ethnicity, race and immigration/refugee status in one of the most diverse student bodies in the nation. Together they began patching up the pipes.
“One of the first things that I did was — I call it ‘sealing up the bucket’ — so that kids weren’t dropping out the bottom,” says Larson.
The school added staff to re-engage disconnected students and expanded alternative pathways for catching up on credits. Where an 18-year-old would have had to sit through a remedial class with 14-year-olds before, now they could work toward those credits online or even through community partners like local colleges.
A dedicated faculty is key to Foster’s success.
Katrice Cyphers works with students to find the best way to re-engage them. One at a time, she works with students in danger of dropping out to find a viable way toward graduation. The result? Graduation rates are climbing. And there are more graduates taking fewer years to complete their high school diplomas.
“Having the supports where the kids can recover credit just puts them right back in the game,” says Larson, “As long as they didn’t have hope, they weren’t going to make it.”
Tavaesina is part of the Class of 2016. But she was in a very different place four years ago as she struggled with homelessness.
Katrice Cyphers (right) works with students one-on-one to help them reach graduation.
“As soon as I started, I felt this huge welcome from not only the students but from the staff as well. It was very exciting because I felt like, hey, maybe this will work out. Foster was able to give me this place to make a home.”
The agility with which Foster staff can gather and use data — where its students are meeting success and failure — and then turn those into meaningful actions and relationships with real students — that is where the school finds its success.
Foster High School couldn’t simply patch the leaky pipes that led to high school graduation. It needed to create more upward flow.
It’s a warm August day and math teacher Jeff Lewis is dressed appropriately in beige shorts and a palm-tree-print camp shirt. He’s not lounging by the water with a drink. He is expertly weaving through a room full of students madly crunching numbers on those big calculators that are synonymous with advanced mathematics. Welcome to Foster’s AP boot camp. In the past two years, the school has more than doubled the number of students enrolled in college-level Advanced Placement courses.
Tavaesina, who has struggled with homelessness, feels welcome at Foster High and has made a home there.
The staff at Foster uses what it knows about its students to rebuild structures that better advance students — in the form of new credit options for older students, and wider opportunities for students to excel in advanced coursework. Furthermore, the staff recognizes the statistical realities of its students and uses that data as a starting point to build higher and higher.
“We’re not afraid to talk about our struggles,” says Larson. “It’s not a secret, it just is. It makes us who we are and helps us decide what our destination is.”
Math teacher Jeff Lewis, sporting his summer AP boot camp sandals
In the age of infographics and memes laden with statistics, we process numbers all the time. We read them, share them, spin them, dispute them, justify them.
But, are we able to see the faces those numbers represent?
High numbers of low-income and homeless students, lagging scores in math and language arts, large numbers of English Language Learners who speak dozens of languages, migrant families, newly arrived students with immigrant and refugee backgrounds from Latin American, East Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia — these are the realities of Lacey Elementary School, Union Gap pre-K–8 and Foster High School. Furthermore, these are the very real circumstances of American education overall: growing numbers of students who we are consistently underestimating and underserving.
Many would look at these statistics with gloom and see only deficits to be overcome. Yet, the staff at each of these schools is able to execute an amazing piece of choreography, to seamlessly leap between quantitative analysis in the world of numbers and qualitative actions in their face-to-face interactions with children and youth.
Weaving back and forth between the knowledge gathered through data and then transforming that knowledge into vital relationships and effective strategies is what propels each of these schools to succeed where many others are failing: narrowing the Opportunity Gap.
Gary Culbertson, principal of Lacey Elementary, confesses to not even being a “numbers guy.” But he creates an environment where staff uses data in their PLCs as the building blocks to effective teaching.
“You can have low scores. That’s okay — everyone has them. But what’s not okay is to blame it on the kids or the families. You have to self-reflect to figure out what changes you need to make. Because our job is to teach all kids.”
Students work together on a project.
That sense of focus, to teach all kids, is what fuels the staff at these three schools to gather every possible resource at their disposal and constantly try strategies, collect data on how things went, analyze, adjust and repeat.
They work like tireless chefs perfecting a recipe, or an inventor building dozens of prototypes in a garage. And they don’t do it alone.
“I don’t make decisions unilaterally. The best changes we’ve made this year — one of them — wasn’t even my idea. It was a teacher’s,” explains Union Gap’s Lisa Gredvig.
Collaboratively, they measure how students are doing, and more importantly, review that information to shape their next steps.
Lacey Principal Gary Culbertson, conferring with teachers
Too often, our discussion of data centers on controversial, high-stakes tests that don’t even get tabulated and returned to teachers in time for them to do anything based on the results.
“Numbers that inform decisions is what my definition of data is,” clarifies Tacoma’s Dr. Garcia.
And those useful numbers can only go so far unless they are woven into quality interactions with students.
“When we see successful schools closing the Opportunity Gap, they recognize a growth model right from the start. They look at every child as truly an asset,” Garcia suggests.
Using data effectively means moving past the numbers to see the students themselves. To recognize where they are and where they are capable of going, and then utilize that information to build powerful learning relationships.
“I did it! I know now that I’m capable of succeeding,” says Foster High graduating senior Shakila, whose journey began in Uganda and whose future is yet to be written. This sense of promise — a qualitative transformation in a student’s understanding — is the end goal.
Data may be king, but the promise of our students will never be limited to numeric outputs. Those educators who can read the columns of figures and use them as a tool to guide and advocate for students: they are the trailblazers on the Pathway to Excellence.
Shakila, a senior at Foster High