New Jersey Department of Education

Episode 3: Partnerships for Success — Family Engagement in Schools

Note: The audio versions of all episodes are available on the DOE Digest webpage.


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Dr. Lamont Repollet: I’m Dr. Lamont Repollet, New Jersey’s Commissioner of Education. Welcome to the DOE Digest, a podcast from the New Jersey Department of Education. It is a platform for information exchange, in which the Department will highlight the work being done by innovative and transformative educators around the state.

I have been working to redesign the Department of Education to what I call NJDOE 2.0. This podcast is one of the ways that we utilize our digital platform to help strengthen teaching, leading and learning, and increase educational equity for the 1.4 million students across New Jersey. I hope you enjoy today’s topic.

Ken: Hello and welcome to DOE Digest. I’m your host, Ken Bond. With the beginning of the school year upon us, it is so exciting to think about all of the future possibilities that may present themselves. As many teachers approach a school year, they're not only thinking about climate and culture for their students, but also for their own climate and culture as teachers and staff members.

In this episode we'll be discussing this very topic with two educators from New Jersey and getting their perspective on what both teachers and administrators can do to create a positive climate and culture for staff in their schools’ buildings.

West Deptford Middle School

Administrator Perspective

Laura:My name is Laura Sandy. I'm the Assistant Principal of Curriculum and Instruction at West Deptford Middle School.

Ken: I was excited to sit down with Laura Sandy, who is a member of the West Deptford team. West Deptford is one of our Lighthouse Districts for their improvement in both math and English language arts, as well as their use of data to continually improve their school's performance.

Laura shared about how her district is leveraging the use of data to help students and teachers take responsibility and set short-term and long-term goals for themselves and for the district.


Laura: So we believe in empowering teachers and students to be educational leaders, therefore we have a data team within the school. The data team meets monthly. It consists of various content area teachers. During that time, we review, uh, school data from internal assessments that we have. And we identify areas in need of growth.

With that information it's turn-keyed by the data team members to PLCs, as well as we create in-service agendas that align with our school's need.We identify vertical needs that need to be addressed within a specific content area, as well as individual students that may need targeted intervention. Ken: In visits to West Deptford one thing that was striking the fact that teachers worked with students to look at data, analyze that data, and help students set goals. Laura talks about this process in this next segment

Laura: So our teachers meet with the students, um, after their benchmark assessments, and they set short-term goals. We have a goal sheet that the students are working when they're one-on-one conferencing with the teachers. And the teachers facilitate a discussion by pulling up their data from an assessment that covers the majority of the standards being taught for the year. And they identify their strengths as well as areas in need of attention. And, with the students, they discuss what they're going to be doing by the next benchmark assessment-the instruction that will be applied within the classroom.

And then the students identify personal goals that they feel they can improve upon. So we believe in that growth mindset of, not so much "I need to hit a target score," but "I personally feel like I can improve in this area." And then the teachers then knowing this, and they're helping the student set the goal, they provide the necessary resources to support them.


I feel as though that it makes students an active participant in their education. And once students are involved in their goals, they feel that sense of reward when they achieve that. While setting short-term goals, they're also setting a long-term goal for the year because they know the overall picture, now, of what that end product should look like.

So by achieving these short-term goals, or even not achieving them, because not achieving them allows the students to have that discussion with the teacher of "What have we done in this process? And how can we do things differently?" And then, so, altering them being an active participant in their, um, education, as well as resources that are used, to meet then these long-term goals.But it is ongoing conversations with the students-time that needs to be carved out of the instruction to make sure these needs are being met.

So as I mentioned conferences take place in all of the classrooms, but there is a specific student that I can think of that worked really hard in achieving their goals, starting with the teacher having that one-on-one conference at the beginning of the year. It did take over a two-year period of time to really achieve that personal goal that they set. But the teacher that they had the first year continuously conferenced with the two students who readjusted their goal. So that way if they didn't meet their personal goal that was set the first time, they weren't feeling defeated.

