by Victoria L. Bernhardt
With School Reform
Schools that utilize information about
their school communities can better
institutionalize systemic change.
Just about every school in every state throughout the nation is attempting
to reform, restructure, reengineer or rethink the business of "school."
What separates the schools that will be successful in their reform efforts
from the ones that won't is the use of one, often neglected, essential element-data.
Schools that utilize and analyze information about their school communities
make better decisions about what to change and how to institutionalize systemic
change. Schools that understand the needs of their clientele-the students-are
more successful in implementing changes and remain more focused during implementation.
Additionally, schools that use data understand the effectiveness of their
reform effort, those that don't can only assume.
Schools that are committed to improvement must analyze existing data. They
also must collect and analyze additional data in order to understand:
The current and future needs of the school,
students, parents, teachers and the community
How well the current processes meet these
The ways in which the school and community
The root causes of problems
The types of educational programs and expertise
needed in the future
The types of data that assist schools in planning and sustaining systemic
reform include demographics; attendance/enrollment; drop-out/graduation
rates; assessments of current teaching practices; teachers', students' and
parents' perceptions of the learning environment; student-achievement data;
problem analyses; and ongoing assessments of progress.
The importance of data
We in education have a history of adopting one innovation after another
as they are introduced. Very few of us, however, take the time to understand
the needs of the children we serve, the impact that our current processes
have on children, root causes of recurring problems and how to measure and
analyze the impacts after we implement new approaches.
The use of data can make an enormous difference in school reform efforts,
improving school processes and student learning. Data can help us replace
hunches and hypotheses with facts concerning what changes are needed; identify
the root causes of problems, so we can solve the problem and not the symptom;
assess needs to target important issues; know if goals are being accomplished;
determine if we are walking our talk; understand the impact of efforts,
processes and progress; and continuously improve all aspects of the learning
One small, rural Northern California community learned a valuable lesson
regarding the difference between hypotheses and fact while investigating
why the majority of their high-school graduates dropped out of college before
the end of their first year. The community learned that they could have
spent a great deal of money and time "solving a symptom," maybe
never getting to the real issue-the quality of their academic programs.
Each year, for several years, the community watched 80 percent of its high-school
graduates go off to college in the fall, 40 percent return to the community
by Christmas, and almost 95 percent return by the end of spring-for good.
This recurring problem was discussed widely among teachers and the community.
Their hypothesis was that the problem centered around the students' lack
of experience and social skills. Their students simply did not have the
social skills to function in other environments. Also, everyone knew that
their students did not interact positively with people they knew, so they
could not possibly know how to interact positively with strangers.
Based on this "knowledge," the school district began an extensive
restructuring effort that centered around working with all K-12 students
to develop their social and communication skills. At the request of a consultant,
who was hired to " make this vision a shared community vision,"
the teachers reluctantly conducted a telephone survey of their graduates,
asking them why they had dropped out of college. Almost without exception,
graduates said the following: "They made me write. I can't write!"
Based on this fact-finding survey, the focus of the restructuring effort
changed immediately, and the school district began using the data on an
One large Southern California elementary school learned the value of disaggregating
their data to understand their students and to aid their reform efforts.
School personnel stated that their students' test scores were very low because
their population included so many "limited-English-speaking children"
who were keeping the school's scores at a low level. They also reported
that because of these children, they could not become a math-, science-
and technology-magnet school.
The standardized achievement tests that had been given during the previous
five years were analyzed. It was clear that while the reading and writing
scores of the students with limited-English-speaking abilities were lower
than the other students, they outscored those students in science and mathematics.
With this and other information, the teachers researched strategies that
could be used to everyone's advantage.
The school became a mathematics-, science- and technology-magnet school.
It utilized hands-on activities in these areas to build language competence
in their targeted population, while increasing all students' science and
mathematics knowledge. The test scores of the students with limited-English-speaking
skills improved significantly in one year.
Another elementary school in California's Central Valley learned how to
use empirical data to see that they were not walking their talk. The data
provided guidance in establishing a new purpose for the school and in understanding
how to reach their goals.
