A Leader Shifts Focus to Accelerate Learning

May 31, 2022

Ashley Johnson

Principal, Henderson Collegiate Elementary School, Henderson NC

The Challenge:

How can principals make more frequent use of student learning data to accelerate student learning?

As an upper elementary teacher before becoming a principal in Henderson, North Carolina, Ashley Johnson was deeply concerned by how far below grade level many students were when they arrived in her classroom. For her, becoming a school leader was the chance to build up an elementary school that got all students on grade level before moving to the middle grades.

During a Relay Graduate School of Education professional learning session this year, a light bulb went off for how she could accelerate student learning — so Johnson jumped into action. She realized her weekly systems for instructional coaching, observation and feedback, and professional development would be so much more powerful if driven by weekly data on student learning, instead of by what she and her leadership team simply observed teachers doing in the classroom.

As she recalls: “When I actually looked at the proportion of time each week that I spent thinking about, not “Did teachers teach it?” but “Did kids actually learn it?”, I was like, ‘Wow, that is not taking enough of a priority on my calendar!’

The Solution:

Recentering instructional leadership around weekly data on student learning

In Johnson’s theory of action, if she:

  • Identified the most important student learning data to collect on a weekly basis for each grade and subject;
  • Created simple tools for compiling and analyzing that data to identify the highest priority learning gaps to address;
  • Refocused her instructional leadership team meetings on reviewing the data to plan co-observations of priority classrooms and students; and
  • Targeted her team’s coaching of teachers on resolving students’ specific misunderstandings,

Then she and her instructional leadership team would get better at giving teachers and students precisely what they need to increase the pace of student learning.

The Strategy:

Elevating weekly data to leadership planning

Johnson’s school already had a lot of data. Teachers gave exit tickets to assess student skills at the end of each lesson, and after special highly-focused blocks of additional instruction called DDI blocks. They and their instructional leaders also reviewed samples of student work (in “stack audits”) on a weekly basis. But when Johnson and her instructional leaders met each week to plan how to support teachers in honing their practice, they based their decisions largely on what they were seeing in the classroom.

Her epiphany about how she could power up the process came in a workshop called “Monitor the Learning” that was a part of Relay Graduate School of Education’s Leverage Leadership Institute. She says: “Almost any observation is going to help teachers get better, but it just wasn’t as intentional as it could have been.

Weekly Snapshots

To bring more evidence of student learning into their weekly planning, Johnson first met with her math and literacy lead coaches to review interim assessment results and consider what student work to prioritize on a weekly basis for each subject and grade level. She says: “We asked ourselves, ‘Out of all the different data points we could collect, which ones are going to most inform how we understand what’s happening for kids?

For grade levels with mostly novice teachers who were still learning their craft, they continued to gather data on the teachers’ mastery of specific instructional strategies. For others, they refocused their efforts on exit ticket results from after a teacher’s initial–or Tier 1–instruction on a concept, or after reteaching it. Interim assessment data also informed whether the instructional leaders would focus on class-wide data, or zero in on specific groups of students (e.g. those close to mastery or those further off.)

Each week, the math and literacy lead coaches collect the data from their teachers, determine what percent of students at each grade level are demonstrating mastery, and fill in a data dashboard Johnson created. The dashboard includes a goal for each data point, and shows how far off students are from reaching it, for each grade level (see below).

Leading with the Data to Get More Precise

Analyzing the data revolves around three questions that now drive the core of Johnson’s weekly meetings with her instructional leaders:

  • What are the wins from the week for each grade level, and why? E.g. In 2nd grade, 1st day of subtraction without regrouping saw 97 percent mastery.
  • Where did we fall short, and why? E.g. Students are struggling with subtraction with regrouping, which they are getting mixed up with addition regrouping.
  • What are the next steps we think need to be implemented? E.g. Review student work with teachers to plan reteach of 2-digit subtraction with regrouping that addresses students’ confusion.

Johnson says a key to success is coming to the meetings having already answered the questions. She and her lead coaches fill out a template ahead of time. In the meeting they compare notes and rationales, and clarify next steps.

As shown in the above examples, the process often directs her team’s focus towards lesson planning, to get at the cause of students’ specific misconceptions. Prior to using weekly data on student learning in this way, Johnson says they were more likely to suggest general changes in teachers’ delivery, like giving students more opportunities to practice.

In another departure from their past approach, the team uses the data to prioritize which classrooms, students, and parts of lessons they most need to put their eyes on to better understand a problem. In the past they divided their time among classrooms equally, and without such a data-informed focus. She says her thinking is now: “If I just have one observation, how can I make the most of it?

While she’s not there yet in terms of getting all students on grade-level, this semester, all of her teachers have seen at least 75 percent of their students grow by one or more reading levels on interim assessments. Although some teachers had achieved such results in the past, this is the first time in her tenure at the school that all of them have.

I feel a deep sense of responsibility to follow through on what we told parents we would do for their children,” says Johnson. “And this puts our attention and effort where it most needs to be, so no student falls through the cracks.

For more guidance on planning a focused initiative to achieve progress in a short period of time, see Relay’s practice guide:

Reset: How school leaders can address equity gaps right now.

Taking it Back to Your School

  • What evidence of student learning do your teachers and instructional leaders already collect on a weekly basis? Which of these can best paint a picture of student success vis-a-vis what they’re learning that week?
  • How could you adapt your weekly meetings with your instructional leaders to probe: What were the student learning wins from the week, and why?; Where did we fall short, and why?; and What are the next steps we think need to be implemented?

Ashley Johnson is the Founding Principal of Henderson Collegiate Elementary School. Prior to becoming principal, she taught 5th grade English/Language Arts, served as a 4th and 5th grade level Chair, and as an instructional coach. She is an alum of Relay’s Leverage Leadership Institute.


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