Data Inspired Education: Could It Work in American Schools?

  • Curriculum
  • Give Each Child
Steve Wilkins, Head of School Blog


Hmm… Let’s see. What if I were a fifth grade English Language Arts teacher? What should I teach my students this year?

My school system provides my class with plenty of textbooks with a big “Level 5” logo on the cover, and it is full of all sorts of pre-packaged lessons about grammar, vocabulary, inference making, and writing activities. But I know that isn’t enough to guide all my teaching. Therefore I am working on studying the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks for Grade 5, and I am reading a popular book by E.D. Hirsch called "What Your Fifth Grader Needs to Know." And finally, I will supplement my teaching with lessons that I have used before and some that my teaching colleagues shared with me.

This is the typical approach of the typical responsible American teacher - provide to the class what is expected according to the grade level of the students in the class. Many exceptionally kind and caring teachers do indeed recognize the variations within their class groups and find ways to differentiate instruction.

The core problem, however, is not the capacity of the typical American teacher. It is not the dedication, intelligence, resourcefulness, or compassion of the typical American teacher. The core problem is that very few schools provide teachers with sufficient information about the needs of each student. Therefore, they cannot address the needs of many of their students.

Most schools don’t know who they are teaching. Sure, they know the names of their students and can offer a few sentences about each of them. But most schools don’t have a deep understanding of a student’s strengths and weaknesses at the level of task analysis. They don’t have a data set on student performance nor a sense of a student’s trajectory. Most schools aren’t complex enough to address the complexities in their students.

How, then, could they possibly know what to teach them? How, then, could they know what lessons and approaches will best help a particular student?

Generally they don’t. American schools largely operate with a “50%ile Approach” to education in which students who fall slightly above or below the mean are probably getting a fairly appropriate education. Those who fall significantly above or below aren’t getting an education tailored to their needs. And those who have some skills the furthest above and furthest skills well below the mean are the hardest students to educate of all.

At Carroll, there is a numerical profile that helps define our neighborhood of learners. The incoming 100 students who are new to Carroll this fall arrive with an extensive set of evaluations that provide us with valuable data.

The mean full scale IQ for this new group of students is at the 57%ile. Within that score, their visual-spatial scores average are nearly at the 70%ile and their verbal comprehension scores at the 65%ile. The mean scores that measure reading efficiency fall at the 32%ile. The phonemic decoding scores of this group are at the 20%ile. This is definitional.

These data begin, but only begin, to tell a story of how and what to teach. Within the “typical Carroll kid” there are so many academic, cognitive, and personality differences. All these data need to be tracked. 
We know that we have smart kids who are performing well below where they should be in their reading skills. This tells us how to educate our teachers and tutors. It tells us how to structure the educational program. We have designed an entire school to deliver what each of these children most needs.

If all schools knew who they were teaching, schools would be organized very differently than they are today. We would not create vertical hierarchies of Advanced Placement classes, college prep classes, standard classes, vocational studies, basic classes, and special education. Rather, we would create a variety of class groups across a horizontal set of offerings based on data on student performance. 

Let’s see. What if I were a fifth grade English Language Arts teacher? What should I teach my students this year?

Let me go to the student data profile database. I will find out where my students are performing well and where they seem to need some targeted teaching and learning interventions. I will collect materials that will provide each student with what that student most needs. I will track each student’s progress throughout the year, adjusting my lessons day-by-day as I study a child’s trajectory. I will share evidence of progress constantly with each student. Hmmm... 

  • Curriculum
  • Education Policy

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