Newark Makes Districtwide Commitment to Smart Data Use

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Newark, N.J., public schools are working both hard and smart in their bid to become savvy users of education data, and a training program designed by the AFT and its affiliates is helping spearhead the effort.

Hundreds of Newark teachers and building-level administrators recently completed two separate rounds of training in "Making Data Work for You," a course designed to help improve schools by turning front-line educators into confident, knowledgeable consumers of school and student data. More than 200 teachers and administrators—at least three from each of Newark's 80 public schools—took part in the training. Also participating were Newark Teachers Union staffers, who are gearing up to answer questions related to data analysis from members in the field. Working together, the Newark Teachers Union and the school district will look for opportunities over the summer and the coming school year to make sure that "Making Data Work for You" is deeply embedded in the culture of every building.

The first two rounds of training concluded in mid-February; each two-and-a-half-day event drew teams of teachers and administrators from schools throughout the district. The sessions encouraged them to examine and challenge conventional wisdom about data as it's being used in schools today, and to learn how to analyze information in ways that lead to informed, collaborative decision-making and real improvement.

Like many other systems, Newark has put the focus on data-driven improvement in recent years. Each school has what is popularly called a "war room," where teachers and administrators crunch numbers for that building. But the Newark Teachers Union and the district believe there are untapped opportunities when it comes to using data effectively and appropriately in schools and classrooms—a view held by classroom teachers as well.

When schools work with data, "it's easy to come up with a solution without teasing out the cause of the problem, and that really needs to be a conversation" schools are having, explained Kelly Piret, a literacy coach at Ann Street School who took part in the Newark training.

Key components of the course are designed to help do just that. For example, "Making Data Work for You" helps participants distinguish between direct measures of student learning (things like quizzes and tests) and "contextual data" (such as attendance and behavior records). Although this second type of data is sometimes given short shrift, it clearly affects learning, and trainers in Newark explained how contextual data can be used not only to unearth problems in schools but also to identify promising practices that could be expanded.

The Newark training initiative is expected to roll out over the next 18 months. Researchers from Rutgers University plan to assess results in the future.

The project also will incorporate AFT-developed training from the "Making Classroom Assessments Work for You" course, and will look for opportunities to complement and reinforce initiatives already in the district. Among those are Schoolnet, an online data warehouse that offers new analysis tools for building-level professionals, and ongoing efforts to better align benchmark assessments to standards and report test results in a timely, user-friendly format for teachers. [Mike Rose, Heidi Glidden, Newark Teachers Union/photo by Bruce Gilbert]

February 19, 2010