Part VI of this week’s Five Principles for Smarter Data Systems series–a guest post from Laurence Holt, EVP and Chief Product Officer for Wireless Generation, and an author of And Now For Something Completely Different, a guide to Instructional Improvement Systems from which the post below is adapted:
First, congratulations! I assume you are busy preparing your presentation and thinking about tough questions you might be asked. Here’s one for you: You’re proposing to spend a lot of money on data systems, as are all the applicants; can you explain exactly what the through-line is from those systems to improved student performance?
Organizational learning experts have a term for that through-line. They call it a theory of action. Too often in K-12, the theory of action is left unstated or relies on overly optimistic assumptions. For instance, unless something different happens in the moment of interaction between student, teacher, and task, how will improvements in achievement happen?
At Wireless Generation, we looked at literature on district- and state-wide information systems including Race to the Top, we worked with Education Sector on the Five Principles of Smarter Data Systems, and we talked to several leading-edge districts to find out what their theories of action are. We identified theories and fleshed out the weak links in each:
- Student performance drives teacher insight and action. Theory of action: If teachers have access to fine-grained, fresh, actionable assessment data for their students, and if they have the time and skills (or tools) to analyze it, they will adjust subsequent instruction to better meet student needs; if instruction is more closely tailored to the skills and abilities (and misconceptions and procedural bugs) that individual students display, they will learn more. Weak links: Getting teachers access to good data (which most lack); ensuring they have the time and skill to derive meaning from it; access to resources and interventions to fit emerging student needs; and the time and classroom management skills to organize differentiation.
- Student (and teacher) performance drives administrator insight and action. Theory of action: If administrators have access to recent, accurate performance data, then they will be able to direct resources to where they are most needed: providing intervention; moving the strongest teachers to work with the weakest students; identifying which teachers would benefit from professional development (and which course); noting what is working and what is not, and directing staff to do more of one and less of the other. Weak links: Access to quality data; the skills to analyze it; and the power to redirect resources as needed.
- Student performance drives parent insight and action. Theory of action: If parents have full visibility of their child’s performance, and if they have the skill and will to do so, they will reinforce strengths and help address weaknesses. They can improve motivation by providing incentives and concretizing consequences; praise hard work; increase study time; provide or arrange for extra support such as tutoring; and collaborate with teachers to understand academic issues. Weak links: Not all parents have Internet access at home, and when they do, they may not be able to make sense of multi-faceted data.
- Students’ performance drives their own insight and action. Theory of action: If students have access to their own performance data, they will be able to set goals for themselves, track their progress, and compare themselves to peers. Proponents of this theory point out that young people can demonstrate dazzling focus and tenacity when goals are discrete and achievable—e.g., getting a top score on a video game. Weak links: The most in-need students may not have Internet access; they vary greatly in their ability to self-regulate; and peers may set too low a performance standard.
Which theory are your proposed data investments relying upon, and in particular, how do you plan to address the weak links? Most RTTT applications were sketchy—saying ease-of-use is important but not saying in what way, precisely. That should make peer reviewers nervous, but it gives you a chance to shine.