Leaders of Data Analysis: More than Crunching Numbers

(Note to readers: This is part three in a series of columns written about Iowa ASCD’s current focus on supporting curriculum leadership across the state.)

In the last column, I proposed curriculum leads consider getting their feet wet and engaging teachers in a collaborative process to understand the nexus between standards, instruction and assessment in all content areas. This week, we’ll be taking a closer look at what it means to be a leader of data analysis.

According to our organization, curriculum leads “assure all educators’ ability to use data to inform, implement, monitor, and evaluate results-based decisions.” At first glance, this function may seem like it’s all about spreadsheets, databases, crunching numbers and creating elaborate reports filled with pie charts. Sure, there’s a time and a place for disaggregating data to reveal gaps across subgroups.   Without a doubt, curriculum leads should be providing assessment and other data in formats staff, parents and community members can easily understand. Our job is to use data to inform others. It is equally as important to “tell the story” about the data for the purpose of generating a solution or next steps than it is to merely crunch the numbers. Let’s be clear: our positions do not require an advanced degree in statistics or mathematics! Our ability to communicate through written language will directly impact our capacity to be leaders of data analysis. Here’s an example. Consider FAST (an early literacy assessment) scores in an elementary building indicating only 65% of students had met grade level benchmarks. If, during the previous school year, 45% of students had met benchmark, this year’s scores would be a huge celebration! On the contrary, comparing this data to the state’s healthy indicators for differentiated accountability (80% or more meeting benchmark is the universal target), the numbers may seem bleak. Clearly communicating these contextual comparisons can be helpful in sharing progress and next steps to stakeholders.

We live in an era with more than enough educational data to fill weeks of endless number crunching. As a former high school math teacher, I naturally bend towards looking at the numbers in isolation rather than figuring out if there’s a bigger picture to consider. Instead, our job is to look at the data in its context, and ask (ourselves and others) compelling questions, such as “Is there anything else we need to know about these data points?” An example of this in my life happened last year when we noted a small drop in Iowa Assessment scores in several grades. It would have been easy to suggest our instruction or curriculum materials needed a boost, however after a closer look, we realized the areas we could most notably improve upon would require us teaching to the test rather than the grade-level standards (which is not something we were willing to do). Investigating the context around these data points lead us to a completely different next step.

Using data to monitor and evaluate is important, too. At a recent AEA curriculum directors’ meeting, a few of us discussed program evaluation and the struggles that go along with effectively and efficiently evaluating various programs in our districts. Realizing program evaluation data does not always need to solely involve test scores was a helpful reminder. For example, my district uses several self-audits and continuums to identify our current level of implementation. We have a continuum to assess each team’s current progress towards our professional learning philosophy (i.e. power standard development, common assessments, data analysis, and action planning) that has informed professional learning and team goal setting during the past several years. Asking questions such as “To what degree are we implementing this practice with fidelity” may be a precursor to concluding the degree to which an initiative or classroom practice is impacting the expected outcomes.

In closing, curriculum leaders are relentlessly building capacity in the school system to use data as a driver of informing, implementing, monitoring, and evaluating results and corresponding decisions. This function does not require advanced training in spreadsheets or mathematics! Leading data analysis does involve summarizing and formatting data in a meaningful way that will allow others to draw conclusions from the information in order to address a specific problem or challenge.

Resources to further learning as a leader of data analysis:

  • Partnering with Parents to ask the Right Questions by Luz Santana, Dan Rothstein, and Agnes Bain (2016, ASCD)
  • Root Cause Analysis: The Core of Problem Solving and Corrective Action by Duke Okes (2009, ASQ Quality Press)
  • Data Analysis for Continuous School Improvement, 4th Edition by Victoria Bernhardt (2017, Routledge)

What does it mean to be a leader of curriculum, instruction, and assessment?

[Note to readers: This column was printed in a November 2017 edition of Iowa ASCD’s The Source e-newsletter.]

What does it mean to be a leader of curriculum, instruction, and assessment?

