Tyrone Olverson

Tyrone Olverson is superintendent of Finneytown Local School District in Ohio. He is a former curriculum director and principal in Licking Heights Local School District, also in Ohio.

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.


Nadia Davis

It was really encouraged by this article as it speaks to the step that I think should be taken at my school. There have been an increase in the number of students being withdrawn from school by their parents. Their complaint is that there is no significant increase of student learning. The step taken by the school board and other ministry officials is to hold a public forum with some school officials, influential members of the community, parents and other members of the community. At this forum they had discussions and showcased some of the achievements of the school. I felt this was important but the real action should be a deliberate collaborative effort of all the educators of the school. The data from the exams whether local or national should be thoroughly analyzed and solutions created to deal with the analysis appropriately. The extending of classroom instructional time for only the grades being prepared for national exams will never be enough. The whole school has to be involved to prepare students even before they get to the classes targeted for national exams. I think administrators should listen to their staff as well and take their suggestions too. If administrators just do what they see as important without the collaborative effort of staff members the students will suffer at the hands of doing the same thing over and over with no indication of students learning. Thanks for the article. I may have to direct my school principal to read it.

Posted on

Tracy Dixon

What a great article! Thank you for posting. I teach 6th grade in a K-6 district, and we have spent the last three years or so wrapping our heads around how to do a PLC right. Fortunately, I have a strong 6th grade team, and we do have productive and enjoyable PLC time. We are open and collaborative. I area I feel we sometimes lack in, however, is exactly what your article is addressing: "How do we know?" We start by looking at where we want our students to go, decide together how we're going to get them there, but our follow up assessment is, frankly, quite lacking. Your article gave me much food for thought, and I appreciate the links! Thank you!

Posted on

Charlene Youvella

This new school year brought 3 brand new administrators to our school, two novice principals and one novice superintendent. Reading your article gives me goosebumps because we need exactly what you prescribed. We so desperately need the collaboration among grade levels especially. This new administration has been quick to criticize our lack of rigor but slow to provide a solution. As teachers, we understand the need for rigor but I feel what we lack is a guiding force to be shown what rigor at the next level looks like. We are a jr/sr high school and fell into the rut of complacency even before this new administration came but we still aren't going anywhere with progress, no action plans to target goals, no collaborative discussions about our current state as a school, it's just a 'keep moving along' kind of leadership practice we see from our building principals and the superintendent. We thought they would bring a more knowledgeable approach to data driven improvement. I feel empowered now by your article, to know what suggestions to make to our school improvement team and hope our admin team hops on board. Thank You!

Posted on