Some school leaders turn to expensive technology and troves of data as an answer to low proficiency problems in public schools. Dr. Christy Beaird, principal at Laura Dearing Elementary School in Nevada, however, has actively applied research with minimal data collection to transform her school from one of the lowest performers in the Clark County School District to one of the highest.
The elementary, located in an economically-strapped part of the state, has 100 percent of its 850 students on free or reduced lunch, and almost 40 percent of its population are English language learners. Academic performance during the 2013-2014 school year garnered the institution a Focus school status—meaning it was in the bottom 10 percent of Title I served schools in the state based on achievement gaps. It was the 16th out of 16 in their district.
“When I entered the school four years ago, we were the lowest performing school in our zone and one of the lowest performing schools in the state,” Beaird explains. “As of this year, our scores have gone up significantly, and in our zone of 16 schools, we are currently sixth in ELA based on state test scores and seventh in math. We hope to be in the top five by the end of this year.”
To have any hope of getting her school into that top five spot by the end of the school year, Beaird has been repurposing research methods from some of the world’s most respected education thinkers to discover which instructional approaches are most effective for students in her school. This is a strategy, her team thinks, that could impact other schools in similar predicaments.
The Biggest Effect
Before the strategy overhaul, Beaird led a year-long book study with teacher leaders in her school—a step she says was crucial to gain buy-in from the staff. The book, “Visible Learning for Literacy” by researchers Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey and John Hattie, shows educators how to apply results from Hattie’s exhaustive review of available research, which he used to identify specific instructional practices that made the largest impact on student achievement. Hattie’s review, or meta-analysis, included a synthesis of findings from 15 years of research, involving millions of participants.
The book also included the formula Hattie used for calculating what he describes as the “effect size” of instruction, meaning the impact a particular variable is having on outcomes. When Beaird applied the formula to her school, the variable she chose was teacher instruction. Thus, a high effect size in Beaird’s case means teachers are having a sizeable impact on student outcomes; low effect size means there is work to be done.
“When the effect sizes for the class are high but low for a particular student we have to look and see what happened with that student,” Beaird explains. “Sometimes we find attendance is a problem, other times we see motivation as an issue. We can help in those cases.”
“In some cases, a student had a high achievement to start with, and we didn’t push them higher, so there was a low effect size even though they were coming up proficient. That’s a red flag that we would not have noticed if we didn’t do this,” she adds.
Beaird feels that applying this method has changed the way she perceives proficiency rates. She notes that some students who have high effect sizes, meaning they learned a lot from the teacher’s instruction during a unit, still show to be below proficiency during the exams.
“Those types of results tell us that even though a student makes tremendous growth during a particular unit they are still not there yet. But what we did had a big impact on them, so if we do a little bit more of that the student is going to catch up,” Beaird says.
The effect size of teacher instruction is calculated using pre- and post-exam scores between each unit of instruction. It doesn't require fancy gadgets, as all the data is gathered and synthesized on simple Google Sheets, an affordable option for a cash-strapped school district. Beaird notes that most of the cost for implementing this strategy lies in personnel she has hired, including three strategists and one interventionist, who take the data and offer feedback to Beaird and the teaching staff. They also work with groups of struggling students identified through the data.
“Most of the teachers say this method makes it easier to identify struggling students,” says Jill Hohman a math strategist at Laura Dearing Elementary. “It helps teachers differentiate and plan for students because now they can see that even when a student is not meeting proficiency, what they are doing is working,”
Hohman has worked for the district for over 16 years and notes that she has never seen a school apply research the way Dearing Elementary is doing.
“I think knowing the research is a problem. We are lucky we have Dr. Beaird who is a very avid reader of educational research,” Hohman explains. “I know many other schools are reading the research, but I don’t know other schools that are actually calculating the effect sizes. I think most schools are using his book for strategies in the classroom. We just took it one step further.”
This research strategy is not the only reason Beaird’s school is seeing improvements. She has set up a complete intervention model that identifies every student performing below their grade level in reading, writing or math to monitor their progress every three weeks. Those students all receive special help outside of the classroom. She also worked to change hearts and minds of teachers in the school.
“We had to get our teachers convinced that our kids have to be exposed to grade level standards. That’s a big mind shift when you walk into one of the lowest performing schools in the state of Nevada,” Beaird explains.
For teachers Beaird could not get on board, she let them go or ushered them into positions outside of the school.
“Our mantra was that we were going to be the fastest improving school in the state of Nevada,” Beaird says. “Now I have some of the hardest working teachers I have ever met. They are amazing over here.”