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Inside the Data-Tracking RttT-D Projects That Won Millions

Two Race to the Top-District winners show how they are using data to drive school reforms and personalize education.

data tracking programs
This article appears in the June 2013 issue of T.H.E. Journal
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When the 16 Race to the Top-District victors were announced in December 2012, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan proclaimed, "Now these winners can empower their school leaders to pursue innovative ideas where they have the greatest impact: in the classroom." He backed up his statement with nearly $400 million in awards to be spent over the next four years to demonstrate how the districts could personalize education for each student in their schools, one of the core goals of RTT-D.

Two of the winning districts are about as different as they could be. Lindsay Unified's eight schools and 4,100 students are located in California's agriculture-heavy Central Valley. Charleston County, with 80 schools and 46,000 students, is the second largest school system in South Carolina, representing urban, suburban, and rural districts covering 1,000 square miles of coastal land. But the two districts do share three characteristics. Both have faced considerable challenges in dealing with low performance. Both are pursuing school reform through--as Charleston puts it--"instructional excellence and technology." And both believe their future success requires effective tracking of data related to student and teacher performance.

Tracking Learner Data at Lindsay
Lindsay's reform program had its start in 2007, when the district began working with Marzano Research Laboratory and the Re-Inventing Schools Coalition (RISC). Superintendent Tom Rooney bought into the vision that students ("learners" in district vernacular) learned at their own pace and had to take ownership of their learning--the basis of a personalized education. In this scenario, keeping track of progress goes way beyond entering the occasional formative assessment grade into a gradebook. Instead the teachers ("learning facilitators") must capture continual snapshots of learners' progress.

In the early days of student data tracking, the only real technology was "paper and pencil," says RISC cofounder Rick Schreiber. As a teacher two decades ago, he recalls, "I had a big file cabinet, and within that file cabinet, for each student I had 10 manila folders. And each of those folders represented the 10 content areas where we had standards and assessments which were connected to the report card. That's how we kept track of where students were with their learning. At least that was my strategy."

Now, thankfully, much of that tedious data management is automated. Lindsay uses Educate from ThreeShapes, an "electronic progress monitoring system," as Rooney describes it, that also provides the foundation of the district's data tracking plans.

In the past, says Rooney, a mark of zero in the gradebook typically meant the student hadn't successfully done a particular activity. But in personalized learning that's not really an accurate assessment. After all, if a student has taken even the smallest step toward a learning goal, a zero doesn't reflect the current state.

"When we redid our grading system, we eliminated A through F grades, we eliminated averaging, we eliminated the zero score. They don't make sense when you're trying to really determine if a learner knows the knowledge or not, and what parts of the knowledge they know and what parts they don't know. We ended up with Educate because the company really embraced and understands performance-based education."

In other words, Lindsay can now track the back-and-forth stages of learners' progress on the way to proficiency. Evidence of learning might include an oral test or a learning log, a play or research paper, a recital, a taped presentation, an online or paper-and-pencil quiz, or any number of other demonstrations. A learner must demonstrate proficiency for each performance target within each learning task three times before moving onto the next topic (exceptions to that rule do exist). That's three 3.0 scores, with the maximum score representing complex knowledge. A score below 3.0 doesn't hurt, Rooney explains. "It's just an honest reflection of where you are right now" in the learning.

The data isn't just captured; it's also shared. Learners have exactly the same access to Educate data as learning facilitators do. Every learning target for kindergarten through high school in math, language arts, science, social studies, English language development, and all of the elective courses is defined and uploaded into the system. At any time, a learner--or his or her family--can log on and see topics of study and learning targets for each topic.

And except for the youngest grade levels, everybody is taught to use the same academic vocabulary. Without that, says Rooney, the impact "gets watered down, even though you don't want it to be. What you find if you teach to the language of the standard is that [the students] get it."

This transition to continual transparency has come with surprises for some participants, such as parents. Suddenly, they can see where each and every gap is--and they're not necessarily happy about it. Rooney's response: "Sorry. We haven't always been transparent. We didn't have an effective system in place to give you feedback or progress or accurate knowledge about what your child knows or doesn't know. So here we are now. Aren't you glad we're being honest with you now?"

But Lindsay is currently only poking at the edges of what it can do with data, Rooney insists. "There are many more resources that we are not accessing simply because we're rolling out a piece of it at a time."

For example, California, where Lindsay is located, has adopted the Common Core State Standards; the standards currently loaded into the data tracking system need to be aligned to CCSS. Also, the district wants to go beyond "level three" targets and add level four assessments too. As Rooney explains, level three is the proficient standard, which, to the district's way of thinking, is "the minimum requirement." At level four, the student has mastered a standard and has moved into "the application of knowledge," where he is able to teach others or model for others how to master it.

