The Data Wise Difference: Harnessing Data to Improve Student Outcomes

Watch this short video to hear Branchville Elementary teachers describe the beginning phases of their Data Wise Journey.

Each day, inside the vibrant, bustling classrooms at the Branchville Elementary School in Ridgefield, CT, the fifth-grade team engages its students in group discussions, provides one-on-one instruction, and teaches a wide range of subjects from reading to science to social studies.

Yet in early 2018, teachers Kristi Byrne, Lauren Da Lan, and Megan Livolsi noticed a trend among their students. As they analyzed data culled from reading unit assignments, as well as pre- and post-assessments, the team observed that students often struggled with how to answer complex, multi-faceted questions. They grappled with this skill on a number of fronts – struggling with how to tackle these questions, answering just discrete parts, or failing to answer the correct question.

According to Byrne, the team realized that students were not taking an organized, strategic approach to developing their responses. “Eventually we determined that there was a student-centered problem with how students were answering a complex question or how they weren’t actually answering the question,” she says.

Fortunately, the Branchville Elementary School team was well-equipped to both identify and address these challenges due to its experience with Data Wise, a collaborative data inquiry process developed at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) that drives continuous teaching and learning improvements for all students. The team engaged in job-embedded learning through Data Wise courses in which they tailored the program’s key concepts to align with the needs of their unique student population.

The ability to harness student data to solve instructional challenges is becoming an increasingly critical skill in today’s complex learning environments. Schools process significant amounts of data – from standardized assessments to regular classroom work to subject tests – and it takes time, commitment, and collaboration to fully analyze these findings and translate them into actionable steps that lead to better student outcomes.

With a combination of on-campus and online programs developed by HGSE Professional Education, Data Wise grounds school leadership teams in an eight-step improvement process that helps teams “prepare,” “inquire,” and “act.” In addition, Data Wise helps schools frame their overall data inquiry experience by cultivating the “ACE Habits of Mind,” where “A” stands for a shared commitment to action, assessment, and adjustment, “C” denotes intentional collaboration, and “E” is for a relentless focus on evidence.

Branchville Elementary SchoolFor the Ridgefield School District – the system in which Branchville operates – Data Wise offered a field-tested framework that assisted the district in identifying several challenges, including how to provide support for all students in all areas and ensure consistency within schools and programs.

The journey began in August 2017, when Ridgefield’s K-12 Humanities Supervisor and creator of the accompanying short video below Dr. Alison Villanueva, Branchville Elementary School Principal Keith Margolus, and two middle school instructional specialists participated in the weeklong Data Wise Leadership Institute: Virtual Onsite offering, where the team worked through the Data Wise principles and methodologies. This innovative professional development experience allowed the team to have an intensive professional learning experience at home in their own district, with all course materials and daily video support provided by the Harvard team.

Shortly after Branchville Elementary finished their participation in the Data Wise Leadership Institute: Virtual Onsite, a leadership team from the school began taking Data Wise in Action, an online course that provides job-embedded support and live video feedback as participants roll out the Data Wise Improvement Process in their setting. Realizing the potential impact of the program, the leadership team planned a thoughtful rollout of Data Wise for the whole Branshfield faculty, including the fifth-grade teaching staff.

According to Margolus, the leadership team “did a lot of tee-up for the entire building before even bringing it to grade five,” which included working through the first three steps of the Data Wise process – “organize for collaborative work,” “build assessment literacy,” and “create data overview.”

“Understanding the steps that you take – starting with looking at data in a raw way, taking it to the classroom, and then getting to work with each other – is invaluable,” Da Lan says. “I really think that it’s a nice, structured way of looking at needs in the classroom, breaking it into steps, and then tackling these little problems that come up in a really useful and effective way.”

The next two steps in the Data Wise inquiry process – “dig into student data” and “examine instruction” – had particular resonance with the Branchville fifth-grade teachers. Not only did this work allow the team to recognize student challenges regarding complex questions, but also it better positioned the staff to identify a solution.

“We realized that we actually have never explicitly taught these students how to approach a problem, how to even read a question, and what you can do when it’s challenging,” Livolsi says.

At the same time, the team learned to analyze observational data about their own classroom practice with the same rigor that they used when looking at student assessments. To do this, they used formal discussion protocols that helped them cultivate the “relentless focus on evidence” habit of mind and stay aware of where they were on the “Ladder of Inference.” Literacy coach Alison Carmody says the Data Wise experience already is making an impact.

“We’re grounding our decisions – and just the way that we talk about student work and what our students are doing – in evidence,” she says. “We’re not making assumptions.”

Currently, Data Wise is being incorporated into all six Ridgefield elementary schools and both middle schools. With the program expected to be fully embedded in the system by 2019, the goal is to transform how teachers and administrators collaborate to foster better student outcomes through data inquiry. “I’m really blown away by the evidence from Ridgefield,” said Kathy Boudett, director of the Data Wise Project and HGSE faculty member. “They haven’t had to travel to us and we haven’t had to travel to them. But we’ve learned together as the team’s work has unfolded. It is exciting see how technology is creating opportunities for scaling instructional improvement that just weren’t available when Data Wise was first published.”

According to Da Lan, “We’ve grown a lot, and we’ve seen a lot – in our own teaching and in what the students can do – through this lens of a structured process.”

Learn more about Data Wise:

Written by Stephanie Kaufman