With a spotlight on 9th grade, SDP Fellow Ellen Fugate connects Connecticut educators with the data they need to support struggling freshmen through to graduation.
Too many students struggle during the middle to high school transition, dramatically impacting their prospects for graduation and college readiness. Motivated by compelling research findings indicating freshman-year academic achievement as a major predictor of high school graduation, SDP Fellow Ellen Fugate and the Connecticut RISE Network (“RISE”) focused data-informed practices toward 9th grade achievement in two high schools in Meriden, Connecticut. And from 2016-2018, these two high schools improved on-track achievement and student engagement by embracing new data tools, protocols, and structures to improve student outcomes.
The case for freshman year
Academic achievement in freshman year is increasingly under the microscope when discussing graduation and college readiness. Research from the University of Chicago concludes that students’ academic achievement during freshman year is more predictive of high school graduation than any other factor, including test scores, ethnicity, or family income. “There was a lot of excitement and enthusiasm around bringing this emphasis on Grade 9 to Meriden,” Fugate reflects. “We had the opportunity to really identify off-track 9th grade students early. Having access to more data--historical data, aggregated data--in a timely manner and setting conditions for teachers to have protected time to work with and make meaning from data could set the building blocks for students’ post-secondary success.”
Early success in Meriden
During the program’s first year, the Meriden schools launched efforts to improve 9th grade achievement levels and on-track promotion rates by piloting new strategies to strengthen 9th grade performance. Based on research showing that strong connections to an adult in the school who provides support and monitors academic progress can be especially important for a 9th grade student, the school requested to use RISE grant funding dollars to hire two “Transition Specialist” counselors—a newly-formed position—for each school. These new positions were added with a fresh, data-informed approach to school counseling in mind and, with support from Fugate, the specialists used student-level data to monitor students’ grades and mitigate course failures.
This marked a significant shift and increase in how counselors used data to support their caseloads. Through biweekly meetings and monthly district strategy sessions, Transition Specialists cultivated a greater capacity to make meaningful use of data, identify struggling students, and preemptively intervene before students failed classes.
After the effort’s first year, the transition specialists and the introduction of frequent and strategic use of data cut the retention rate in half.
By the second year of the program, Fugate and the team expanded the reach of these intervention efforts by including teachers. “In the second year, we realized that while counselors can have a big impact, they can’t do all of this work on their own,” Fugate stressed. To deepen and enhance the work of Transition Specialists, Meriden embedded teams of educators including core subject teachers, a special education teacher, a transition specialist, and a Grade 9 administrator into each school.
These teams spent protected time each week (three periods worth) in data-informed meetings. With Fugate working behind the scenes to prepare carefully curated data to inform action, these educator teams could place their deep knowledge of their students behaviors and experiences into conversation with engaging, informative, and usable data insights. The result: Deep and thoughtful conversations leading to high-impact action.
After seeing some initial success in Year 1, attendance and behavior data made clear that 9th grade students were experiencing unequivocal success once teachers were fully engaged in this work during Year 2. “Teachers had access to student data before this effort, but the differences we saw during the two years of this project really helped galvanize the data culture in Meriden” explains Fugate. “Once the teams were able to more quickly identify struggling students and make data-based hypotheses as to why, their appetite for this kind of information increased.”
With the massive push in education for data work, Fugate’s work demonstrates the importance of not only providing access to data but also providing ample support to those who use it. The work of Fugate, RISE, and the Meriden schools became both a test case and example of how data can combine with high-touch support models to ultimately move the needle on an issue of national importance.
Driving Conversations With Data
For those looking to replicate the approach taken in Meriden, Fugate has some notable advice.
- Provide helpful information. Ensure data is timely, actionable, and responsive to educator needs for a more seamless, and less intimidating, integration of data into meetings.
- Facilitate data discussions with protocols. Use several different protocols to keep conversations focused on students and grounded in specific action steps. After a few months of using protocols, teams in Meriden modified and introduced new protocols to prevent meetings from becoming stale. Despite this, a tension remains between the recognized value of using protocols to structure conversations and teacher frustration with the overly prescriptive and repetitive nature of protocols.
- Recognize that data is only the beginning. When sharing data, acknowledge that information presents some of many ways of understanding students, and that qualitative educator knowledge should also be valued. Data gives you a signal that there may be trouble but doesn't explain why or what to do about it. Bringing in educators to acknowledge and offer qualitative information about the student can help provide direction, which numbers alone cannot do. Data can inform a judgement, but should not be the only decision input.
- Implement teacher teams as a school-wide strategy. Although the work in Meriden focused on Grade 9, supporting data-informed teams in upper grades is essential to ensuring students are on-track throughout high school and are prepared to graduate college and career ready.
Tips for Implementing Teacher Teams
If you’re looking to replicate the educator team structure RISE’s SDP Fellow used in Meriden, consider the following:
- Dedicate the first four weeks of meetings to establishing team practices. Rather than jumping directly into data meetings, the teachers, school administrator, and Data Fellow established meeting norms, created a meeting calendar, and identified systems for managing data, notes, and intervention follow-up. Focusing on the ways teams will function creates the conditions for consistent, productive meetings and cultivates shared investment.
- Solicit anonymous feedback. In February, team teachers completed an anonymous survey to share their thoughts on team meetings. The survey results helped identify areas for improvement, provided an opportunity for teachers to voice their opinions, and resulted in reliable data about teacher satisfaction.
- Engage school leadership. Dedicating a Grade 9 administrator to champion the work of teacher teams was essential. The administrator’s presence tacitly conveyed the importance of this work to the team teachers and the school community more broadly. The administrator was also available to support or facilitate difficult conversations with teachers.
- Reserve time to reflect on improvements and celebrate successes. Teams collectively discussed their survey results to identify areas for improvement and ways to ensure sustainability. Throughout the year, the team also reserved time to celebrate Grade 9 grade student successes, which helped to build team culture and recognize their hard work.
Ellen Fugate is the Applied Data Manager at Connecticut RISE Network.
Visit https://opensdp.github.io/analysis/ to explore the SDP collegegoing toolkit in R or Stata to conduct your own analyses of on-time graduation trends, postsecondary enrollment, and persistence.