Examining the Existence of and the Conditions for Teacher Commitment and Capacity for Data Use: An Exploratory Study of MNPS Middle School Math and Language Arts Teachers
Enright, Deborah Macfarlan
Witham, Peter James
The initiation of the era of educational accountability brought with it an abundance of data on student performance in the form of outcome results from standardized tests. These test scores provide information for the teacher about her individual students and her classes in general. The data also provides the school with a detailed composite of the achievement levels of the entire school population. The achievement levels of students in our public school system reported through these scores provide snapshots as well as longitudinal data to faculty and staff. The use of data for instructional planning has the potential to positively impact the decisions teachers make regarding individual students and entire classes. The standards-based movement with its shift from educational and financial inputs to achievement based outcomes brought on the need for more evidenced based data to supply information to teachers that could then be turned into knowledge to inform instruction. The use of this evidence based data rendered from standardized tests to inform instruction strengthens the reach of the No Child Left Behind legislation in that it holds every district, school, and each classroom accountable for the educational success of every child within the school system. Data use has become an expected linchpin for decision making within the classroom. While this data fueled analysis is now routine for educators in their practice, proficiency in its use remains in question. Data from which a teacher can inform her instructional decisions abound in a classroom. Prior to the more formal collection and dissemination of one type of data from the district office in the form of standardized test scores, teachers gathered information about their students through accrued experience, intuition and an understanding of the socioeconomic underpinnings of their students. The information was based upon an unsystematic collection mechanism that relied on perception and judgment. The extracted knowledge was neither complete nor reliable by scientific standards, but served to inform teachers as to who was in their classrooms and how the students went about the process of learning. The capacity to distill data points into forms of information that provide knowledge to a district, school, and classroom is the essence of the issue facing Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools in their use of data to inform instruction. The issue of teacher capacity and commitment to use data to inform instruction stimulates the project submitted by the MNPS Office of Assessment to conduct a research project that uncovers the range of data teachers are using to inform their instruction. The Request for Assistance from the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools system calls for an "in-depth, qualitative analyses of teachers" DDDM practices. The first capstone project focused primarily on principal data use and capacity, but did not provide the depth of information to adequately understand how and why teachers use data in their professional practice. The project specifically asks for analyses that examine data driven decision making at the "classroom-level; where teacher data driven decision-making meets student learning". Required components for the design of the research study included qualitative methods of data collection to "explore teacher knowledge, attitudes, and behavior related to data driven decision making." (MNPS Capstone RFP) The design of the current study was grounded in the earlier 2006-07 Capstone, which sought to focus on uncovering the capacity of current MNPS principals to train teachers to use data. The RFP for the 2006-07 Capstone specifically asked the Project Team to (1) Evaluate the scope of principal data use (2) Assess how well the district's data training strategies are aligned with data use needs (3) Develop recommendations for improved data training strategies The findings of the 2006-07 Capstone prompted recommendations centered around investing in teacher leadership, creating expectations for more leadership development opportunities, increasing the resources principals can focus on developing their leadership skills, creating an induction program for teachers and principals, and finding funding sources outside of the budget process to support the efforts of the district to build capacity of data use among the school leadership and faculty. This context drove the design of our study. We focused on the data use in the MNPS middle schools division level. The MNPS statistics along with the national data regarding achievement gaps for 8th grade African American males shows that this group of students demands our attention. The MNPS school district enrolls 75,000 students in 133 schools. The district is under corrective action by the state of Tennessee. Seventy-eight percent of the district high schools (11) are on the NCLB High Priority List; a list that indicates schools that fail to meet benchmark criteria for proficiency rates in English and Math for one or more subgroups within the school population for one year or more. Sixty percent of the middle schools are on this list as well. Only 11% of elementary schools in the district are on the list. This Ed.D. Capstone project guided through the Department of Leadership Policy & Organization sought to work with the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools district to evaluate the knowledge, skills, and behavior of teachers as they use data to drive instructional practices. MNPS charged the research team with the job of describing the current situations and events surrounding the use of data to inform instruction in its teacher corps. As such, the key purposes for this research study were descriptive and exploratory in nature. After an examination of the literature and developing an in depth understanding of the districts goals, resources, and strategies surrounding the dissemination of data use to inform instruction, our Project Team designed a mixed methods research study with the following components: a) Identify schools within the district that have teachers with strong data driven decision-making skills b) Develop an interview protocol based upon relevant literature evaluating the capacity of middle school math and language arts teachers to use c) Create a rubric from the collected data showing best practices of d) Construct a survey instrument from these findings to distribute to teachers of the studied disciplines in the district's middle schools e) Determine the degree to which MNPS middle school math and language arts teachers are effectively practicing skills f) Report our findings to the Director of Assessments to aid in the development of professional development strategies to build data use capacities across the district's middle schools The exploratory portion of the research involved an examination of the following elements: - Level of commitment towards using district data on the classroom level - Capacity of MNPS teachers to use a range of data to inform instruction - Ability of the school-site leadership to strengthen the aptitude of their faculty - Role that district's data professional development initiative has played in the present use of data to inform instruction - Barriers to comprehensive data use on the part of the teachers within the schools studied In order to accomplish these tasks, we conducted over 30 interviews in three middle schools that were identified by the district as using Best Practice methods for informing instruction through data. Math and language arts teachers and head principals made up the sample. We administered an open-ended survey to over 60 teachers in 6 selected middle schools in the MNPS district. Our findings show that the level of commitment and capacity among the MNPS middle school level faculties in using data to inform instruction is fundamentally linked to principal commitment and capacity as well as the organizational context in which the school resides. We also found that while the teachers endorse on some levels the commitment level of the district toward large-scale data use in MNPS Schools, their perceptions of resource allocation and delivery of data were unfavorable to the efforts of the district. Our overall findings include: - Teacher commitment and capacity were impacted by the expectations, structures and training opportunities provided by school leaders and the district. - Principal leadership strongly influences the level of commitment and capacity held by their faculty toward the use of data to inform instruction - Contextual Factors impacts the level of expectations, structures, and training provided to teachers by school leadership in the use of data to inform instruction - District resources including Professional Development and Technology were not sufficient for improving teacher commitment or capacity Based on the analysis of the findings, our contextual understanding of MNPS, and the framework for change described in our paper, we proposed the following three recommendations to the district: Recommendation 1: Invest in training in principal leadership to improve their commitment and capacity to orient district resources around impacting data informed instruction. Recommendation 2: Expand and improve the existing professional development program around data use to ensure the district resources of technology, time, and access to data are central to teacher training. Recommendation 3: Improve the existing resources of technology, time, and access to data to positively impact teacher commitment and capacity for data use. Grounded in the organizational structures of the district, the recommendations and evaluation plan provide a foundation upon which to build further, more specific initiatives around data for grade levels, subject areas, or school divisions. Uncovering other opportunities to strengthen the district's initiative to increase best practice use in schools, supplies ideas for further research including: - Studies centered on understanding the use of data across all middle schools in the district would provide useful information. - Studying the phenomenon of linking described in the findings could provide information to the district that would create a model to formalize this type of collaboration across grade levels, subject areas, schools, and divisions. - Conducting a longitudinal study of a group of students' grades 3-12 would prove valuable in evaluating the impact data use by teachers had on student achievement. - Conducting a year's study that follows some middle school teachers to "see" the use of data. - A study on the teacher instructional practice associated with a school attempting to improve their status on the AYP benchmark list would provide critical evidence as to how these teachers view their own instruction, how they perceive their students as learners, and how these two elements influence teacher behavior.