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Magazines > MultiMedia Schools > March/April 2003
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Vol. 10 No. 2 — Mar/Apr 2003
The Online Educator
Creating a Framework to Make Data-Driven Instruction a Reality
by Gregory Scott Decker, Ed.D., Principal Lead Mine Elementary School Raleigh, North Carolina

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How can we help students increase learning, meet state and national content standards, and achieve success on rigorous performance assessments? To improve student achievement in the classroom and on high-stakes tests, we need to ask the right questions and gather the right data. At Lead Mine Elementary School, we receive data from our state test, the North Carolina End-of-Grade Test, after students leave for the summer. However, to increase student achievement, we need current and accurate data on an ongoing basis.

Over the last 4 years, Lead Mine Elementary has built an education framework that has resulted in academic growth for students and helped make data-driven instruction a reality. By using this framework, we have developed a way to secure the data we need to make better instructional decisions and improve student achievement on a continuing basis throughout the school year. "The Lead Mine Elementary School Curriculum Design" framework created by our administrators, teachers, curriculum specialists, literacy specialists, special education resource teachers, tutors, and media specialist has four major components:

• Curriculum alignment: What are we going to teach?

• Curriculum mapping: When are we going to teach it?

• Curriculum benchmarking: Did students learn it?

• Differentiation: What teaching methods would be best for each student?

Using this Curriculum Design framework, our teachers, parents, and students can see student expectations for each grade level. We can track student progress, identify needs, and provide focused instruction and interventions. Ultimately, we can improve student achievement throughout the school year and on the End-of-Grade Test.

Lead Mine Elementary is located in Wake County, an urban area of Raleigh, North Carolina. Our school currently enrolls 600 students in kindergarten through fifth grade. Our student population is 50 percent Caucasian, 28 percent African-American, 14 percent Hispanic, and 8 percent other minorities. We are an English as a Second Language (ESL) school and more than 40 percent of our children receive free and reduced lunches. Our school is part of the Wake County Public School System, the second-largest school system in the state.

Curriculum Alignment

The first component of our Curriculum Design framework, curriculum alignment, shows what we will teach in each subject area and at each grade level.

How did we begin? First, our teachers assembled their curriculum for each grade level and aligned it with the state's Standard Course of Study. Then they organized the components of the curriculum visually. On the horizontal axis, we listed each grade level from kindergarten through fifth. On the vertical axis, we listed each academic subject area. Next, the teachers identified which skills students should be able to demonstrate in each subject area and grade level.

Curriculum Mapping

Building on the curriculum alignment component, which shows what we will teach, the curriculum map illustrates when we will teach it. It displays the skills in the order they will be taught in each grade level. To determine the mapping sequence, we evaluated research across a number of areas, including best-practice teaching methodology, cognitive-learning theories, and brain research.

As we laid out the objectives across the curriculum map—skill by skill, grading quarter by grading quarter, and grade level by grade level—a bigger picture began to emerge. We saw that we needed to strengthen connections among and between grade levels and subject areas. Taking advantage of this new perspective, we decided to thematically align instruction across the subject areas in each grade level, when appropriate. Not only did this approach make better sense to us, but we knew it would make better sense to our students and parents.

We extended these connections to our media center as well. Every child in our school sees our media specialist once a week. The media specialist's role is to enrich the curriculum and learning process through the use of technology. Toward this end, she regularly meets with the grade level planning teams as they design their lessons according to the curriculum map. By participating in these meetings, she can align her instruction with what the children are doing in class and help them identify and use appropriate resources, including the Internet.

Curriculum Benchmarking

Of course, just because our teachers and media specialist have a plan for what to teach and when to teach it, that does not automatically mean that students will learn it. With this in mind, we developed quarterly assessments and minimum standards of achievement, known as curriculum benchmarking, for each grade level. This is a simple process of quality control—identifying children who have mastered skills and those who have yet to master them.

These multiple assessments (which are correlated with the curriculum alignment and curriculum maps) allow us to collect objective data throughout the school year. This helps us determine where children are, and where they need to be, to successfully pass local academic standards and the End-of-Grade Test administered in grades three, four, and five. This also enables us to provide timely interventions in the classroom or enroll students in special programs to assist them wherever they need it.

Students who attend our school from kindergarten through fifth grade will be benchmarked against minimum grade level expectations 24 times over this 6-year period using multiple assessments. The wealth of data we accumulate allows us to look at each child longitudinally, determine how to best help each reach their full potential, and determine what interventions are most successful.


As we review the assessment data, we try to determine what teaching methods would be best for each learner. We have found the integration of technology to be a valuable tool in helping teachers differentiate instruction for students based on their individual needs.

When we set out to develop our Curriculum Design framework, we looked for a curriculum solution that would support our philosophy and provide ongoing embedded assessment and detailed student performance data. At the same time, we wanted a solution that would provide differentiation of curriculum, allow for curriculum compacting at the academically gifted spectrum, and provide direct interventions to students who needed to focus on a specific curriculum concept they have failed to master. We found that Pearson Education Technologies' SuccessMaker comprehensive courseware system provides the best system to align with what we were doing and provides real-time data correlated to our End-of-Grade Test.

