Collaborative Network Uses Data to Improve Math Achievement

Collaborative Network Uses Data to Improve Math Achievement
Collaborative Network Uses Data to Improve Math Achievement

This state story was written by Sandy Frieden, Ph.D., Director of Continuous Improvement at All Kids Alliance.

As a StriveTogether hub for the greater Houston area, All Kids Alliance supports the development of regional councils made up of multisector leaders who want to smooth kids’ paths from cradle to career. This work is data driven from the very beginning. Starting with the information they can collect locally, councils determine which of the key milestones along the educational path their kids are finding most challenging. They then set a desired (measured) outcome they would like to see and charge a “collaborative action network” (CAN) with designing an initiative to accomplish that outcome.

Each CAN—laser-focused on a specific issue like college attainment—then dives even deeper into the data to deconstruct the charge they have been given and make sure that all elements are clear and that there are defined outcomes with consistently reliable measures. Once the CAN is confident that its data are sound, they dig deep into the specifics of the problem area and recommend policies and programs to the regional council.

A year and a half ago, Fort Bend County (population 627,000) in Houston, Texas, engaged in exactly this process to solve a vexing problem that the county’s four superintendents had noted in its elementary schools. The districts’ own data suggested the problem began in fifth grade math: student achievement scores began falling off at that point, a marker initiating a decline all the way through algebra—a telltale sign that kids were off track to developing the higher-level math skills required for college or careers.

In response the council convened a CAN made up of everybody the superintendents believed might help understand and fix the problem: math supervisors from each district, community college and university faculty engaged in training math teachers, civic leaders (some with math-teaching background, some with great interest in it), business representatives (two certified public accountants and an engineer), a nonprofit/community service organization representative, and a facilitator from All Kids Alliance (me!). The charge from the council: increase the number of fifth-grade students scoring at the advanced level on the statewide standardized test (STAAR).

The group adopted a Six Sigma process used by StriveTogether and agreed in advance on the principles for the collaboration: all our decisions would be data driven; any initiative would need to be feasible, measurable, sustainable, and scalable; we would look for local successes; we would not give up on our outcome (i.e., if an initial intervention showed no promise whatsoever, we’d go back to the drawing board for a different intervention toward the same outcome).

Next we did our deep dive into the data to challenge what we understood about fifth-grade math achievement in Fort Bend. We collected more data from the districts and disaggregated what we had, looking for a relatively large group of students who needed assistance and for whom we might find or devise help. We decided to target economically disadvantaged students (50 percent of the county), believing that we might develop a model that worked well with this group and knowing that—given the number of students qualifying for free- or reduced-price lunch—raising the scores of that many students would significantly raise aggregate achievement levels across the county.

As CAN members scratched our heads about where to go next in our analysis, one of the accountants working with our group created the following scatter chart of all the elementary schools in the county, mapping their percentage of (all) students scoring advanced against the percentage of economically disadvantaged students at that school:


Those two dots on the right half of the chart at the 50 percent commended rate represent schools achieving unusually good math scores with highly disadvantaged populations. “What are they doing,” we wondered, “that gives them that measure of standout success?”

Through discussion with the districts, the CAN discovered that both schools had, over time, shared the same principal and same math facilitator (who worked with all of the schools’ math teachers). We decided to visit those two schools, as well as five others from different points on the chart, to study in depth what they were doing. The group conducted advance interviews with the principals, math facilitators, and math teachers at each school, and then visited in pairs for face-to-face interviews and classroom observation.

With copious notes to pore over, CAN members compared what the schools were doing, what strategies they were using, what successes they were having. And while no single strategy seemed to account for the extraordinary performance of the two schools that had shared this principal and math facilitator, a series of practices—more time for math, individual skills targeting, strategic use of teachers and mentors, alignment of curriculum both across subjects and between grades—collectively appeared to hold great promise.

Now, one full year into this process of analysis and exploration, the CAN recommended to the regional council that the successful set of strategies from the two original schools be implemented in an additional nine pilot schools for the 2013–14 school year. The work continues to be data driven: we collected the previous year’s data at our nine pilot schools as a baseline, as well as the data from the seven schools we visited, in order to have a control group. We chose specific goals for incremental percentage increases for our pilot schools for the first year, and we reported these goals back to the council to be sure they support our direction.

In May, after the STAAR exam is administered, the regional council will receive its first indication of whether this strategy worked. Then we will revise, retool, or ramp up our initiative to reach our target. And we won’t give up!

You can listen to the interview with Sandy Frieden here.