When the Jazz lost to Oklahoma City earlier this season, Coach Jerry Sloan used tape of the game and detailed performance statistics to identify key factors contributing to the loss and to show players specific examples of what they needed to improve. The antithesis of complacency, Sloan and his players routinely watch hours of tapes in order to best respond to the specific needs for a game, leveraging their strengths and working on targeted areas for development. Sloan’s creation of a culture of continuous improvement within his team has undoubtedly contributed to his place as the third all-time most-winning coach in NBA history and his 22-year tenure at the Jazz, which surpasses that of all other coaches in any professional sports franchise.
The reason this topic is particularly relevant to schools is the current reality about the way we serve our students. While teachers face immense challenges in meeting the needs of dozens of students (and upwards of one hundred or more for middle and high school teachers), we are simply falling short in creating the kind of improvement-focus in our schools that exists in the Jazz locker room and that our children deserve.
While Sloan uses a variety of data sources including video, statistics from individual players, and observations on how groups of players work together, the equivalent data in the classroom lies in the mounds of student performance data districts collect, student work, and uncollected data about instruction itself. When you consider all these data sources, the potential for analysis and instructional planning becomes extraordinary.
End of year tests, now a large part of the data teachers examine, should be regarded in a similar fashion to the final win/loss record for the Jazz. These scores help summarize the year but cannot inform day to day planning. Teachers need data that is closer to the classroom in order to make improvements to instruction. They need to understand what is going on inside students’ minds that is causing any confusion, not the percentage of correct answers on a given standardized tests. In order to perfect their pedagogy, teachers need to know which instructional strategies are causing the most amount of learning, especially for students who are struggling.
Much like Sloan’s practices assist the Jazz to prepare for specific opponents, more systematically utilizing a variety of classroom data would enable the identification of specific practices that best support student learning in various subjects and grade levels. The fact that we aren’t currently doing this is tragic – why wouldn’t we leverage all the information at our fingertips to deliver the best education to our students?
In examining data-driven education models, it quickly becomes apparent that there is hope. There are shining examples of individual schools and even districts that are creating cultures of continuous improvement. We need to create similar models that work in Utah and replicate those statewide. Teachers ought to have the information and support they need to “game plan” for every child and every lesson. Parents ought to be part of the equation, receiving regular progress measurements and detailed strategies for supporting their students’ learning. And students themselves ought to be the most invested and knowledgeable piece of the puzzle.
Imagine for a moment a system-wide application of Sloan’s practice in Utah districts and schools. What would a close and consistent examination of teaching practice and student learning lend to instruction, our understanding of students’ needs, and our awareness of how to best apply instruction to those needs? What’s more, what would a pervasive and consistent culture of continuous improvement among leaders, teachers, parents and students do for the overall achievement of Utah’s children?
The answer, and the ensuing results, might astound us all.
This post is part of an ongoing series of data-driven commentary on current events. It was originally published in the Deseret News.