Data matters, and not just in math class

At Community Day Charter School in Lawrence, data rules. Founded in 1995, the K-8 school boasts that it has closed the achievement gap between Hispanic students and white students — and, indeed, its numbers are impressive. In 2008, for example, 89 percent of the school’s Hispanic middle-schoolers scored proficient or advanced on the math and English sections of MCAS. According to CDCS, the corresponding figure for white students statewide was 67.5 percent; for Hispanic students statewide it was a dismal 34 percent.

Sheila Balboni, CDCS’s executive director, credits much of the school’s success to its use of test-score data. The school has a data manager, Bruce Bean, who issues reports on tests that show a teacher how many, and which, kids struggled with particular kinds of questions.

When I had the following conversation with Sheila Balboni by telephone, three other themes emerged: mission, management, and low-turnover.

You've done what some have feared couldn't be done: close the test-score gap between minority students and white students.  What's the secret?
One of the things we identified right away was creating standards, and being very specific about goals and accountability. In 1995, we were sort of ahead of that curve. And we were among the first to realize that the data was really important.  So when MCAS came along, we were in a good spot and we also had a jump on this.   Bruce [Bean, the data manager] gives individual teachers reports, and does a lot of analysis of MCAS.  It’s a little bit overwhelming to teachers, but he pulls together the data in a way that makes it very teacher-friendly. Over the years, we get a little bit better at following up on the data with action plans. We now do benchmark testing during the year, so it’s not just benchmark data.  We really believe in standardized testing. We don’t think it necessarily hampers teacher creativity. We’ve found it frees them up to come up with more enriched and varied approaches.

And teachers agree?
We’ve very clear about our mission, which is that children develop the kinds of skills that give them choices in life. Everyone is on board with regard to that. Another thing: we are very careful about who we hire, and do a whole lot of work ensuring that a candidate who comes in knows what we expect, and is on board with us philosophically.  

You mentioned your management as a factor in your high test scores. Could you explain a little more?
We have a management approach that is pretty unique. The school [of 346] is divided into three groups: K-2, 3-5, 6-8. Each group has a manager, or head of school, that reports to me as executive director. My heads of school know every single child, and every single parent. They all teach a class, and they’ve all been teachers in this school. Their job is to make sure the children are learning, and getting the basic skills they need to have some real choices. But it’s not all academics. We also do field trips and summer camps.

How do teachers move from teacher to manager?
Well, they’re immersed in our culture and they know how we run things. They have all this support from me and my team, and they’re not all new at the same time.  But we try to work with all teachers to identify their interests. Some have also gone on to be principals elsewhere, or found other charters. If you’ve taught here, you’re kind of a hot item.

You’re part of a larger organization, The Community Group, which operates child care centers in the Merrimack Valley. How has that shaped the school?
Another reason for our success is our relationship with TCG. All the HR, technology, and accounting that The Community Group offers is to available to the charter school. That’s been nice. That’s how we afford the data manager, because he also serves the other programs.

Whenever one school has better scores than another, there’s talk that the more successful school has the easier population to teach.  What is your population like?
It’s basically low-income, Spanish-speaking homes. But we don’t have a lot of turnover. When our families win that lottery, they stick with us pretty much for the whole nine years.

So you aren’t having to contend with new middle-schoolers — kids where you don’t know them or their home lives?
No. If you look at our MCAS scores, you see they struggle in the early years but that every year, their academic achievement improves. We’re number one in terms of moving kids along. By 8th grade, we’ve closed the achievement gap.