So then they tailored it and figured out, "maybe let's not select four standards that they're gonna improve in by the next assessment, let's focus on two specific standards and these are the standards we're going to look for improvement by our next benchmark assessment." And by utilizing that tactic where we're altering the, maybe the number of things we're focusing on and narrowing it down, it provided that student with the ability to see that they can achieve.

And then, over time, by developing the rapport between the teacher and the child, the child was able to then start identifying those things within the classroom and not just waiting for benchmark assessments. But reaching out to the teacher and, you know, the teacher would share feedback with me of, "they just felt like they totally got the lesson today."

And then, you know, that teacher even then the following year connected with their second-year teacher and communicated, "these are the things we've been working on." So that [unclear], it was seamless then for that child for the next school year, to be able to just pick up that same philosophy of "let's just look at little chunks at a time." And they've just flourished over the past two years. And it's just amazing to see when students become confident in who they are. And that personal idea of "I can achieve and achieve in my own way."

This is actually year four of our district, or for our school, to be utilizing the goal-setting sheets. We really just noticed that once we started to do--utilize this process, students became more interested in how can they achieve improvement by their next goal. And we really stepped away from "what is my percentage score?" and "What are my neighbors, or my other peers, what are they scoring?" But rather, "what are my strengths and weaknesses? How can I improve, and did I make that personal improvement by the next assessment?"

With that in mind, we want students, by modeling this process, we want them to be able to be able use goal-setting strategies outside of the classroom as well. And this could be done in not-academic areas like extra-curricular activities; goal settings with peer relationships and friendships with their--with their friends. So not just utilizing in academics but for the students to realize that goal setting process can be utilized outside of the classroom to support their overall life. It's creating that whole student.

[end of Administrator Perspective section]

Ken:After hearing about this process from an administrator perspective, I was able to sit down with students and hear about their experience as they went through the goal-setting process themselves.

Student Perspective

Krishna: My name is Krishna Smith and I'm in seventh grade and I go to West Deptford Middle School.

Ryan: My name is Ryan Cook. I'm in eighth grade and I go to West Deptford Middle School.

Immanuel: Uh, my name is Immanuel Misiani. I am in seventh grade and I go to West Deptford Middle School.

Ken: So the first thing I want to ask you, when you think about the types of things that help you set goals, what are some of those things, when you're thinking about academics and like, your--your work here, uh, at West Deptford Middle School? What are some of the things that you use to gage where you are and set goals for yourself?

Immanuel: Usually, me, I, uh, try to see what I've already been able to accomplish, and I try building up on those skills, just trying to get better every single time and improve my scores and see how the outcome is.

Krishna: My teachers provide many resources. They just don't limit you to one option and they're always open to help you [unclear] when they get a chance. I basically look at what I did wrong and see if I can figure out - figure it out by myself what it was. Or if it was a simple mistake or one that's more complicated, then I can't just figure out right then and there.

So, I talk to my teacher about it and then they point it out. And then I go to--I say to myself in my head, "Okay, what can I do to help me with this?" Because in Algebra, for example, we build off of every topic, therefore you--you need to know the basics before you can advance to the more difficult stuff.

Immanuel: And I feel like, adding on to that, it's, if you get something wrong on top of just trying to get it right the next time, I feel like you need to just change your mindset and do it a different way and see if one way is easier and it'll help you get past that struggle. The teachers usually don't just set you, like Krishna was saying, to one way to do something, they usually show--they usually, even if you're mastering one way, they always encourage you to do more ways, just so that you're more fluent. And some time, maybe, you're not able to do it one way, but you are able to do it and it really helps you out.

Krishna: In literacy, we--we had a whole activity where we focused on our short-term goals and our long-term goals, and how achieving these short-term goals will affect what our future will look like and how much we will be able to achieve of our long-term goals. You have to have your foundation and then you build off of that and you--once you realize the area that you're weak in, you have to have the mindset of "okay, I'm willing to do this extra work. I don't mind. And if it takes a couple more hours, but I'm going to achieve this certain goal and nothing is going to get in the way of stopping it." So, your determination to do it will be a lot higher and that will be first in your mind. And your -- and the foundation will really come to life.