Each student uses the curriculum courseware for 30 minutes a day, three times a week to strengthen their skills in mathematics, reading, writing, and language arts. As students work on the courseware in the classroom and computer labs, we see that every computer monitor is different because every child is working at his or her own pace and skill level. This is true differentiation.

The courseware's management system provides teachers and parents with up-to-date assessments of each student's skills. The system's assessment tools and on-demand reports allow teachers to monitor each student's performance and growth, pinpoint difficulties, and provide interventions as needed. For example, if a group of students has difficulty in a specific area, the teacher or media specialist can provide additional instruction or resources to cover that area in greater detail. Alternatively, if the reports show that everyone in the class has mastered a concept, the teacher or media specialist can move more rapidly through the lesson, which helps both to make more effective use of their time with students.

Forecasting Achievement

Data from the curriculum courseware also plays an important role in our curriculum benchmarking. In fall 2000, we wanted to determine target courseware levels for achievement on the End-of-Grade Test and incorporate these into our benchmarks. We provided Pearson Education Technologies with data from our 2000 End-of-Grade Test and student performance data in the courseware.

The company then performed an "OnTarget Analysis," which is part of their new High Stakes Management suite of tools and services. It analyzed students' performance data and End-of-Grade Test scores to establish the statistical relationship between courseware levels at the time of the test and test score data. Using this information, the company established target courseware levels for specific test achievement, then recommended some adjustments to our benchmarks to help ensure smooth transitions from grade to grade.

The result is that we can now forecast the time a student needs to reach a specific SuccessMaker level and see the relationship of that level to achievement on the End-of-Grade Test. We incorporate this data as a part of our quarterly benchmarks and use it day to day as well. A key benefit is that the courseware provides a continuous view of student progress toward the target level and corresponding goal, aiding the teacher in providing timely and appropriate instructional focus and intervention throughout the year.

Parent Involvement

In addition to using assessment data to help make instructional decisions for each child, teachers share the data with parents to show them how their child is performing and to address areas of difficulty. Teachers appreciate having objective data available at parent-teacher conferences. It diminishes human error and biases, placing the focus on addressing the needs of the child rather than finding blame.

Parents play a critical role in our efforts to improve student achievement. As such, we strive to provide them with as much information as we can about their child. We put our curriculum alignment and curriculum benchmarks in a pamphlet and hand it out the first day of school when parents attend open house. We tell the parents, "This is the contract we are making with you and the academic expectations we are seeking." This helps parents see our vision for the school year and take a more active role in helping their children develop the skills they need during the year.

For example, in the first quarter of grade four, we may say that the minimum expectation is for each child to know eight of the 16 mid-year objectives. In our open house at the first of the year, we provide parents with all 16 objectives. At the end of the quarter, we inform parents how many of the 16 objectives their child knows and whether or not their child is working at grade level. This gives the parents direct, objective feedback based on the alignment, the map, and the End-of-Grade testing. We communicate with parents every grading period and lay out the objectives again for each grade level in an insert that goes into the quarterly report cards of children who have not met the minimum expectations.

This Curriculum Design allows us to become completely transparent, giving parents and the community a clear view into our curriculum and assessments. This approach has greatly improved our relationships with our stakeholders and has increased student academic success as well.

Developing a Record of Success

We continually work to update and fine-tune our Curriculum Design. Each spring, we review and edit the framework to reflect changes in our curriculum, standards, and assessments. When children return in the fall, we have a renewed framework to better meet their needs. As a result of our efforts, our decision-making ability has become more data-driven and students are improving.

In 2000-01, 88 percent of our students passed the North Carolina End-of-Grade Test. The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction named Lead Mine Elementary a School of Distinction with Exemplary Growth, the highest award given to schools in the state, in recognition of our academic achievement and academic growth for all children. In 2001-02, 91.2 percent of our students passed the End-of-Grade Test, and we were named a School of Excellence with Exemplary Growth for a second time.

The fact that we are a school of "Exemplary Growth" indicates the potential of this Curriculum Design and its ability to increase student growth and performance. Regardless of academic level, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status, when a child enters Lead Mine Elementary, he or she will grow academically because we effectively hold ourselves accountable for every child. In fact, our student performance and growth rates continue to rise on the End-of-Grade Test, even though our poverty rates have increased annually. This is a phenomenon that is not occurring in many schools.

In a changing education system that demands accountability and strives to provide more information to parents about their child's achievement, we are excited about what Lead Mine Elementary has been able to accomplish. Many factors have been central to the success of our program: hard work, dedicated teachers and staff, an outstanding curriculum design, use of technology, constant monitoring, data-driven decision making, and people open to new ideas. Most importantly, we always put the child first. We know how to ask the right questions to determine a child's needs and what interventions will ensure the child's success. We firmly believe it is our responsibility to provide each child with whatever support is needed. We strive to meet the needs of all the children attending Lead Mine Elementary.

Communications to the author may be addressed to Dr. Gregory Scott Decker, Principal, Lead Mine Elementary School, 8301 Old Lead Mine Road, Raleigh, NC 27615, 919/870-4120; e-mail:

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