What We're Learning: Using Practical Measures to Support School Improvement Initiatives

Practical measurement is a light-touch approach for educators to gather and use actionable, specific data that can be analyzed and shared quickly in order to facilitate improvement.

“You ‘treasure what you measure,’ as they say in education,” said a research and data manager at the Bank Street College of Education. “And so it’s important to get [a variety of] different forms of data, particularly instant data, student voice data, parent and community and family data. What is going on in the community? What are the strengths of the students?”

The Yonkers Public School Network for School Improvement (YPS NSI)—a partnership between the Bank Street Education Center and Yonkers Public Schools in New York—has set an ambitious and urgent goal to increase the percentage of Black students, Latinx students, and students experiencing poverty who are on track for success in math in high school by the end of 8th grade. To make progress toward this goal, teachers in the YPS NSI needed a way to better understand whether and how much their efforts to support students were moving in the right direction. Annual lagging data, such as standardized test scores and graduation rates, were too infrequent and too broad to be helpful as timely and specific feedback. 

To meet educators’ need for data that could inform their ongoing instructional improvement efforts in the classroom, the YPS NSI, composed of middle grades math teacher teams, school leaders, and coaches from across 23 Yonkers Public Schools, turned to practical measurement, using the Project for Education Research That Scales (PERTS) Elevate survey. This short student survey assesses how students experience classroom learning conditions that affect their engagement and learning in classrooms. 

What Is Practical Measurement? 

All too often improvement work doesn’t include feedback loops, which can result in missed opportunities to learn what works with students, what doesn’t work, and how to get certain ideas to work in practice. Practical measurement can fill that gap.

Practical measurement involves a light-touch approach to capturing specific, actionable data about an area of improvement and then quickly analyzing and sharing that data so that those involved in the improvement process can collectively reflect on their practices and consider next steps. 

Practical measures can take many forms, from short surveys (such as PERTS) to exit tickets to technology-assisted classroom observation tools. All practical measures, though, share a few key characteristics: They are meaningful to people engaged in the improvement work, they allow for regular and timely data collection and analysis; and they are easy for practitioners to use. Importantly, practical measures don’t work in isolation—they need to be embedded in a culture and routine of inquiry-based improvement. Practical measures should not be used for evaluation or accountability purposes.

How Educators Used the PERTS Survey

The YPS NSI’s improvement work stresses that meaningful, trusting interactions between students and their peers and teachers are foundational to academic success. Their decision to use the PERTS survey was a response to teachers’ desire to better understand how their students experienced interactions with instructors and peers in math class.

In reviewing baseline PERTS survey data as an NSI, teacher teams noticed that only 66 percent of students were experiencing the “feedback for growth” learning condition measured by the survey. The NSI set a goal to raise by 10 percent the proportion of students who experienced feedback for growth in math by the next time the survey would be administered, in four months. 

Capturing these helpful, insightful data from students in their own classrooms and schools energized the teachers. “This was data that their students were sharing about their experience in their classroom,” the research and data manager noted. “There’s something about that data ownership. . . . [I]t feels more personalized and contextualized and attached to the teachers.”

The PERTS survey platform’s built-in analytics allowed the NSI leadership to share data with teacher teams within less than a week of collection. The quick turnaround “feels really different from a lot of more traditional measures of academic performance that feel really distant,” said the research and data manager. 

The PERTS survey takes only 5 to 10 minutes to complete. While setting up data collection processes in partnership with the YPS district office across a network of 23 schools was a significant undertaking, that front-end work, combined with the PERTS survey platform’s built-in analytics features, resulted in a light lift for the teachers who administered the survey and the students who took it.

For the Bank Street NSI, the survey data and the questions it prompted launched several inquiry cycles through which teacher teams tried new and research-based feedback practices, with the support of the NSI’s coaches. Underlying this effort was a culture of trust and the collective understanding of teachers, school leaders, and students that they were on a learning journey. We needed “to get our teacher teams in our schools to trust us that this was a tool that was going to really support them,” said the research and data manager. 

This learning orientation proved helpful when, overall, the NSI fell short of its goal to increase student feedback scores by 10 percent on the “post” survey. Rather than leaving teachers discouraged, the results sparked coaches’ and teachers’ interest in understanding what had gone right among the several teacher teams who did meet the goal. For example, the YPS NSI coaches observed that the teacher teams who saw the most growth on the student voice survey had common, cross-grade planning time built into their schedules to plan for the feedback they were going to give their students. “We’re going to really revisit the data in the [future] and leverage the experiences of those schools to really tell us about what worked,” said the research and data manager. 

Practical Measures Help Tell a Fuller Story

The YPS NSI’s use of practical measurement helped teachers connect their everyday practice to student experience. “Traditional ways that we measure our education system, particularly our public education system, don’t always tell the whole story. And in many ways they tell a distorted story,” said the math and continuous improvement coach. “These [practical] measures are the sort of thing that teachers can use immediately to grow and improve their practice.”

For more examples of practical measurement in middle grades math, as well as guides for use and stories of practical measurement in action, visit WestEd’s Math Practical Measurement repository website. 

Yonkers Public Schools teachers at the YPS NSI’s 2021 Fall Convening

Yonkers Public Schools teachers at the YPS NSI’s 2021 Fall Convening. They are engaged in a data walk in which over 100 network members looked at a variety of data, including the PERTS survey data from the previous spring.