Fall 2020

A Song of Inquiry: Data Use and School Improvement

The Nexus of Improvement and Data Use: An Inquiry Process

School improvement has been the song of politicians for multiple election cycles. In Canada, the 1980s have been identified as the zenith of attention to school effectiveness and school improvement (Sackney, 2007). In many ways, Canada’s entry into the third decade of the 21st Century remains characterized by public demand for fiscal accountability that contains refrains emanating from the school improvement song book. It is without question that schools should pay attention to the high notes, as well as the low, connected to the songs that often come across in results reports given to them by Minister of Education, School Board Chair, or Superintendent conductors. The thesis of this article is that teachers and principals in their roles as members of the chorus know how to effectively sing the songs associated with the provision of quality student learning, they, on many fronts, do not however have the time, energy, or desire to interpret what the words and notes of so many songs mean in the daily context of their school chorus.

The lovely metaphor of school improvement as a song quickly loses its allure when the reality of data identification, collection, interpretation, and use is woven into the tune. Do teachers and school principals have the requisite skill set to effectively use data in such a way that will lead to overall school improvement? Do teachers and principals have reason or inclination to care about externally generated data that arrives on their desks? Throughout her work, Amanda Datnow (see Datnow & Hubbard, 2015) has regularly noted that school personnel are mandated with the daunting task of using data to improve student academic results in areas such as standardized tests, literacy benchmarks, or parent survey results. However, she also notes that most educators are not often provided with the time, resources, and training necessary to effectively undertake this work of data collection and analysis. When improvements or gains occur, they may be more attributable to good luck than good planning.

In our work with teachers and principals in the Canadian provinces of Alberta and British Columbia as well as the state of New South Wales in Australia, we have seen tremendous growth in school, school division, and family of school results once teachers and principals acquire requisite skills associated with setting inquiry based professional goals for themselves and their colleagues with whom they work. 

It is expected practice for Alberta teachers and leaders to submit a yearly professional growth plan; in fact, through legislation, it is mandatory that they do so (Government of Alberta, 1998). These growth plans often focus on one or more goal statements that might include aspirations such as implementing a Circle of Friends model, differentiating literacy instruction, or initiating distributed leadership practices. Endeavors such as Circle of Friends (O’Connor, 2016), differentiated literacy (Tobin & McInnes, 2008), or distributed leadership (Harris, 2013) are laudable and worthy. School improvement literature supports their use. However, these goals intimate that those who set them are highly skilled in engaging with data use in ways that will indicate and lead to improved student learning and school improvement.

Our work with teachers and school leaders involves a deeper dive into the process of school improvement that requires them to:

  • Reflect on their confidence in meeting relevant standards of practice. In Alberta teachers reflect on the Teaching Quality Standard (Government of Alberta, 2018b) and principals reflect on the Leadership Quality Standard (Government of Alberta, 2018a).
  • Focus next steps on relevant competencies embedded in the respective standard.
  • As individuals, and then in pairs and small groups, identify and explicate relevant school and school division goals for education.
  • Assess learning needs of children in the school.
  • After review of competencies, school goals, and student learning needs, develop a goal for professional growth. Then, in small teams, develop team based professional goal.
  • Turn the goal statements into professional inquiry questions.
  • Develop strategies and timelines for the professional work that will lead to answering the professional inquiry questions.
  • Identify evidence that will be collected throughout the year that will aide in answering professional inquiry questions.
  • Spend the year working closely with students, colleagues, and extended community to identify types and levels of impact on student learning and overall school improvement.
  • Every 30 to 45 days teachers meet with principal (and/or other school leaders) and speak to what they have been doing to answer their inquiry questions: what they have been learning about themselves and students, the evidence that they have to support their learning, and what they will be doing in the next 30 to 45 days to move their inquiry forward. Principals follow a similar process with a central office leader who visits the school every 30 to 45 days. (see Adams, Mombourquette, & Townsend, 2019)

