Dealing with Data

When Dr. Emma Gutierrez takes over at Sequoia Elementary School, she takes on a range of problems. There are so many indications of failure she hardly knows where to begin - falling test scores, declining real estate values, an increasing number of staff jumping ship, and shifting demographics. Corinna Armstrong's withdrawal is typical. She's a bright second grader whose parents have decided to move to a suburban school where they believe she'll be more appropriately challenged.

Corinna Armstrong doesn’t want to leave her school.

Corinna likes her neighborhood and school.

Tomorrow is my last day of school. I don’t wanna move. I wanna stay here. Mom says that we’re moving for me, so I can get a good education and live in a nicer house.

But I like where we live now. I know every little bit of it. My room is painted pink and purple and it’s right next to my parents’ room. My parents’ new bedroom will be all the way on the other end of the house and Shiloh, my dog, will have to sleep downstairs because there’s new carpet and my parents don’t want to get it messed up. But Shiloh’s always slept with me. He’s not gonna like being all by himself like that.

And I like my school. My teacher, Mrs. Mullin, is real nice. She has red hair and let’s us have pizza every month if we read enough books. She gives us home fun instead of home work! And I know everyone’s name in the second grade and most of the third graders, too. Mom says I’ll know Allison at my new school, but I don’t even like her. She always tries to boss me around and she’s mean.

Mom says she’s going to bring cupcakes to school tomorrow for my good-bye party. She says I’ll get used to my new school in no time at all. She says we’ll paint my new room pink and purple, too. She says Lena Maria can visit whenever I want. She says we can get a trampoline and a playhouse, too, cuz the yard is bigger.

But I still don’t wanna go.

Lisa Armstrong’s ambivalence about leaving their neighborhood is outweighed by her concerns about her daughter Corinna’s education.

Lisa worries that Corinna isn’t appropriately challenged at Sequoia Elementary.

We thought this house would be a good investment fifteen years ago. Back then, this was a nice neighborhood, full of what our realtor called “starter homes.” Small, affordable, a good starting point. And it was. Corinna’s never lacked for playmates, and she can walk to school along with the five other kids on our street who go to Sequoia Elementary.

But things have changed here, and it’s not like we made a mint when our house sold, far from it. See, we moved to town right about the same time ten thousand immigrants began to move here as well. And in a city of 90,000, that’s a huge difference. Mostly, that’s been good. We really do like how eclectic things are here. We sure have better restaurants now! And I love hearing different languages just walking up the street. Corinna’s best friend’s family is originally from Costa Rica, and she’s picked up some Spanish just from knowing her.

Our neighbors are wonderful. There’s an Indian family on one side, and then Margie and Ted on the other. I’ll really miss them. But it seems like every month there are more for-sale signs put up or homes turned into rental units, and they throw up cheap apartments on any vacant block. Just last week somebody came up on our porch and stole Corinna’s bike. That kind of stuff scares me, and I don’t like being afraid in my own home.

And then there’s Corinna. Maybe we’re more protective than we should be, maybe we have different expectations from her classmates’ parents. But she’s so smart. She was identified as gifted in first grade, which was no surprise. We do a lot at home to support her, and I’m not talking about flashcards, either. We read together all the time, and she and her dad are always doing projects together, like designing and building our backyard tree house.

I guess I thought things were going okay. Sure, I knew she wasn’t getting the most rigorous education, but a big part of me believes that children should be allowed to be children. I’ve seen the shows on homework horror, and I don’t want Corinna obsessing about grades when she’s just eight years old. I guess I let things slide a bit, so it was a real shock when we got her achievement scores. I mean, she was top of the charts when she got tested as a first grader, and now she’s just scoring in the 85th percentile? Something’s not right.

Corinna’s withdrawal spurs Principal Emma Gutierrez to take action.

Emma faces many challenges as prinicipal of a low-performing school.

“We’re at fourteen,” Robbie said as she handed Emma a bright yellow folder.

Emma didn’t bother to hide her dismay. “Robbie, that’s two this week!”

“Yep,” Robbie grinned wryly. “It’s Corinna Armstrong, a second grader. Looks like she’s headed to Silver River.”

Located north of town in the suburbs, Silver River Elementary was just three years old. Emma had been there several times for meetings, and admired its bright and airy lay-out. The grounds were gorgeous, too, with a beautiful playground that she knew the children must love. There was even a courtyard garden with sunflower teepees and a small fishpond. Definitely not a turn-around school!

Emma felt close to panic. Her mission when she was hired was to improve this school, the weakest by far in the district. She had known the challenges would be great, but she had had no idea that the exodus of teachers and staff sparked by her predecessor’s retirement would be followed by a wave of student withdrawals. What was going on?

See Sequoia Elementary School’s demographics below:

Emma looked up Corinna’s teacher, Aimee Mullin. Like her, Aimee was new to Sequoia, and so she was on the district’s Plan A for Teacher Evaluation, meaning that in addition to four formal observations she was also scheduled for brief monthly unannounced observations. Emma decided to perform one now, both to check on Corinna and to complete Aimee’s required evaluation. She wondered if Aimee might have any insight into what was going on with the Armstrongs. After all, she’d known them since September.

Back in her office, Emma closed the door—which she was doing more and more lately—and quickly wrote up her observation notes. She was a little disappointed in what she’d seen. Corinna had seemed bored by the lesson. If this was typical of her school day, no wonder her parents wanted to leave. Emma grimaced at the thought, then shrugged it off. She’d seen ten minutes of teaching; she couldn’t assume that Corinna was similarly disengaged in other lessons.

