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Empowering Educators through Data


A teacher instructing students during a class at Basis Independent School in McLean, Virgnia

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD is working with teachers and schools to reform education through data.

The OECD is over 50 years old, and has 35 member countries, including the United States. Its aim is to support policies that will improve the economic and social well-being of people worldwide.

The OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, is the largest international study of 15-year-old students. More than 500,000 students from 72 countries took the test in 2016. They answered questions involving three subjects: science, reading and mathematics.

The PISA results are informative, but do not always lead to improvements in the classroom. The OECD hopes to change that through a program it calls PISA4U. It hopes the program will connect teachers in different areas and lead to exchanges of what it considers “relevant best practices.”

Holm Keller is heading the PISA4U initiative. He says the reasons for differences between high schools is something that teachers are best positioned to explain.

PISA4U is “aimed at empowering teachers to do what they can to substantially improve teaching outcomes in their expertise,” Keller said. “There is a lot of potential for innovation in the teaching community, but it is not always easily shared.”

Through PISA4U, the OECD hopes to share information about what makes some schools perform better than others.

The initiative has two parts. The first is an online program where teachers work in groups to create resources related to their area of specialization. These online and other resources are then shared with the 4,000 teachers involved in PISA4U. The teachers are asked to study and rate the information. Afterwards, the final version of the resources will be shared online to a larger community of teachers for free.

Basis Schools: managing by data

Another goal of PISA4U is to study successful education models around the world. One such model, the only one being studied in the United States, is the Basis school system. It is a group of independent and charter schools that have a record of high student performance.

Basis schools have receive a lot of recognition for their successes. In 2016, U.S. News and World Report magazine rated two Basis schools in Arizona as the number 2 and 3 “Best High School” in the country. The same two schools, plus another in Oro Valley, Arizona, were named as the top three U.S. charter schools.

These rankings are based on the school’s student performance on state-required tests, as well as how well their students are prepared for college.

While Basis schools do have a history of success, another reason for studying them is their method of using data to inform teachers.

The Basis schools direct their programs with data from an electronic learning platform, called the Basis Educational Link and Assessment, or BELA. Mark Reford is the Chief Business Development and Brand Officer for Basis. In his opinion, the simplest way to describe BELA “is crowdsourcing curricular innovation.”

At Basis schools, teachers never have a set curriculum or program of study. Instead, they are given “goals” of what subjects they need to present to students during the school year. Teachers put all the information about their classes, such as homework, study guides, or education goals, into the BELA database. With this information, school administrators are able to see teacher’s progress, which teachers have been successful, and what interesting things they are doing with their classes. That way, the administrators are able to share the information with other teachers and schools.

The database also can help teachers. Teachers can search BELA for curriculum and resource materials for their classes.

Basis Independent School in McLean, Virgnia

Basis Independent School in McLean, Virgnia

School innovation

BELA is not the only unusual thing about the Basis schools. According to Sean Aiken, Head of School for the Basis Independent School in McLean, Virginia, the schools have a one-of-a-kind model for teachers.

At the Basis schools, students do not have homeroom teachers, but instead have separate teachers for each subject. Instead of using teachers who are considered “generalists,” the schools offer teaching positions to experts in the subject they are teaching. The idea is that whoever is teaching middle school biology should be an expert in biology.

Individuals being considered for a teaching position also required to complete a teaching demo with Basis students, who provide their comments to a school administrator. That information is used in the-decision-making process.

Additionally, in Basis primary schools, groups of students are asked to work with a Learning Expert Teacher, or LET, who follows the students to their classes throughout the day. The LET then meets with the subject teachers to help make sure class time is well spent for the students.

A “culture of education”

Basis schools are said to support a “culture of education.” School days are longer, and there are less breaks than at U.S. public schools. Advanced Placement, or AP tests are first taken in eighth or ninth grade. School work is also considered more important than sports or other extra-curricular activities. However Aiken says the main goal is to regain control of how students use their time.

“Do you want to be functioning in the top 1 to 2% of the world when it comes to your critical thinking, reading, writing and science? Yes... Do you also want to win the city championship for middle school girl’s basketball? Yes... Those are not mutually exclusive goals. But now we need to be even more intentional about how we are using our time,” Aiken said

Although difficult at times, the Basis model appears to be working for some students. According to Sayeed Akhtar, an 11th grade student at the Basis School in McLean, the biggest difference between his and other schools was the rigor.

“I think the level of academic rigor at Basis is much higher than other schools in the area… I spent about six years in another school in the area and it was kind of like a country club. I think at Basis they have a much more serious approach to academics and they are functioning just at a higher level overall in terms of their curriculum,” Akhtar said.

Akhtar is currently taking seven AP classes, something he says that not many students his age are doing.

But trying to meet high expectations at an early age is not easy, Aiken says. Some students find that balancing the work load at the Basis schools with other activities is difficult. Also, not all parents feel the model is right for their children, as it puts more pressure on them.

Basis schools are different, but it is their custom of using data to improve teaching that makes the schools a model of what PISA4U hopes to achieve. By sharing information, the hope is that eventually teachers around the world will have use of information on what really makes a school successful.

I’m Phil Dierking. And I'm Alice Bryant.

Phil Dierking wrote this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

Do you think using data to improve teaching is effective? We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section or on our Facebook page.

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Words in This Story

crowdsourcing - n. the practice of obtaining information or input into a task or project by enlisting the services of a large number of people, either paid or unpaid, typically via the Internet.

curriculum - n.

data - n. the courses that are taught by a school, college, etc.

database - n. a collection of pieces of information that is organized and used on a computer

function - n. a collection of pieces of information that is organized and used on a computer

initiative - n. a plan or program that is intended to solve a problem​

online - adj. connected to a computer, a computer network, or the Internet​

platform - n. a program or set of programs that controls the way a computer works and runs other programs

practice - v. to do something again and again in order to become better at it

primary - adj. most important​

resource - n. something that a country has and can use to increase its wealth​

rigor - n. the difficult and unpleasant conditions or experiences that are associated with something

substantially - n.very much, or, a lot​

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