Ryan:To add on to what she said, Mr. Stanwood calls that a productive struggle, where you're getting the work done and you're understanding it, but it's hard; it's not easy. You're not just gonna fly through it anymore. And as we advance through grades, the productive struggle becomes even bigger. So where it's--maybe you don't have that extra hour of free time every night. Maybe you're spending 45 minutes of that doing IXLs to get extra credit. All the teachers here are really accessible, so if you need help with somethin’ they're there for you, whether it's staying after, going in for recess, whatever. If you're struggling with something and you bring it up to them, they will help you and you will succeed with it.

[end of student perspective section]
[end of West Deptford Middle School section]

Ken: Analyzing data at the individual level to set long-term and short-term goals is essential to being able to have students and teachers see where they are and where they want to go. It's also important to think about data holistically at the district or charter level, so that one can see the big picture and really be able to dig in to the macro-trends inside of a school or district.

Data Leadership

Bruce Henecker, Director of Planning, Research, and Evaluation

Bruce: I am Bruce Henecker. I work with the Freehold Regional High School District and my title is Director of Planning, Research, and Evaluation.

Ken: I asked Bruce to join the podcast because he had so many diverse and rich experiences in a number of contexts.  He's worked in big districts, smaller districts, and individual schools. And wherever he's worked, he's built into others and invested into them, so that they can grow in their ability to be data leaders.

Bruce: Data leadership to me, in its essence, is the ability to make informed decision. So, it's the idea that without data all we have is opinions. Me, being able to access data, you know, for the purposes of decision-making, is a critical aspect.

Ken: So, there's a lot of data swirling around in New Jersey, in schools. You can get data points on so many different things and it can be really hard to sort through, right? You have assessment results. You have student surveys, teacher observations, classroom observations. Uh, how can educators who really aspire to be leaders where they are, in the classroom--instructional leaders, leaders around data. How can they filter out all of the background noise when it comes to data and really focus in on the things that matter?

Bruce: Hmm. Okay. Yeah, what you're talkin' about is, uh, a concept I was introduced early on in my career with working with data. I was a supervisor in Jersey City of assessment and evaluation. I supported some--couple of schools with a school improvement grant process. So, data was very critical to that role. And the idea that popped up in my learning was this, uh, thing called the "drip syndrome." You know, data rich and information poor. And even in--this is 2010, maybe not as sophisticated in terms of data systems. But there was certainly tons and tons of data.

I guess the--really to make sense of it all, the easiest thing is really just--there's a seminal book and article by, uh, Victoria Bernhardt. It's "Multiple Measures of School Data. So, and what she does is, in five short pages and she's got a companion book that goes with it. But what she does is she breaks down the different categories of data that typical schools and districts will encounter. And then once you have---once you have the ability to categorize that data and that information, then she also gives you a bunch of questions you can ask about the intersections of those data. And then how they interact and, you know, what kind of decisions can come out of analyzing those different things.

You know, you'll have, uh, performance data. So that's your, you know, typical- your assessments, your grades, your--things like that. You'll have demographics, which are very, you know, extremely important to examine. You know, just looking at proficiencies is one way. But looking at proficiencies by your subgroups, also very important. So understanding your demographic data.

She also puts in there, with demographic data, things like, you know, student attendance. Right? It's a factor on a student that proves to be very important. You'll have your contextual data. Things like what programs are in place. You know? Are we-- what's our math program? You know? Go Math? Or what are the remediation programs that we have that support that? And then you have your perceptual data. It's the idea of, you know, how does student, staff, teachers, community, view the organization? And then, you know, using some simple, like database building, you can actually wind up having a database that has multiple measures. And then once that's in place, with a little Microsoft Excel trickery or, you know, a Learning Management System that's, you know, got some robust, uh, analytics in it, you can really get into those deep questions that Victoria Bernhardt poses in her article and book.