See the observation report on Aimee Mullin’s lesson below:

With that in mind, she picked up the phone and called Corinna’s mom for an exit interview. This was a new procedure she’d initiated when it became clear that they were losing students at an alarming rate. Emma needed to get a handle on what was going on, why students were leaving Sequoia in what felt like droves.

Lisa receives a call from Corinna’s principal and heads to her neighbor’s house to
discuss it.

Lisa designs ads from her home office.

Lisa leaned closer to the computer, squinted at the screen, and made the font one shade darker blue. She’d hoped to finish this up before deadline, but, as usual, she was working up to the last possible minute. She couldn’t help it. No matter how done she thought she was, she always saw small ways to make her work better. This ad campaign had been no exception, and she was proud of the results. She resisted the temptation to check it one last time, closed the files, drafted her usual end-of-project email, and attached her work. Her phone rang just as she clicked “send.”

Lisa was surprised when Emma Gutierrez identified herself and completely caught off-guard when Emma began questioning her about Corinna’s withdrawal from Sequoia. She just hadn’t expected the school to notice, really. Lisa wished she’d had time to prepare for this conversation; she would have phrased things more diplomatically, she felt. But Emma listened quietly, asked some pointed questions, and ended the conversation by stating her disappointment at losing such a wonderful family in the school community. Lisa felt a sharp pang of regret and wished Emma had come to Sequoia years ago. Maybe then they wouldn’t have to move now. But they’d given Sequoia three years to prove itself with Corinna, and it just hadn’t passed muster.

Lisa grabbed a coffee mug from the kitchen, and headed next door to Margie’s.

Emma reflects on her phone call with Lisa.

Emma hung up the phone and took a deep breath. She really hadn’t expected to like Lisa, had written her off beforehand as a typical soccer mom—overly involved for the wrong reasons. But Lisa had made some valid points, and Emma had her concerns about the gifted program as well. Perhaps not the same issues as Lisa had brought up, but, clearly, the program needed an overhaul.

See Sequoia’s Gifted Students Profile below:

Click to see the national gifted education programming standards.

Emma pulled up Corinna’s test scores. Really, the discrepancy Lisa had complained about wasn’t so great. It could be attributed to a bad testing day in second grade—or a good one in first. She added to her ever-expanding list of school improvements: Educate parents so that they can understand test scores.

See Corinna’s first and second grade test scores below:

Click here for an explanation of the OLSAT.


Click here for an explanation of the Stanford 10.

Lisa’s neighbor Margie visits Sequoia Elementary to observe in her son’s kindergarten classroom.

Margie wonders if Michael’s behavior gets more attention than his intellect.

Mostly, I like Michael’s teacher. When we met at conferences, Mrs. Escobar struck me as just what Michael needs. She’s positive and no-nonsense. Michael can be pretty active. Sometimes I think that goes along with being so smart. You know, he just gets stuff done faster than the other kids, and that leaves him with time to goof off. He needs somebody to stay on top of him, and Mrs. Escobar does that. Sometimes I think it’s enough that he has a nice teacher who likes kids and keeps things organized. Other times, I wonder if Mrs. Escobar focuses on behavior so much because she doesn’t know what else to do.

Emma begins working with faculty to turn the school around.

Inspired by John Kotter’s business transformation paradigm, Emma scheduled a faculty inservice day to tackle step one—and maybe step two—of his model.

Click here to see an article by John Kotter that explains his change model.

Listen to Emma share her thoughts on the upcoming faculty meeting.

Maybe it was because the study tables were moved closer together to make room for the row of new computers. Maybe it was because adult bodies never really fit in student-sized chairs. It could’ve been the warmth of an early spring heatwave. It could’ve been nerves. Whatever the cause, Emma felt claustrophobic.

Once she got the meeting rolling, though, she felt better. She had practiced how to present the data so that her faculty wouldn’t feel accused and defeated by the results. First, she talked about all the positives she’d seen at Sequoia: the energy of the younger staff, the commitment of the more experienced teachers, the love of children in evidence everywhere, the creativity and passion of teachers working with a diverse and challenging population. She meant every word.

Without changing her tone, she handed out test data, a copy of staffing allocations, and information about test biases and the impact of poverty on achievement. Then she directed the group to split into grade-level teams. She gave them two specific tasks: first, brainstorm every possible issue represented by the data, from instructional gaps to patterns of performance; second, brainstorm any possible way to address each problem, whether it be involving families, hiring more specialty teachers, or providing staff development and inservices to support specific instructional objectives. She knew by giving them directives, she was guiding them towards her vision, but she was afraid that if she was too loose, she’d end up with a gripe session rather than a purposeful discussion. Too much had gone wrong at Sequoia for too long. Emma couldn’t afford to fail, too.

See reading test results from Sequoia, other schools in the district, and the state, 2004-2006 below:

See disaggregated results from Sequoia’s most recent reading tests below:

See information about how Sequoia is staffed below:

See Emma’s hand-out on socio-economic status, race, and student achievement below:

*NOTE: Reading Proficiency Test Scores are from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The NAEP scores have been evaluated at certain performance levels. A score of 300 implies an ability to find, understand, summarize, and explain relatively complicated literary and informational material. A score of 250 implies an ability to search for specific information, interrelate ideas, and make generalizations about literature, science, and social studies materials. A score of 200 implies an ability to understand, combine ideas, and make inferences based on short uncomplicated passages about specific or sequentially related information. A score of 150 implies an ability to follow brief written directions and carry out simple, discrete reading tasks. Scale ranges from 0 to 500.

SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics, 2005, Table 21 and Table 112. ï¿½and, accessed June 14, 2006.