Children are people, not data points—but can data help educators meet the needs of each student?
At Summit Preparatory Charter High School in Redwood City, California, every teacher gathers real-time data—daily. They do this to gain insight into their students’ needs, informing how they teach every day. They use a variety of tools ranging from a free online personalized learning platform to Google surveys, paper assessments, and quick and easy formative assessments, like counting thumbs up and down.
I remember my own high school experience. If I was ahead, I thought to myself, ‘How am I going to kill 55 minutes?’ And if I was behind, I felt overwhelmed, frustrated, and like I was wasting my time. Chris Kelly, Summit history teacher
Gathering real-time insights allows Summit teachers to differentiate instruction, give their students’ choice in how they learn, and create scaffolds and extensions to meet their students’ needs. It also helps them see how their students can support each other.
“There might be a peer who’s doing really well on a cognitive skill,” says Chris Kelly, a Summit history teacher. “Knowing that there are four other students who need support on that, I can create that relationship between these students on that given day.”
Cady Ching, a Summit biology and AP environmental science teacher, uses a handful of strategies to check in on her students’ needs—including Summit's personalized learning platform (PLP). Summit's PLP (a free platform that comes with professional development tools and customizable, teacher-created, project-based curricula, including virtual textbooks, curated resources, and assessments) allows students to learn at their own pace, track their progress, and reflect on feedback. It also allows teachers to gather data on their students to help inform their instruction.
“The great part about knowing our learners,” says Penelope Pak McMillen, executive director of Summit, “is that the students get to know themselves as learners too. The data that we see is the data that they see.”
Each day, their students know what they need to do, what resources they’ll need, and what questions to ask their teachers to get extra help or additional challenges.
Sometimes Ching differentiates her class using insights from Summit's PLP—but with 160 students, it’s not always a realistic strategy. “A lot of times, I don’t have time to do that,” she says. “I am a huge advocate for teacher sustainability, and it can be challenging to go home and do that level of differentiation outside of my workday.”
Summit teachers use a variety of in-class tools to assess and differentiate their classes:
Temperature checks, like thumbs up or down and fist to five fingers. Teachers ask questions like: How comfortable are you? How much did this workshop help you understand this skill? How much additional support will you need to show mastery of the skill?
Written assessments, like five- to 10-question content checks and cognitive skill quizzes
Before creating a survey, Ching recommends asking yourself four questions:
Why do I want students to take this survey?
How am I going to use the survey results to group students?
What is my plan for each group of students?
What check for understanding will follow that plan to ensure learning has happened in my classroom?
Ching uses surveys to assess cognitive skills. “Each survey is different, dependent on the language of the rubric,” she explains.
For example, she has her students check their cognitive skills scores on Summit's PLP and asks them, “Which cognitive skill do you need the most support on? What can you do in class today to revise that skill score?”
We need to see real-time data on a daily basis to ensure that the way that we are spending our time as teachers is actually meeting the goals of all the kids that are in our classrooms. Penelope Pak McMillen, executive director of Summit
She also creates opt-in opportunities for her students based on survey results. By senior year, through Summit’s personalized learning model, most students know their strengths and the areas where they need to grow. “Today, I’m going to offer a workshop on interpreting data and information,” says Ching. “If a student knows that he or she is struggling with graphs and with analyzing data sets, then they should opt into this workshop so they can get this extra teacher support.”
For freshmen, differentiation is more intentional in terms of guiding students to the resources they need. “Developmentally, their perception of where they are is often misaligned to the teacher’s assessment,” Ching says.
Setting Up the Learning Environment
To help differentiate and arrange the classroom, Summit staff ask whether students want to work alone or in groups, whether they want to learn from a video or a debate, whether they need a mini lesson on a particular topic, and what they plan to work on that day—and whether they need extra help.
Kelly will often place his students in optimal learning environments based on their survey results. Students who want to work independently face the wall; students who want to collaborate work at designated tables; and students who need more direct instruction work in the center of the room with him.
“[Differentiation ensures that] all of the students’ time is valuable, has purpose, and enables them to reach mastery,” says Kelly.
Summit Prep is a high-performing charter high school that leverages a personalized pedagogy and smart use of technology to help a largely underserved demographic achieve impressive results and success in college. With 68 percent minority enrollment and 41 percent eligibility for subsidized lunch, the school boasts a 95 percent graduation rate, which is 12 points higher than the national average for all students. And Summit Prep has a 99 percent four-year college acceptance rate.
