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Not enough time to be data-driven

I do a lot of work with schools on data-driven accountability issues. Before you immediately decide that I’m just another data huckster, I’ll point out now that my work with schools focuses on good ongoing, formative assessment for student progress monitoring purposes rather than on the stupid yearly summative autopsy data that most schools are spending WAY too much time on. Intelligent use of progress monitoring data related to key academic and other educational goals has been shown time and time again, in both high-quality research studies and in tens of thousands of schools and classrooms across the country, to have significant impacts on student learning outcomes. The most common complaint that I hear from teachers, however, is that they’re already pressed – they don’t have time to add another thing to their plate. Balderdash. Here are a few things that teachers can get rid of that will free up some valuable time.

Teachers work extremely hard. They’re some of the most caring, dedicated people I know. But, like most of us, they often don’t use the time that they have very effectively (or others don’t use their time very intelligently). If we truly care about student learning, we should be taking a critical look at teachers’ precious time and try to eliminate many of our low-yield practices.

  • How about coloring? As Mike Schmoker points out so eloquently, students in elementary schools spend a LOT of time coloring. Couldn’t teachers do a little less of this and spend some of that time doing quick, timely, useful assessments of student learning and/or individualized instruction for struggling students?
  • Cursive writing, anyone? Does anyone think this will be a needed skill in the digital future? How much time and energy do teachers and students still spend on this?
  • One-shot, single day staff development sessions are almost always completely useless if our desired goal is to facilitate changes in teacher practice. What is remarkable is the persistence of this practice despite everything that we know about adult learners and effective professional development. Couldn’t we use this time for teachers to collaboratively examine student learning progress instead?
  • As Alfie Kohn reminds us, and despite decades of researchers trying, there is no evidence to support that homework in the elementary grades has any positive benefit whatsoever on student achievement, study skills, greater responsibility by students, etc. Teachers and students spend a lot of time processing homework – time that could be better spent elsewhere.
  • Watching entire movies in class instead of short video clips. Enough said.
  • You get my drift. The list probably could on for a while – each of you can think of other things that teachers could eliminate or do differently to free up valuable time for high-leverage instructional strategies (add them below as a comment!). So what could teachers do instead with the time they gain? Here are a few things:

    • Collaboratively design short assessments that would allow them to monitor student progress on key learning goals
    • Collectively examine the data that they receive from these assessments and formulate instructional modifications for learners that are still struggling
    • Participate in ongoing, long-term learning groups that help them gain new skills (or new technologies!) for addressing the needs of struggling learners
    • In other words, they could do things that we know to have better instructional payoff than some of what teachers are doing now. Plus, there’s the very sobering list from Mike Schmoker’s newest book, Results Now, that reminds us that teachers often don’t do things they already know have high payoffs instructionally (from a study that did thousands of classroom observations):

      • Classrooms in which there was evidence of a clear learning objective: 4 percent
      • Classrooms in which high-yield strategies were being used: 0.2 percent
      • Classrooms in which there was evidence of higher-order thinking: 3 percent
      • Classrooms in which students were either writing or using rubrics: 0 percent
      • Classrooms in which fewer than one-half of students were paying attention: 85 percent
      • Classrooms in which students were using worksheets (a bad sign): 52 percent
      • Classrooms in which noninstructional activities were occurring: 35 percent
      • As Schmoker notes, “such statistics point to how even fairly obvious actions could have an immediate and enormous impact on students and their levels of learning” (p. 18).

        The phrase “work smarter not harder” is trite and often is used in a condescending manner. Many times, unfortunately, it also happens to be true.

        This post is also available at the TechLearning blog.


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