Early on, for me, that--trying to answer those questions were extremely difficult. It took me a while to build the skillset necessary to build out that kind of database. That's certainly one way to get started is to understand the--the basic categories of data that you'll be working with. The other thing [that's] really important, you know, to deal with this "Drip Syndrome" is getting a data inventory together, you know. "What data do I have access to? What is the purpose of that data? Who, you know, owns the data? Who distributes the data? Who should see that data?" It demystifies the information that's out there. You know. Other things related to that is having a playbook with it, you know. "How are we going to use the data? When are we gonna use it?" You know, having timelines in mind.

Like, okay, "data is released on this date. Well, by this date we should have something in plan." You know, in place, in to how we're going to use it and what it means and things like that. You know? A good example would be, like, you know, districts are required to do a state presentat--a state assessment result presentation, you know, so many days after the scores are released. So that's, you know, a nice little timeline. And that's actually dictated by the state. But there's plenty of other local sources of--of data that have timelines. So even having your head around that really helps demystify the whole process.

Ken: Any, uh, suggestions about where people could go, maybe different organizations in the state, or different supports that people could look for, to--if this is something that they've done maybe a little of, but they want to dip their feet in in a more substantial way? Or, even resources in districts, that, you know, you've seen?

Bruce: Well, definitely having data expertise infrastructure in place is gonna be essential, right? So a lot of schools have been using data teams for years, you know. I certainly, I formed and trained and worked with data teams, you know, for many, many years. Um, even early on in my, you know, teaching career. You know, early 2000's, um, I was involved in data teams. So, I think that's the first thing, is to--is to build that in-house expertise. Um, the idea is that, you know, a school can have a data team with varying levels of expertise, but it's when those other--those data teams get together with other data teams, that's when you're going to start understanding like, "Oh! This is what can be done?" And "this is how you do it?" It's that kind of, like, you know learning through socialization that happens. So certainly, you know, the simplest thing is just, you know, get a committee of like-minded educators together, whether it be through a PLC or actually, you know, a designated data team. When they're researching and--and asking the right questions, and then trying to find the data to answer those questions, expertise is gonna follow.

The other thing you'll have to do is just some statistical background is helpful. I wasn't and, nor am I now, a statistician, uh, by any stretch, where, you know, I can do more than, you know, just some simple stuff. But, things that I've learned along the way that have proved invaluable, or just, like, basic things like correlations. Understanding what a correlation is. You know, like, uh, the relationship between height and weight. You know. Those are strongly correlated. So what does it mean to be strongly correlated versus weakly correlated? Once you can get your head around that, the next thing you get into is regression analysis. You know, building out scatter charts and looking for trends, there. "[Are] there outliers affecting my data model?" And things like that.
After you kind of get the idea of regression analysis down, it's also nice to be able to figure out how you can break student results up into quartiles and quintiles, for example.

With PARCC and NJSLA, we--we break up student performance into five bands. So, just knowing basically how to break your data into that--those kinds of bands, helps you more precisely determine where students are.
A lot of times we artificially put on a performance-based band based on like, you know, a 60 is a D, and you know,  a 70 is a C type of thing. But that has no bearing in reality, per se, especially if, you know, you don't have a validated long-running assessment that can be broken out into those performance bands. So knowing those kinds of simple things really helps. And to get there, you kind of have to know how to standardize scores. So, there are all like statistical things you can pick up anywhere. And I've certainly learned a lot from YouTube. And I can look up some videos on it and I'm like, "Ah. This is something I can actually do."

Ken: How can, uh, school staff work together to distribute data leadership? And what are some of the benefits of that?