In 2015, 58 percent of 11th-grade students in Summit’s district, Sequoia Union, scored proficient or above on the Smarter Balanced Assessment for English language arts. At Summit Prep, 82 percent of students scored proficient or above on that test. Summit students similarly outperformed both Sequoia and the state of California on the Smarter Balanced Assessment for math in the same year.
Furthermore, the school has a replicable model of instruction, as evidenced by its continued expansion—there are now eight Summit schools in California and three in Washington, and more communities have requested that Summit open schools in their areas. And Summit makes its innovative personalized learning platform available to other schools for free.
View a transcript of this video
Chris Kelly: I’ll give you guys a short overview of your choices. You then will go into the survey and figure out what’s going to be the best use of your time. Once I get your info, then we’ll be able to figure out what the geography of the room is going to be.
By having access to lots of different sources of data I’m able to set students up with learning situations in which no student feels like they are over-challenged or feels like they’re way ahead and there’s nothing of value. In short, the student’s time has purpose and allows them to be able to reach mastery.
Penelope Pak McMillen: Here at Summit we serve a wide range of students and we want to make sure that the expectations are exactly the same for students, regardless of their background or their prior preparation. In order for us to be effective educators we need to see real-time data to ensure that the way that I am spending my time as a teacher is actually meeting the goals of all the kids that are in my classroom.
Chris Kelly: So, in terms of choices, and this has a lot to do with the survey I sent out yesterday around office hours, about half of you said that you wanted a lesson on skills.
I do remember my own high school experience. If I was ahead I’m thinking to myself, “How am I going to kill fifty-five minutes?” And if I was behind, I felt frustrated and I felt like I was wasting my time because I wasn’t getting the support or the help I needed. So, a survey can give you really valuable information about what those needs are so you can meet them.
You guys can go ahead and go into your Chromebooks, go to your email, and then there is the Day 7 survey.
Kayla: At the beginning of every class we take a survey and it just helps us determine where we are in the project and then he’ll set up workshops and places for people to go based on where they are on the survey.
Penelope Pak McMillen: It could be a Google survey or a quick thumbs up-thumbs down to a mini-quiz to ensure that we actually know what our kids need that day and that we are giving them exactly what they need.
Cady Ching: You are going to write three different facts that you could include in a introduction paragraph for this lab report. You guys have two minutes and thirty seconds to come up with three things. Pass those sheet of papers forward.
Knowing where every single student is at all times in the day allows me to deliver the support that each child needs. Some of the ways that I build that into my classroom are by doing pre-assessments in class. So, the warm-up will be of an activity that the students can fill out and then I can just differentiate the class based on those stacks of paper.
Cady Ching: So, if your name is in a gray box I would like to guide you through an annotation where you check yourself to see if you have all the information required to get a seven. Can I have you guys move now?
Armando: The teachers here they always know where you’re at, so I think it’s a great thing that they could, like, constantly see where your grades are at, what you’re struggling with. If you need, like, help with a specific grade, they could help you with that.
Penelope Pak McMillen: We have an online platform where all of the curriculum lives and where students take assessments that show their mastery. It also gives the same data to their teachers. And, so, the teachers can use the platform to make decisions about how they want to use their instructional time.
Cady Ching: Go ahead and open you computers. There’s tons of other readings that we uploaded into the PLP. They’re based on your reading level.
PLP stands for Personalized Learning Plan and the PLP tool is the technology platform that students are using to learn content to get feedback and to complete work.
Cady Ching: So, you are ready for the Level 5 or comparing and contrasting--
Students and teachers have access to the same Google documents. So, everything is real-time.
Chrystal: In the PLP is where we are able to see our progress and our grades. Because I’m able to request feedback, I’m able to understand what I need to do in order to improve my grade. And I’m also able to see where I’m going to be on track and, like, what I need to do in order to be more on top of my work.
Cady Ching: I’m able to know where they are and further, I can deliver that message about how they’re doing in class, what they need to work on, so much more quickly than I could before the use of the plan.
Chris Kelly: With all these different data streams that I’ve got coming in, whether it’s the survey or a PLP, I’ve got access to information that allows me to set students up with the learning situations, with the sorts of choices that they need to make in order to get a first-class education.
Penelope Pak McMillen: So, I think the most important thing that we do here is to ensure that our teaching is personalized to really build outcomes that are appropriate to your learners and create an action plan where your feedback is meeting them where they are at and pushing them to where they need to go.