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Make the Most of Team Time: Focus on Results, Not Opinions

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Make the Most of Team Time: Focus on Results, Not Opinions

Set guidelines for how your PLCs use data to sharpen their focus.

Nancy W. Sindelar

Many schools across the country have implemented teacher team meetings and professional learning communities (PLCs) with the hope of boosting student achievement and raising test scores. School boards have made commitments to provide teachers with meeting time, and contracts and class schedules have been altered so that teacher teams can evaluate curriculum, share instructional strategies, and discuss interventions to help students achieve at higher levels.

Despite these commitments, many teams lose their effectiveness because they aren’t using analyzed test data to make decisions about curriculum, instruction, and meaningful student interventions. In my experience as an assessment consultant I often see teams and PLCs fall into the trap of using valuable team time to talk about school in general terms. They often base changes in curriculum and instruction on opinions voiced by the loudest or most opinionated member of the team, rather than basing them on data. Without data, team meetings lose focus and degenerate into an exchange of opinions and intentions. But with data, they turn into an exchange focused on results and the use of specific information to promote continuous improvement in learning.

Once time has been allocated for regular team meetings and teachers have been organized into grade-level or subject teams, the following suggestions will generate a more effective use of team time.

  1. Begin by focusing on data.

Teams can use the analyzed results of a standards-based formative or summative assessment at any grade level for any subject to generate data-based recommendations for curriculum revision, changes in instruction, changes in teaching materials, revisions to the assessment, staff development needs, student interventions, and more. When teams and PLCs begin with data, they can effectively evaluate changes in textbooks, materials, pacing, and methodology. High-functioning teams then commit to using the successful materials and strategies and shape them into new, data-driven classroom practices that enhance student learning.

Teachers report that when they use team meetings to review the item analysis of a recent common assessment and discuss areas of strength and weakness in students’ progress toward specific learning targets or standards, their instruction becomes more goal-oriented toward helping all students meet or exceed specific learning targets and standards. That said, teachers need to have the analyzed results from their formative and summative assessments in a useable, understandable report format. The data reports also need to be timely so that teachers have immediate feedback regarding their students’ progress. This allows teachers to provide meaningful and timely feedback to their students and reteach as necessary.

In working with teams across the country, it’s exciting to see how quickly teachers develop a hunger for assessment data. As soon as their students have finished an assessment, they want to know where their students have excelled, and where they need to take steps to remediate weaknesses.

Teachers also quickly see the benefits of using item analysis to improve their own teacher-made tests. Sitting in on a team meeting, I observed a team looking at analyzed data and then realizing that 32 percent of their students selected the wrong answer on an item in a multiple-choice assessment. One teacher said, “That’s a poorly worded question.” Another said, “Yes,” then jumped up and revised the question on her classroom computer. After a team review of the revised question, the result was a more clearly worded question and better item choices for assessing student learning. Once this team saw the data, they made improvements to their assessment quickly, easily, and confidently. Using data to drive team decisions helped this school to become the “most improved” school in the state.

  1. Have a simple agenda and expectations for team members.

Because meeting time is precious, it’s important to have an agenda to focus the discussion and to let teachers know what materials to bring to the meeting. Agendas greatly increase productivity for vertical team meetings, where fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-grade teams meet to discuss the sequence of standards in science, or in cross-departmental team meetings, such as when U.S. History teams meet with American Literature teams to discuss how and when the standards regarding post–World War I American culture are being addressed by each subject. Having a simple agenda helps to identify tasks and goals and enables teams to be more productive and effective.

It’s also important to set expectations for team members. The challenge of teamwork lies in the interplay of people, tasks, and processes. High-performing teams tap into the unique talents of individual members. Yet team members need to work together, share a common purpose, and commit to data-driven goals. High-performing teams have an agreed upon set of behaviors for their actions, such as coming to meetings on time, listening and considering another’s perspective, and basing recommendations on data. Having an agreed upon set of team behaviors or norms helps teams to focus on their purpose and how they will work together.

  1. End every team meeting with a defined action plan that will stimulate an improvement in student achievement.

Effective teams do much more than merely look at the data. They improve learning by identifying actions they can take collectively and individually to improve teaching and learning. An important feature of every team meeting is an action plan that documents students’ learning needs and stimulates improvement in student achievement. An action plan may address a needed change or action under the headings of curriculum or assessment revision, changes in pacing, the need to reteach specific learning targets or changes in methodology. The format of the action plan is not critical, but defining and reassessing the action to be taken and using data to foster continuous improvement in teaching and learning are.

Nancy W. Sindelar, Ph.D., http://NancySindelar.com,works with schools to increase student achievement through the alignment of local curriculum and assessments to state and Common Core State Standards and the use of test results to inform instruction. She is an executive consultant on assessment for the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) and has spoken at numerous national conferences. Her publications include Using Test Data for Student Achievement: Answers to No Child Left Behind, Assessment-Powered Teaching, and Developing an Effective Teacher Mentor Program.

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