Bruce: I think it's very important for a data leader to really understand what's at the fingertips of the teachers. What information do they actually have? In--in my past experiences I've done a lot of training on learning management systems. A lot of peop--typically where, you know, a district, you know, they'll do their local assessments on it. It's like an assessment platform. It's a data warehouse. And it's a place to go and--and get that quick information. You know, like, student outcome data, student attendance data, et cetera. What bothered me when I do those kind of trainings, if I don't see administrators in those trainings and there are only teachers there. I feel like they're--if they don't know better than the teacher what's available, then they're not gonna be able to figure out what to expect from teachers, and what conversations should be happening in those PLCs or on those data teams. So, you know, certainly the--the data leader really needs to be fluent in--in the systems and resources available for teachers. After they're--once they're fluent in that, then the next thing is to have the playbook. Um, so, you know, we have that multiple measures article that I referenced. That's certainly great. But another one that was, like, really useful for me was this book Data Wise. It's like, you know, there's so many different ones. There’s a-- IES has a data use guide as well, which is just, you know, it's free. You can just go and download it off the internet.

The idea is once you have the playbook in place, that's how you can really guide the conversations. Um, you have to have like a, you know, a data analysis protocol. What are your, you know, three or four really compelling questions that you're gonna ask about that data set or data sets that are going to, you know, help drive your way to a particular answer?

Ken: Data holds the keys to so many social justice related issues in education. Data can really be what unlocks those conversations. And it can show school districts what's really happening on the ground level.

In this last portion of our conversation, Bruce talks about what types of data can be used and how to use them.

Bruce: With equity I think, you know, it's one of those things a lot of people espouse as, you know, being strong proponents of, but then, my next thing is to challenge them. "Well, how would you prove that?" You know. So, how would you go and really prove that your organization treats students in an equitable way and gives students the resources they need to be successful? And if they don't know how to approach that, then we see there's a gap--a gap in their knowledge. So, there are some simple areas to get that. Look at your Honors classes, you know. Does the Honors Classes, does that reflect the make-up of your school? So:

  1. Do you know how to figure out the demographics of your school?
  2. Can you also figure out the demographics of your those--those AP classes, the Honors classes, things like that?

Next thing is look at your remedial classes. Like, you know, is there a particular trend you notice in the demographics of the remedial courses? And if so, why--what's causing that? And that's maybe--it's not an easy answer. It's not, you know, is it an implicit bias? Is it, you know, something that went wrong in kindergarten? Is it social factors? Emotional factors? You know, those things. You gotta--but you have to be willing to dig. And that means taking an honest look at what's happening in your building, your district--in your classrooms.
You know, in terms of demographic makeup. Really examining, you know, by race and demographics, you know, what's happening with our discipline. Again, are certain ethnic groups more represented in our detention rooms than, you know, what they are present in the school? And if so, what's causing that? I mean, is it--is it a teacher that's doling out the most discipline and it is doling out to only a certain type of student? Again, being ready and willing to have those, like, take the hard look and then have the hard questions and conversations after.

[end of Bruce’s section]
[end of Data Leadership section]


Ken: Thank you so much for listening to today's episode. Please join us on October 15, 2019 at 8:30 PM [EST] for NJEdPartners Twitter chat. We would love for you to join us. And the chat last month was just so energizing. It would be great to have you part of this next one. We also have one last word from one of the students that we interviewed for this episode.

Ryan: Shout out to Ms. Arroyo. She's our Spanish teacher and she helped me so much this year, already. We're like three weeks into the school year and she's helped me out, so if you're hearing this Ms. Arroyo, give me extra credit please.


Ken: We look forward to continuing to connect and engage with you about educating the 1.4 million students around the state and hope to talk to you on the #NJEdPartners third-Tuesday Twitter chat. You can subscribe to the podcast channel for DOE Digest through your iPhone, in the Apple podcast app, or wherever else you listen to podcasts so that you can get new episodes when they are released. Also, please leave us a review through the Apple podcast app on your iPhone. It is the best way to help new listeners find us. Neither the New Jersey Department of Education, nor its officers, employees or agents, specifically endorse, recommend, or favor views expressed by those interviewed. Discussion of resources are not endorsements.
Thanks so much for listening.

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