10/02/2013 12:36 pm ET | Updated Jun 19, 2015

Unlocking Teacher Expertise

When I give a talk to educators I usually include what I call my "scariest slide ever," which is a picture of kindergarten teachers studying a spread sheet.

I call it scary because I know -- and most educators know -- that for the most part, kindergarten teachers don't become kindergarten teachers because they want to pore over data. They become kindergarten teachers because they want to teach little kids.

To many educators, studying spreadsheets seems as if it belongs to another profession entirely. But it doesn't.

In 2008, I visited Graham Road Elementary School in Fairfax, Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C. Graham Road is the kind of school found in inner-ring suburbs. It was once a middle-class, white school and is now primarily a school of children of new immigrants. Most of the students are Hispanic and 80 percent of them qualify for the federal free and reduced-price meal program, meaning they come from low-income homes. A few years before my visit, it had been the lowest performing school in the generally affluent district. Then Molly Bensinger-Lacy became principal and by 2008 it was one of the top-performing schools in the state. Just to give one piece of data: In 2009, 60 percent of fifth-grade students exceeded state reading standards. This would have been remarkable for any school, but for a school where 80 percent of the students didn't speak English at home, it was extraordinary.

When I asked Bensinger-Lacy to show me what the school did to be so extraordinary, one of the things she showed me was the kindergarten data meeting.

I found the chart the teachers were studying baffling at first, but quickly saw that it was actually pretty clear and meaningful.

Each row represented individual students organized by classroom but with students with disabilities at the top because the school wanted to focus on them.

Each column represented individual skills or pieces of knowledge that the teachers had decided they wanted their students to know by the middle of the year (the meeting was in January). So they included, for example, whether the students knew 21 or more letters; whether they knew the primary colors; whether they could name circles, triangles and squares. And so on. The data had been collected, mostly, by the observation of the teachers who kept little notebooks with them when they worked with students.

Blue meant met or exceeded standards; green and yellow meant approaching standards; and red was a warning. Something needed to change for those kids because they were in danger of finishing kindergarten unready for first grade.

One of the teachers around the table was in her second year of teaching. The previous year, Bensinger-Lacy told me, the rookie teacher had studied the chart and noticed that the students of the other teachers had mastered more sight words than had her students. She asked her colleagues what they were doing to be more successful than she had been.

It was at that moment that Bensinger-Lacy knew that she had hired well. She had hired a teacher who could dispassionately look at evidence and see that other teachers were succeeding where she was not and could ask for help.

And that is the point.

Looking at data in this way allows practitioners to step back out of the daily-ness of teaching and look objectively at how students are performing and see patterns of instruction.

It also allows for the sharing of expertise that would otherwise be trapped in individual classrooms.

A lot of work has to be done beforehand of course, such as agreeing on what students need to learn and how to know when they've learned it. But with those things in place, teachers can learn from each other in a systematic way.

By the way, in the meeting the other teachers noticed that their students didn't know as many letters as the students of their young colleague. As I was leaving the school that day, the second-year teacher had a can of shaving cream and a can of Play-Doh in her hands as she was going to conduct a little mini-workshop for her colleagues on how she taught letter recognition.

That's the power of data. Not scary at all.

To read more about Graham Road Elementary, see HOW It's Being Done: Urgent Lessons from Unexpected Schools.