Small Victories

Today’s post is the second in a four-part series on transforming the data culture at the Gloucester Twp. School District.  Tim Trow, Director of Curriculum and Instruction, writes for the SJDLP.  


“I can’t do that.  I don’t even know where to begin.  It is just too complicated and I’m no good with numbers.”

“We need to radically change what we are doing if we are going to get better results for our students.”

Observation suggests that these two extremes attack progress with utilizing data effectively within classrooms, schools and districts.  They do so insidiously– slowly, and from opposite ends of the continuum.  Individuals either give up before they begin or bite off more than they can chew.

In my last post, we looked at establishing a culture of data leadership.  In this post we will look at the need for incremental growth by looking for “small victories” that demonstrate progress for each member of the organization along a continuum of data use.  Jay McTighe has described this as starting small and looking for an early win in November. This acknowledgment– that nothing big happens fast and that the psychology of a successful experience builds confidence and desire for more— is essential to improving data use and building a culture of sustained growth.

At the conclusion of my first year in my current position as Director of Curriculum, our district was awarded a Achievement Coach state grant from the NJDOE.  After training selected teachers and administrators in various aspects of best practices for student learning and achievement, we chose to turnkey-train our staff in the use of newly-developed reports to inform instructional decisions to improve student achievement. We saw our success in noticeable improvement in student outcomes the subsequent spring on our state assessment results.

Even with this success, one of the lessons learned was that there were pockets of success that drove much of the gains with those who “bought in” and understood the training best.  This was true at the principal and teacher level.  While we thought we had started small and had success, qualitatively it was evident that we should have started with even smaller, more manageable improvement targets.

We believed that with an 11-school district we needed to be sure to do a better job of developing our building administrators’ capacity to lead data discussion and activity if we were going to have the systematic data culture we needed, rather than mere pockets of data-rich discussion and activity.  Sure, I had always been known as a “data guy,” but had I really done enough to make data accessible and practical for others?

     Last summer we contracted with Dr. Tracey Severns who led an administrative retreat with a strong orientation toward curricular leadership, particularly in the area of assessment and data.  Our administrators were inspired and developed action plans for the following year that focused primarily on improving their work in setting expectations and support for richer discussion and use of data in PLC meetings.

I also committed to improving my own modeling and leadership at district administrative curriculum meetings.  We had a district “Data Day” for all administrators in August to review student achievement data in a fashion we had learned from Dr. Severns.  The response of administrators was very positive and I asked them to conduct their own similar activity at their September faculty meeting. District supervisors led activities with specific subject matter teachers at the middle school level and I met with each principal to review their plan and activities early in the fall.  Follow-up meetings in which principals shared their successes and challenges later at principal’s meetings provided opportunities for collaboration and growth as well as keeping the focus on the important goals set by each of them and the district.

What did I learn through this process?  

  • I learned that each principal was at a different place with their comfort and use of data.  
  • I learned that with modeling and support, each of them moved and improved their practice and comfort level with data.  Some discussed data with me for the first time ever. All improved their discussions with staff. 

Throughout this year, I have had the great pleasure of sitting in on numerous building-level, data-rich discussions that identified root causes and led to practical discussions improving practice both instructionally and in support of students’ social/emotional needs.

Are we perfect?  Far from it, but what I know is that we experienced incremental improvement resulting in “small victories” across our district.  Each small victory will allow us to take another step forward as each administrator feels more positive about the district practice and is ready to learn something new.

Regardless of your personal or district level data use, understand that through small intelligent and strategic steps, you can conquer the mountain of data available to us and find practical ways to improve outcomes for students.  The satisfaction of making a difference for students is the reason we all entered this profession and the effort is well worth it!

In my next post, I will explore the need to Trust the Process” as we improve our data practice.

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