The teachers stated that the purpose of their school was "to prepare
students for middle school." As a means of gathering data to understand
how well they were accomplishing this goal, a small group of teachers went
to the middle schools and high schools, and asked questions of teachers
and former elementary-school students. The teachers were mortified to find
that the majority of the students who left the elementary school with limited-English-speaking
skills were forever tracked in special-education and/or bilingual programs
that did not allow them to take college or career-preparation classes. Some
had dropped out of school.
The teachers came to the consensus that the purpose of their school, which
served a mostly (about 85%) limited-English-speaking community, was to do
much more than prepare them for the middle school. The school needed to
prepare students by giving them the language skills upon which a career
in the United States would be based.
These teachers went back to their school knowing that their highest priority
was to get their students speaking, reading and writing English successfully
before they left elementary school. They examined the processes used to
teach students English. They were teaching English to non-English-speaking
children for 20 minutes each day and moving 35 children into English-speaking
classrooms each year-a process they had been doing for the last four years.
And, because the product of the process was the same every year, a process
change was required in order to get different results.
By doubling the time spent teaching English, more than double the number
of students became fluent in English. Besides learning how to measure their
processes, the teachers learned the importance of tracking student performance
on an ongoing basis, ensuring every student's success.
Schools do not ignore data deliberately. They often are just not aware of
the wealth of information that can make their jobs easier (through knowing
what works and what doesn't) and more satisfying (by learning how to get
the results they want).
Some of the reasons schools may not use data regularly include the following:
The work culture does not focus on data.
Gathering data is perceived to be a waste of
Few, if any, people at schools are adequately
trained to gather and analyze data, or establish and maintain databases.
There's no one to gather and analyze data.
Administrators and teachers think it's not
their job to analyze data.
Administrators do not direct office workers
to gather and/or analyze data.
Computer systems are outdated and inadequate.
Appropriate, user-friendly software is not
District personnel have antiquated job definitions
and helping schools with data isn't their priority.
From the state level on down, data is not
School personnel have only had negative experiences
School personnel are threatened by data.
There are not enough examples of schools gathering,
maintaining and benefiting from the use of data.
Solutions to lack of use
It is crucial to look beyond the obvious when reaching conclusions about
solutions to school problems. It is also crucial to reflect on the entire
system and understand how change in one part may affect other parts. One
of the purposes of gathering so much information is to help schools understand
surrounding issues and to find the root causes of problems. If we don't
understand the root causes, we will continue to spin our wheels.
Since traditional solutions are not working to improve schools and student
achievement, we need to look at new solutions for making data gathering
and analysis a critical part of the school culture. Some suggestions are:
Work at the state level to make all state-gathered
data available to school districts (that can then make the data readily
available to schools).
Help schools learn how to dedicate resources
to data-driven decision making, and show them how they can save resources
by analyzing data.
Choose someone at the school to gather and
Make it everyone's job at the school to utilize
Make everyone focus on students and their
While in their preparation programs, train
teachers and administrators to use and understand data
Make data-driven self-evaluation the personnel-evaluation
Utilize a comprehensive organizer, such as
a school portfolio, to help make the data-gathering congruent with the school's
Perhaps it is pure optimism that gets in the way of gathering and analyzing
data in schools. Whatever it is that keeps us from assessing our progress
and products adequately, we must listen to and gather from all sources,
so we know where we are going and how we are doing.
From the examples mentioned previously, you can see that data gathering
to benefit children does not require a Ph.D. in statistics. Sometimes it
only requires asking the people closest to the action a question.
About the author
Victoria L. Bernhardt is executive director of the Education for
the Future Initiative, sponsored by the Pacific Bell Foundation, and professor
on leave from the Department of Professional Studies in Education at California
State University, Chico.
Bernhardt also directs the systemic reform of schools and districts in the
northernmost counties of the WestEd Region XI, federally funded Comprehensive
Assistance Center and the implementation of technology throughout the learning
organizations of 12 Pacific Bell Education First Demonstration sites. She
is the author of The School Portfolio: A Comprehensive Framework for School
Improvement, available from Eye on Education, 6 Depot Way W., Ste. 106,
Larchmont, NY 10538, (914) 833-0551.