Does this process contribute to overall school improvement? We have evidence to suggest that it does. In Alberta, all schools receive a report from the Ministry of Education called the Annual Education Results Report (AERR) (Alberta Education, 2016). The AERR provides schools with data relevant to areas such as student, parent, and teacher satisfaction; provincial achievement and diploma exam results; rates of post-secondary transition; and high school graduation rates. In one school authority in which we recently spent three years embedding the above described process, 12 of 16 areas in their AERR report increased. Worthy of particular note were the ‘improved significantly’ designation for areas associated with student drop out rate (decreased) and increased high school graduation rates. This school authority also increased significantly in the overall reporting category called ‘school improvement’ which was a composite of survey data and academic results achieved over the three-year timeframe. 

The undergirding assumption of conscious competence (Adams, Mombourquette, & Townsend, 2019) combined with a process that encourages a purposeful examination of data to answer professional inquiry questions can lead to improved student learning. Collectively, the focus on data within the school community becomes real and very professionally personal. This personalization of data interpretation can support teachers and principals becoming much more purposeful in addressing gaps in learning and overall school improvement noted in the various external accountability reports. Educators then can attend to the work of school improvement with a heightened clarity of purpose. They, in essence, become maestros of the music and very adept at making a beautiful sound in the concert known as school improvement. 

Dr. Pamela Adams was an educator in public schools for 17 years before joining the Faculty of Education at the University of Lethbridge in 1996, teaching at the undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral levels. Over the past five years, she has conducted collaborative inquiry research in 9 school authorities and over 150 schools, investigating themes of school and organizational leadership, teaching effectiveness, school improvement, inquiry-based professional growth, and essential conditions for professional learning.

Dr. Carmen Mombourquette is an Associate Professor of Education specializing in Educational Leadership at the University of Lethbridge. For many years he was an elementary, junior high school, and high school principal in Alberta and Ontario.

Adams, P., Mombourquette, C., & Townsend, D. (2019). Leadership in education: The power of generative dialogue Toronto, ON: Canadian Scholars Press.
Alberta Education. (2016). An overview of the accountability pillar. Retrieved from https://education.alberta.ca/accountability-pillar/?journeyId=1090&resetFilter=1
Datnow, A., & Hubbard, L. (2015). Teachers’ use of assessment data to inform instruction: Lessons from the past and prospects for the future. Teaachers College Record, 117(4), 1-26.
Government of Alberta. (1998). Teacher growth, supervision, and evaluation policy. (2. 1. 5). Edmonton: Government of Alberta.
Government of Alberta. (2018a). School Leadership Standard. Edmonton, AB: Government of Alberta Retrieved from https://education.alberta.ca/media/3739621/standardsdoc-lqs-_fa-web-2018-01-17.pdf.
Government of Alberta. (2018b). Teaching Quality Standard. Edmonton, AB: Government of Alberta Retrieved from https://education.alberta.ca/media/3739620/standardsdoc-tqs-_fa-web-2018-01-17.pdf.
Harris, A. (2013). Distributed leadership: Friend or foe? Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 41(5), 545-554. doi:10.1177/1741143213497635
O’Connor, E. (2016). The use of ‘Circle of Friends’ strategy to improve social interactions and social acceptance: A case study of a child with Asperger’s Syndrome and other associated needs. Support for Learning, 31(2), 138-147. doi:10.1111/1467-9604.12122
Sackney, L. (2007). History of the School Effectiveness and Improvement Movement in Canada over the Past 25 Years. In T. Townsend (Ed.), International Handbook of School Effectiveness and Improvement (Vol. 17, pp. 167-187). New York, NY: Springer, Dordrecht.
Tobin, R., & McInnes, A. (2008). Accommodating differences: Variations in differentiated literacy instruction in Grade 2/3 classrooms. Literacy, 42(1), 3-9. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9345.2008.00470.x

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