Imagine how different schools would be if teachers and principals were able to focus completely on a few, significant priorities that have a profoundly positive impact on student learning across all subject areas. Imagine individual teachers actually having extra time because continuous, relevant data helps them target their instruction to students’ greatest areas of need.
These are real, not imaginary, scenarios that are producing remarkable results in some of our nation’s most challenging schools. The underlying principle at work is a statistical concept called the Pareto principle. Essentially, the principle states that if we attend to the few things that have the greatest impact on learning, the whole system of learning can be addressed simultaneously, allowing our time and resources to be maximized.
Here’s how it works. Teams of teachers conduct an analysis of multiple sources of data to isolate their students’ Greatest Areas of Need (GAN). That analysis includes looking at the gap between students’ current performance and some predetermined level of proficiency on common measures of student learning. GAN also takes into account the amount and pace of change in performance over time.
Once the GAN is identified, the teachers develop team-based S.M.A.R.T. (Strategic and Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Results-oriented, Time-bound) goals and strategies. Incorporating the principle of GAN into goals at the classroom level allows teachers to be strategic in their instructional decisions. That can even save time as one teacher discovered when she focused on a few key objectives that helped her students understand deeper concepts more quickly. That meant she didn’t have to dwell on those concepts for days and days, but could move on to higher-order concepts and standards.
Determining the GAN is just the first step in the process of setting and monitoring goal progress. The most dramatic changes come when the data are used to identify individual students who have significant learning gaps in very specific areas. This is accomplished as teachers use formative assessment data to group and color code their students by zone of proficiency and then differentiate their instruction accordingly.
As teachers monitor students as they move through the zones, they are able to document which instructional strategies work best for which students. As a result, they can effectively plan how an entire team of teachers can use their time most effectively to address students’ needs.
These are relatively simple concepts and tools that students quickly assimilate into their own learning management. When that happens, the entire system is focused on learning and everyone has a part in closing the achievement gap.
As the saying goes, “If you have dozens of priorities, you have no priorities.” High priority planning and goal setting, using formative assessment to monitor results and inform instruction, will lead to more efficient and deeper levels of learning – for teachers and students. One elementary teacher put it this way, “Having a clear focus sends a strong message about priorities. That helps me and the kids make better decisions.”