Officials at schools in California's wine country are hoping a new emphasis on data collection will help them pinpoint ways to improve student performance on state-mandated tests.
Teachers constantly test the students to see where students' performances are weak, and then they tailor the classroom instruction to address those weaknesses. Students may also be taken out of class to attend special, tutoring sessions. Then, the teachers carefully document each step of a student's academic performance.
At El Verano Elementary School, in Sonoma, Calif., principal Maite Iturri knows exactly how each student is doing in school. She uses the assessment data to refocus teachers on weak spots in a quest for to help each child succeed.
She is also trying to meet the standards set the No Child Left Behind law. In the five years since the law was passed, El Verano has never met federal standards. The school has been branded with education's scarlet letters – PI, or program improvement.
Stephanie Cusik, who teaches first grade, says many people think that poor performing schools have poor teachers.
The 16-year veteran says it is important to monitor kids' weaknesses in an efficient way.
She hauls out a color-coded, detailed chart of her first graders' performance as they try to master 100 basic words they must read on sight. She tackles them in increments of 25. "Each different color here represents a different testing session and the student's growth. We hadn't made a concerted effort to target this," Cusik said.
Student achievement is rising, but this school is facing a huge demographic change.
Teacher Lauren Campos works with kids in a special class for new immigrants. Overall, 70 percent of the kids are not proficient in English.
That's why there's so much at stake at schools like El Verano. Teachers want to show that kids with limited language skills can succeed. Their scores have been improving, but can they succeed on the statewide Standardized Testing and Reporting, or STAR, test?
The results won't come out until August.
But Craig Madison, who teaches third grade at El Verano, FINDS describes the new data-gathering approach invigorating. He said that the process encourages him to experiment until he gets the desired results.
"It's kind of like a scientific process of shooting a rocket off," he reasons. "That one didn't work. Let's go back to the drawing board. We're going to add better fins, we're going to streamline this thing, and we're going to put a parachute on it."
To smooth the transition, the Sonoma Valley Unified School District has been working with Springboard Schools, a non-profit consulting group that specializes in teaching low-performing schools how to improve. Springboard gets teachers together at meetings to share the strategies that have boosted test scores.
Dan Scudero, principal at Adele Harrison Middle School, said some teachers at first resisted the shift to data analysis, but now they are slowly accepting it.
Springboard's approach has turned Scudero and other principals into quality control experts.
They are throwing out old practices, such as regular staff meetings that did little more than take up time. In many schools, teachers only get together to discuss student achievement data.
In the small town of Cloverdale, principal Julie Brandt gathered the first grade teachers of Jefferson Elementary School for a final meeting at the end of the school year. They fill out little yellow cards on each student and compare notes. Jefferson is not meeting federal standards, either. Brandt concedes that the problem forced her to target the performance of English-language learners.
To an outsider, the process looks tedious. Teachers transfer data and then discuss in excruciating detail just what went wrong — and what went right. It's more fun when the news is good.
Sharon Shriner, a 20-year veteran who teaches first grade, seems ready to leap out of her chair when she surveys how well her kids are doing. "Look how many levels they moved up," she says.
But while the process makes teachers better at their jobs, they are resentful that the data are used to label their school as failing.
"I am sorry that our school has to be called a PI school," said Victoria Tiboney, a reading teacher at Jefferson. She said the label of a failing school is unfair to her and to her kids.
"In our minds these aren't little data people. When I see that name I know who that little face is, I know those little eyes looking at me. I don't see a score. I see a little person, who I want the very best life for."