Coaching PLCs to Move Beyond Admiring Data

 Do your students understand? What do they understand? How do you know? Answers: Yes. They understand something. Because they are awesome humans with unique gifts, intelligence and character. They might understand a standard in full, or they have prior knowledge that can lead them to deeper understanding. We as educators are responsible for learning how to access their understanding in order to help them meet standards and benchmarks.

If you had asked me those three questions early in my career following a test, I might have answered like this: No. They don’t understand anything. Because they got the questions wrong. Perhaps I’m exaggerating, or my 25 year old self was dramatic. What I didn’t know then was how valuable it is to mine for data. I was good at making assumptions based on test scores and frequently missed questions. I missed the opportunity to find the understanding in students and build off of it. 

With the recent attention to PLCs, data conversations have become more frequent among educators. These can be valuable opportunities to support students or they can become a checkmark on a to-do list. I’ve observed that teachers are really good at creating responses to data. PLCs discuss how to re-teach or create follow-up activities. But oftentimes the most important step, understanding the data, is skipped. 

Understanding data is challenging. First, it’s vulnerable. It’s easier to talk about standardized test scores when the teachers’ names are not attached to them. When others see our students’ work with inexplicable errors, there is a tendency to fear judgement. Second, sometimes it can be hard to find the understanding and easy to identify what went wrong. I’ve found that photocopying student work, cutting off the names, and having PLCs look at the work together helps both of these challenges. It becomes about our students, not my students. Having multiple teachers with different perspectives verbalizing student understanding that they observe gets us out of the routine of looking for mistakes and into the habit of finding a foundation to build from.

To begin moving beyond admiring data, ask these three questions: Do your students understand? What do they understand? How do you know? 

Content from this post will be shared in more depth through a recorded webinar for NCSM Beyond the Conference. On a personal note, Kathleen Williams and I were scheduled to present this content in a session at the NCSM Conference this fall in Atlanta. Kathleen passed away in March 2021. Her voice is as much a part of this post and the NCSM Beyond the Conference webinar recording as mine. I am thankful for everything that I learned from and alongside Kathleen during our days as Math Specialists together. I will forever miss my favorite co-facilitator and friend.