Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Focus on Teachers: Devon Williamson Conley, "Data-driven" is not a Cliche

April 17, 2013

Devon Williamson Conley is a founding teacher of Rocketship Discovery Prep, an elementary school in San Jose California. The school serves a large number of children who receive free or reduced lunch and/or who are English language learners (84% and 71%, respectively).  Their school mission is clear:  each and every one of their students will be empowered to learn, lead and be positive and productive members of their community.

Putting a mission into practice is the tricky part, of course.  In conversations with our team, Devon provided a glimpse of what this looks like for her students on a daily basis.   

“Our kindergartners move through different types of learning experiences across our classrooms each day. We group and re-group students based on their learning needs.  We try to be very fluid so that learning experiences are tailored to what each child needs at that time and to the topics we are studying. ”   

If you visit the Discovery kindergarten, you will see a variety of learning experiences happening simultaneously: students may be working independently in centers or on on-line learning systems that tailor a lesson to an individual’s needs; others might be in small groups working on projects, and others may be involved in large group classroom instruction.

Interestingly, Devon avoids the use of education jargon such as “data-driven,” “personalized learning,” “blended learning” and so on. Instead, she offers concrete examples of her practice.

“We collect and use an enormous amount of data on our students.  We take anecdotal notes on students as they work individually and in small groups, and we collect data benchmark tests five times a year, as well as from on-line learning programs aligned with the Common Core.  We have release time every day for the grade level teaching team where we use this data to plan small groups and design lessons for the large group so that we hit a wide range of skills and revise our instruction based on where students are. We also have days during the year when all our teachers come together to analyze student data across grades. This give us time for content planning as well as grade level planning.”

Devon credits her principal, Joya Deutsch, the Rocketship charter and her colleagues for setting the cultural norm of using data and providing supports to do so.  In addition to release time, teachers are provided templates that they use to collect and look at data from the various sources–and each teacher is allowed to adjust the template so that it works for them.  

Teachers also share each student’s information with his or her parents during conferences held three times per year.   Devon explained, “We share our students information in an open and public way with their families so that families then can better support their child at home and at school.  We set specific learning goals with families, share how we are working on the skills in school and come up with activities that they can do at home to help their child reach these goals.”

Devon finished up the conversation speaking enthusiastically about the new ideas emerging from her kindergarten team, the school and Rocketship:  “We want to continue to push the idea of shared accountability and responsibility for all of our students.  For kindergarten, we are thinking about ways to literally “take down the walls” between our classrooms to further promote our fluid approach to instruction based on individual student data.  We are also excited about a potential new online infrastructure where we can pull information on our students’ learning from different online vendors so that the data is more accessible and the student experience can be better coordinated.”  

And, with that, Discovery Prep is breathing new life into the terms “data driven” and “personalized learning.”

 
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