Not too long ago, I challenged readers to join Iowa ASCD this school year by digging deeper into what it means to be a curriculum lead.  According to our organization, the functions of our work as a curriculum lead include being leaders of…

  • Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment
  • Data Analysis
  • Processes
  • Professional Development
  • Relationship Building
  • Performance
  • Operations, and
  • Change.

In this column, I’d like to describe my experiences leading curriculum, instruction, and assessment, several key questions curriculum leads might ask themselves, and a few resources to further learning in this function.  Throughout the year, future columns will be dedicated to the remaining curriculum leadership functions.  Whether you are a principal also serving in a curriculum leadership role, a full-time central office administrator, or an aspiring teacher leader, I hope this information will be helpful to you in growing your curriculum leadership capacity.

“Effective curriculum leaders must assure that there is a laser-like focus on the alignment of curriculum, instruction, and assessment with identified district-wide standards and benchmarks at every grade level.”  When I was a classroom teacher in the early 2000s, the role of the curriculum director was to assemble a team of teachers and task them with creating a list of the standards and benchmarks for a given content area.  Too often, we grabbed the standards document from a neighboring school district, made a few tweaks and called it our own.  We probably rushed through the standards identification process because we were more concerned about selecting the next textbook series.  With any luck, the materials we recommended for purchase might have some degree of alignment with the standards we documented earlier in the year!

Enter the Iowa Core Curriculum Essential Concepts and Skills in the first decade of the 21st century. Finally! Iowa became the last state in the country to adopt state standards.  Gone are the days of selecting our own standards.  From the outside, selecting textbooks and accompanying materials seems like it should be an easier task now that we have state and national standards.  Not so fast. I often tell the teachers in my district, “there’s no such thing as the Iowa Core police!”  In other words, just because a publisher uses a “standards-aligned” sticker doesn’t mean that we as curriculum leaders should accept it as face value.  I recommend that curriculum and materials committees consider using tools such as the “Publishers Criteria for the Common Core Standards for Mathematics” (available at achievethecore.org) as a starting point when screening sample materials.

Using these tools, curriculum committees might ask questions such as, “Are there any chapters or units that appear in our standards documents?”  You may be surprised to see chapters and sections that publishers carried over from previous editions of the text without any consideration to the grade-level standards.  Curriculum committees might also consider investigating the level of cognitive complexity the materials assume students should be learning the standards.  Resources on IowaCore.gov note some standards’ alignment with Webb’s Depth of Knowledge.  A well-designed set of materials should consider a wide range of questions and activities within Bloom’s Taxonomy or Webb’s Depth of Knowledge.

Finally, curriculum leaders must be concerned with how the standards are assessed in classrooms across the district, beyond vendor-provided tests.  Solution Tree authors and speakers Rick and Becky Dufour have written extensively on the need for teams of teachers to develop common assessments based upon power/priority standards.  Curriculum leads might consider providing these teams with protocols and processes for developing power/priority standards, such as the ones written in books by Larry Ainsworth.  Using these most important standards, teachers should be allocated significant time during the contract day to create common assessments for the purpose of informing classroom instruction.  When two or more teachers analyze data from these assessments, effective teaching strategies can be shared and students in need of additional assistance can be identified for supplemental support.

In closing, curriculum leaders are constantly painting the picture of a shared vision for the integration of curriculum, instruction, and assessment.  Because it seems state standards are constantly under revision (Hello, ELA, science and social studies standards as of late!), our work in this area will never be done.  Relying on neighboring district documents and publisher labels may be an easy way out, however a viable alternative exists.  I hope you will consider getting your feet wet and engaging teachers in a collaborative process to understand the nexus between standards, instruction and assessment in all content areas.  Through this deep dive, we can develop the collective capacity of the organization to assure that all students are successful.

Resources to further learning as a leader of curriculum, instruction, and assessment:

  • Leading Curriculum Development by Jon Wiles (2009, Corwin Press)
  • Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning by Mike Schmoker (2011, ASCD)
  • Common Formative Assessments: How to Connect Standards-Based Instruction and Assessment by Larry Ainsworth (2006, Corwin Press)
  • Ahead of the Curve: The Power of Assessment to Transform Teaching and Learning by Douglas Reeves (2007, Solution Tree)

So, you want to become a curriculum lead?

