Better Teaching Through Data
For several years, the Maimonides School, a Modern Orthodox PreK–12 school in Brookline, Massachusetts, struggled with a growing population of learners who had learning disabilities. In classrooms every day, some portion of students found it difficult to read (both in Hebrew and English) or, in settings that largely centered around frontal teaching, to process information or behave appropriately. As a result, many students either stayed and struggled or left the school. Indeed, for some administrators, especially those in the lower school (which serves Grades K–5 and about 170 students), the struggle seemed to represent a challenge to the school’s very mission. To their minds, if core classrooms accommodated only a certain type of learner, then the Maimonides School was not living up to its promise to make available a robust Jewish and secular education to all students in the Modern Orthodox community of Greater Boston.
Administrators understood that the school needed to strengthen its instruction to better accommodate diverse learners. They recognized the need to start by getting teachers to speak to one another about their own instruction. Spurred by a Jim Joseph Foundation grant funneled through the local federation (Combined Jewish Philanthropies) and Gateways: Access to Jewish Education, Boston’s central agency for Jewish special education, Maimonides administration and faculty experimented initially with so-called “action research,” a reflective process whereby teachers would collaborate to discuss particular problems of practice encountered in the classroom.
Each grade of teachers would meet regularly to share and discuss a particular pedagogical technique being tried in the classroom. While these discussions did begin to break down the old ways of teaching in the school—teachers gradually came to see themselves as part of a team, rather than a collection of solo practitioners—these early attempts at teacher collaboration still lacked real substance and accountability. Most significantly, “action research” was centered more on the educators and what they were teaching, rather than on the students and what they were learning.
The Emergence of Data
Only with the implementation of the Response to Intervention (RTI) structure did teachers begin to draw deep connections between instruction and the learning of every student. According to the RTI Network, RTI is a “multi-tier approach to the early identification and support of students with learning and behavior needs.” Using research-based assessments aligned to a robust curriculum, teachers can easily and quickly identify those students who are not learning to expectations and then can adjust their instruction to better meet each child’s specific needs. (In some cases, support must extend beyond the core classroom.) In the end, RTI “creat[es] a well-integrated system of instruction and intervention guided by child outcome data.” (For a more detailed summary of RTI, see rtinetwork.org/learn/what/whatisrti.)
The grade-level meetings shifted to analyzing the periodic assessment data and discussing ways to modify instruction to support students who were not meeting benchmark expectations. Maimonides started its data review and analysis of the DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills) assessment and then expanded to other instruments that measure different aspects of literacy skill development. The lower-school faculty now also has applied the RTI methods of assessment and data review to other subjects, most notably mathematics and Hebrew.
The commitment of school administrators has been critical to the consistent and effective operation of RTI. For starters, the school reconfigured the students’ schedule to ensure each grade team could meet for one hour every other week to review data, discuss student outcomes and review their instruction. (The school achieved this hour-long “carve out” by arranging for students to have weekly back-to-back “specials” or, in grades K–2, a special that backs up against lunch/recess.) Second, the principal, associate principal and other administrators attend and contribute to these meetings and, within the meeting setting, treat faculty as their peers, puzzling out with the teachers how to help specific students.
Third, to ensure meeting productivity, the school adheres to the agendas and protocols promoted by DataWise, a program of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. These three elements of the data meetings—dedicated time, strict protocols with delineated outcomes, and a multi-tiered and open discussion around instruction—together convey to teachers that their efforts to hone instruction to meet the needs of every student matter. Moreover, they come to see that by better differentiating their instruction, they can indeed elevate student performance for a diverse range of learners.
Outcomes and Lessons Learned
After five years of effort, what has been the impact? There are two categories of impact: teacher practice and student learning.
Teachers report that their concept of their role in the classroom has shifted to become facilitators of learning rather than deliverers of content. This shift is rooted in the sense teachers now have that each child may learn differently and thus needs to be exposed to and interact with content differently. The time spent discussing how to align teaching to boost student outcomes—not to mention all the informal discussions that have become the norm in the school—has created a paradigm shift in teacher self-perception. More concrete changes have come about as well, including the development and implementation of a richer curriculum that holds out high expectations for learning while being adaptive to different learning needs.
Meanwhile, the impact on student learning has been measurable. Not only has the percentage of students in Grades K–3 who met the end-of-year fluency benchmark (as measured through DIBELS) grown from 40 percent to 60 percent, the proportion of students who score “well below benchmark” has been halved (from 32 to 16). Perhaps even more important, the number of students receiving learning support outside of class has dropped significantly, meaning that teachers are simply better equipped to educate a broader cohort of students in the context of the core classroom.
Even with these successes, the school has room for improvement in both core instruction and in pinpointing student needs. Beyond the technical aspects of education, the educators still grapple with the balancing act of serving a diverse learner population and upholding high academic standards. The faculty may be more skilled at this balance, but the challenge still exists.
As for lessons learned, the school finds three in particular:
Individual teachers and the faculty as a whole can improve instruction, with the right opportunities in place. In particular, the fact that Maimonides administration dedicates real time for professional learning, in the form of data meetings to analyze student outcomes and the intricacies of instruction, has been the engine to drive improvement in teaching and learning.
Addressing the education of students with atypical learning needs must become part and parcel of the overall teaching and learning equation. If struggling students are separated from their classroom peers—either conceptually by not holding them to high standards, or physically by pulling them out for support services—then instruction lags for all students.
Real improvement takes time. First, teachers must shift their self-perception to be team members and collaborators, rather than individual agents, and second, they must hone their practices in the classroom by responding to student learning outcomes. Both of these shifts, which often occur in tandem rather than sequentially, require frequent and sustained opportunities for learning among the adults in the building.
Inspired by their mission, the administrators and faculty at Maimonides Lower School are committed to expanding their efforts to educate all students who walk through their doors. After investing in the practices that spur and support teachers’ growth, Maimonides foresees the day when an even broader range of students will find success.
Information from this article was drawn from research developed as part of the Profiles of Inclusion initiative of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education-JTS.