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In 2008, the ReContext team was called in to help New Leadership Charter School (NLCS), a charter school in Springfield, MA serving 550 students in grades 6-12. The school served a high-poverty and high-needs student body. The average student entered the school approximately 3 grade levels below their age in both mathematical and literacy skills.
Based on their Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) scores, the school was labeled chronically underperforming. The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) threatened shutdown if scores didn’t improve.
With so many knowledge gaps, highly targeted intervention was necessary to see significant improvement. We instituted a standards-based assessment system that helped to create a skills profile for each student.
This allowed us to:
The school experienced two-year gains in their MCAS scores of 20% in literacy and 44% in mathematics (32% overall). To date, the score jump remains the highest in the history of the state.
The school went from being the 2nd lowest performing in the Commonwealth to being the 2nd highest performing school in the city of Springfield. In the last year of the program, the bottom 10% experienced growth of 173% – almost 3 grade levels in one year, and outscored the aggregate population.
DESE removed the threat of shutdown.
Are we on the right track?
Like most fundamental questions, it’s elegantly simple and devilishly hard to answer. You want to know your plans will lead to increased success in serving your students, but do you know what you mean by “success”?
When I ask school leaders “what is success to you?” I typically hear two kinds of responses:
College-ready graduates. Low drop-out rates. Positive school climate. Well-rounded students. High levels of community engagement.
These are all laudable, worthy goals. However, an essential truism of leading any team is that everyone needs to know and agree on both the destination and path to reach it. Vision matters.
Deciding that success is “Mushville Middle School Graduates Independent Learners” doesn’t mean that having a welcoming school isn’t important. It simply means that you know the primary objective of your educational institution and all other choices will flow from that objective.
Honing down on a crisp, clear definition of success is very hard work. There are multiple questions you will need to explore. But if you have too many definitions of success, your team will not be aligned, your energy will dissipate, and you will have little control over your outcomes.
Across the country, education has become increasingly inundated by data and data-based mandates. But every state is different in education culture, structure, and governance. In 2015 we began working with two different states at two ends of the spectrum. That required two different approaches to service.
We’ve had many school leaders tell us that they’d like to subscribe to Polary NC without completing the Data Basic Training program. Why restrict access to a useful tool that could help the school?
The North Carolina education climate puts great emphasis on standardized testing. School leaders are expected to understand and explain their standardized testing scores. The consequences of poor performance can be significant. For this reason, we wanted to ensure that any NC school leader using Polarys had a strong understanding of how to use data, including this data, to inform their leadership. Dropping a new tool, without training users on how to integrate it, had the potential to add, rather than reduce, the level of conflict and confusion regarding standardized testing.
For this reason, we are taking a Training First approach. We will train you how to use data and then we will give you a tool to improve your data analysis process.
So why is registration open to all Vermont administrators? Because the school climate around data is completely different. In Vermont, standardized testing is not a significant driver of administrative decision-making. Recent legislative changes have generated their own stress points, but test scores play a very small role. Instead, other metrics, like depth of course offerings or graduating class sizes are the core metrics in the discussion about the future of education.
In this climate, our central goal is to demonstrate that data does have a role to play in making school management decisions. Vermont administrators are primarily focused on qualitative arguments when making the case for their leadership decisions. This makes sense, as decisions are being made by hyper-local school boards and communities.
Our position is that Vermont administrators would benefit by using more quantitative measures to inform their management practices, which will provide stronger arguments during annual Town Meetings and in the consolidation conversation.
For this reason, we have opened Polarys subscription to all school leaders to encourage them to consider data as a valuable piece of the school management work. By presenting familiar data in a new way, by analyzing data that’s been left to collect dust in administrator drawers, we are inviting school leaders to make use of the reams of data at their fingertips.
The one restriction we’ve put on school leaders:
you can only look at the data for your school(s)!
We strongly believe the most important school to focus on is your own. Know your data, own your data, and the data will serve your school.
We are extremely excited to announce our partnership with the North Carolina School Boards Association (NCSBA) to bring our training program, and Polarys™, to their membership.
So why is this announcement more than notice that we’re expanding into a new state, with the blessing of a major NC education institution?
Because our NC program is designed to change the school data paradigm.
I am extremely excited to announce that Polarys™ is now freely available to all Vermont school leaders! Thanks to a generous foundation grant, school leaders from across the state of Vermont are invited to create Polarys accounts, free of charge, through June 2017.
So what is Polarys and why is it any different from other school data tools? The key word is:
As a school administrator and mathematician, I’ve spent years working to turn the torrent of school data into meaningful information. The raw NECAP data provided by the State is a useful starting point, but it takes sophisticated analytical skills to turn that data into actionable knowledge.
There are also great data aggregation tools on the market, which I’ve used in multiple schools. But Polarys isn’t about aggregation or presentation, it’s about turning raw numbers into actual insights.
The big argument today in education is whether standardized tests like NECAP are worth the bother. Almost everyone is firmly in one camp or the other. Their arguments can be boiled down to:
My position is that both sides are right. Raw data of any sort is essentially meaningless. Data requires contextual analysis. But we do have an obligation to figure out what works and what doesn’t work. Standardized tests can help us do that IF we address the context problem.
Opening raw data to figure out “how we’re doing” is like opening the dictionary to read a story. Data analysis is the process of figuring out what kind of story you want to write and then finding the numbers that will tell that story. Only those in the school system – doing the daily work, learning about the kids, seeing the struggles and accomplishments of the staff, know the story of their school. Only data analysis can turn our compelling anecdotes into a story everyone can agree on.
That’s why I’ve spent the last 10 years developing a tool to help schools clarify, understand, and tell their stories: Polarys.
At it’s heart, Polarys answers three essential questions:
This information gives school leaders a starting point for developing strong questions and finding solid data-based information to steer management choices. I’ve used this methodology to:
I’m excited to share this tool with my colleagues across the State of Vermont and welcome questions, comments and feedback.
* Externalities means all the things that influence student outcomes that are outside of the school’s control. In Vermont, Polarys looks at special education needs, student poverty, language learning status, grades served and test variability.