I wrote the column below for Iowa ASCD’s “The Source,” an e-newsletter for state ASCD affiliate members.

So, you want to become a curriculum lead?

Around this time of the year, I usually receive an email or two from a teacher who is interested in transitioning to a more defined curriculum role.  Whether it’s a classroom teacher who recently completed a masters program or a veteran educator thinking about a teacher leadership role created by TLC funds, desiring to have an impact beyond the classroom can be an exciting, yet uncertain time.  In my experience and observations, several different roles exist involving curriculum leadership.  I will unpack each one in the following paragraphs.

Instructional Coaches

The specific responsibilities of an instructional coach often vary by district or building, however these educators are charged with assisting adults improve their practice as educators.  Sometimes, instructional coaches work alongside individual teachers to provide instructional feedback.  Other times instructional coaches work with groups of teachers (i.e. data teams or collaborative learning teams).  Jim Knight has a nice write-up elaborating on the role of instructional coaches.  Finally, an instructional coach job description may include more formal curriculum leadership roles within a building or district, such as serving on curriculum materials review committees.

Some instructional coaches are content-neutral (i.e. the “elementary instructional coach”) whereas others are content-specific (i.e. the “K-8 math instructional coach.”)  With an increase in teacher leadership dollars the past three years, many Iowa public schools now have funds to employ instructional coaches and other similar roles.  Iowa’s teacher leadership funds come with a few stipulations – teachers assigned to a leadership role must have at least three years of teaching experience and at least one year of experience in the school district (Source: Iowa Department of Education)

AEA Curriculum Consultants

Many area education agencies (AEAs) in Iowa employ math, reading, science, and technology consultants. These positions are content-specific and frequently require a masters degree.  AEA curriculum consultants are often assigned several school districts and provide support to individual teachers or entire departments, as agreed upon by the AEA and district.  AEA curriculum consultants also lead workshops at the agency that teachers across the AEA can participate.  Teachers who desire to make an impact beyond a single school building and enjoy making connections between and across districts may enjoy an AEA curriculum consultant role.  Pre-requisites for this role include a strong content knowledge, pedagogical content knowledge and experience leading professional learning.  In addition, AEA curriculum consultants are often invited to participate on state level task forces and committees when new standards and state initiatives are rolled out in Des Moines.

Curriculum Directors/Coordinators

For the past six years, I have served as a district curriculum director for over 100 teachers and approximately 1,500 students.  In some smaller school districts, the curriculum director responsibilities may be assigned to a principal. Still other small districts, share a curriculum director.  Larger districts may employ several curriculum directors or coordinators who specialize in one or more areas (i.e. “Middle School Director of Teaching & Learning” or “Science Curriculum Coordinator”).  In my role, the curriculum director title comes with many additional responsibilities including directing the ELL, Title 1, gifted education, special education, and teacher leadership programs and overseeing the media services and technology departments.  I complete a number of state and federal reports; facilitate curriculum materials review and purchasing processes; attend meetings to keep abreast of new state and federal initiatives; manage the curriculum and teacher leadership budgets; and serve as the primary contact for Department of Education accreditation.  Often times, curriculum directors are on extended contracts requiring an PK-12 administrative endorsement, however some schools may honor a masters degree in curriculum or a related field.

Concluding Thoughts

Serving as a curriculum lead can be a rewarding experience.  Any step away from working with the same students each day/week deserves careful thought.  Hopefully, this column provides an overview of several possible curriculum leadership roles.  We’re fortunate in Iowa each public school opening must be posted on TeachIowa.gov, so we have a one stop shop for curriculum leadership openings throughout the year.  Are you wondering if your experiences might be preparing you for a curriculum leadership role?  It would be my pleasure to review and provide feedback on your resume.  Happy job hunting!