A Case of Being Curious: How Do You Know?
“It always annoyed me how in the old fashioned detective story, the detective always seemed to get at his results either by some sort of lucky chance or fluke or else it was quite unexplained. . . . I began to think of turning scientific methods, as it were, onto the work of detection.”
—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1927
Like Sherlock Holmes, the PLC process is driven by a relentless focus on evidence. Student learning is neither the result of lucky chance nor fluke, but by the deliberate, collaborative efforts of educators. The pursuit of proof is captured in the second critical question of the PLC process: How do we know students are learning?
The “How do you know?” question was the driving force behind one school’s improvement efforts to increase the number of students in Advanced Placement coursework. While this high school claimed a desire to increase the number of students in rigorous postsecondary coursework, there were few efforts to actually assess their current reality in achieving this goal.
This issue was reaffirmed when the question was posed in an ad hoc administrative team meeting. During the meeting, a concern about student AP course selection was met with a pregnant pause. The question posed was designed to challenge the leadership team to recognize and understand the challenges of the school.
Over the next few weeks, the school administrators combed through piles of student records and assessment data. In doing so, they discovered and recognized that at least half of the students in the particular grade level should have been challenged by a more rigorous schedule. The students at the school were taking a path of least resistance until data was utilized. As an outcome of analyzing and using data, student participation in AP courses increased by nearly 300%. This school transformed their good intentions into a collaborative process to assess their current reality and collect evidence of progress, and then used the information to guide their improvement efforts.
There are many exercises that districts or schools may use in addressing and answering the question, “How do you know?” The template employed by the district leader to improve results can be found in Beyond Theory: Practical Strategies for Improving Schools (Olverson, Barnes, & Taylor, pp. 23–25).
Richard DuFour, a mentor, has said, “Schools being honest about where they are is the hardest part of education.” In some cases, a mentor and/or consultant is needed to assist districts and schools in addressing the “How do you know?” question by providing an unbiased assessment of where they are. This is partially due to the illusion that many feel their current condition is good enough and maintaining the status quo is the goal. The template provided will assist district- and building-level leaders in using data to identify gaps, set goals, map a course of action, and measure results by setting BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goals).
Olverson, T., Barnes, C. L., & Taylor, S. (2014). Beyond theory: Practical strategies for improving schools. Bloomington, IN: Open Books Press.