Beyond that, the district is looking to implement learning resources matched to learners' needs. Using RTT-D funds, Lindsay's software will evolve into a "digital learning platform" that maintains resource links to websites, instructional modules, videos, and other curriculum. "All of that is eventually going to be captured in Educate, so our learners can really personalize their learning," says Rooney. Eventually, he adds, students will also be able to pick a learning style preference and the program will match the academic standard with appropriate resources. If a student learns best through games or videos, for example, appropriate digital curriculum materials will be available to work with.

The district will also be building out an edition of the digital learning platform for use by the instructors. According to Rooney, the facilitator platform will be used by all of the adults in the equation: teachers, directors, principals, superintendents, and school board members. In other words, if the philosophical approach is good enough for the district's students, it should be good enough for the adults too. The program will include competencies, professional development modules, and the mechanisms for recording proof of mastery.

Tracking Teacher Data at Charleston
Although Charleston County is also working with RISC and embraces the emphasis on learning mastery over "seat credits," the district is building its momentum by adopting a system for tracking data tied to professional development. Increasing educator effectiveness, according to Associate Superintendent Lisa Herring, is crucial to improving student achievement.

Scaling up will be a bigger challenge for the South Carolina district than for Lindsay. After all, Charleston County has 11 times as many students, 10 times as many schools, and nearly six times as many educators to deal with. "CCSD has learned to be careful not to implement an everything-at-once approach, or it will overwhelm our instructional corps, and nothing will be sustainable," the district wrote in its RTT-D proposal. The ED was so concerned about teacher buy-in among all of the applicants that it included an RTT-D stipulation that districts supply proof that they had support either from the collective bargaining unit or from at least 70 percent of teachers. Charleston, notes Herring, was able to go beyond the 70 percent threshold.

In terms of making the transition to personalized learning, even though students might be an easier target, Herring says that "the teacher transition would be the one we'd definitely focus on first and foremost. We're being thoughtful and strategic." The teachers have a lot at stake; their compensation system is being "reformed." Under the new program, the measurement of student outcomes will be part of determining how educators are promoted and rewarded.

The district had been using a state-vetted system, ADEPT (for Assisting, Developing, and Evaluating Professional Teaching). But about a year and a half ago, recognizing that transitioning teachers would be "one of the most critical elements of success" in implementing personalized learning, the district also adopted a system that better aligned with the "professional learning cycle" followed by its educators. PALMS, the "Personal Achievement Learning Management System," developed and customized by Truenorthlogic, does for K-12 human capital management what Educate does for learner management: It maintains scads of data--not about students, but about educators. The application captures details from multiple data sources about learning and growth plans for teachers, including certification and licensing records, evaluation results, professional development, and differentiated pay. This data is then analyzed and scored to produce an overall "educator effectiveness rating."

Recently, the district issued an RFP to build an online program that integrates human resources data with a library of professional development and curriculum resources that will include a 360-degree evaluation tool for assessing school leader performance. The plan is to link PALMS to the student assessment data system and the district's payroll system. The goal, according to Charleston County's grant narrative, is to enhance "our ability to make data-based decision-making related to human capital and to allocate resources strategically within our district, particularly to our high-need schools."

The district has to "grow into" the PALMS system, Herring says. That growth is turning out to be a multiyear process. Piloting is starting in 14 schools. By the 2016-2017 school year, Charleston expects to deploy the compensation system to the teachers and principals in all 82 of its schools. Eventually, the ratings maintained with PALMS will drive decisions about leadership roles, career ladders, salary schedule realignment, and recruitment and retention bonuses at those high-need schools.

In the meantime, Herring reports, Charleston County is preparing for all of its other RTT-D commitments, including professional development for teachers and site visits by principals to other schools that have already implemented personalized learning "to see what the end product really looks like." That may eventually include a visit across the country to Lindsay as well.

The Payoff
When Lindsay made the final RTT-D cut, Superintendent Rooney told local reporters that he would have continued on his path whether or not the district had won anything through the federal program. Given that Lindsay is now $10 million richer, those existing plans will be accelerated "exponentially," he added. Before the four-year period that marks the RTT-D program is up, the district has committed to setting up a public portal that will let other schools around the country upload, download, and otherwise share its "standards, rubrics, activities, pathways, and assessments."

And that, after all, is the point of RTT-D: to jump-start reform models for personalized education that other districts can emulate. As Rooney declares, once the programs are in place and proven, other districts will be able to "replicate what we've done," but much faster. "A journey that will have taken us six to seven years will literally take another district maybe two [years] to transition from a traditional system to a performance-based education system--if they have the right philosophy and desire."

Against the backdrop of Secretary Duncan's recent request for $71 billion in discretionary spending for education in 2014, if the work of these schools--and the other winning districts--succeeds in sparking a broad movement to start adopting the proven elements of personalized education models, RTT-D could look like a bargain.