Just a few years ago, a video displaying statistics went viral on YouTube. Yes, statistics! Hans Rosling’s 200 countries, 200 years, 4 minutes was uploaded and today has over 7 million views. Pretty neat, huh?
Of course I was excited by the video; what nerd wasn’t? I was also inspired. Although I didn’t have access to a video crew and production dollars from the BBC, I did have access to a very large data set. Our early version of school environment surveys had been completed in hundreds of schools by millions of people and we could show how test scores rose as learning environments improved. The resulting PowerPoint presentation was dubbed, “City Lights” by Rich West and went on to thrill audiences far and wide.
The presentation represented the quality of environmental elements by displaying an array of colored circles. Using a traffic signal as the model; red circles represented environmental elements that needed improvement, yellow circles represented typical practice, green represented superior practice, and purple (a royal addition to our traffic signal) represented exemplary practice. Each slide showed the quality of 31 school elements as seen by students, teachers, and parents for both elementary and secondary schools; lots of colored circles. The presentation started by summarizing the environments of schools with the lowest test scores, and slide by slide rose to ultimately show school environments from schools with the highest test scores. The first slides were mostly red, but slowly transitioned to yellow, then green, and finally purple. Thus, schools with learning environments needing the most improvement were suffering from the poorest academic performances while the exemplary environments supported much greater academic achievement.
It was called City Lights because the changing colors in the circles reminded Rich of that moment at dusk when street lights flicker on in a stuttering pattern across a city. It also cleverly referenced the metaphor of a light turning on as things improve.
Fast forward to today, and once again, I have access to a rapidly growing database built on our new data collection system; Snapshot. In this database, we also have year-end test scores. Although the tests used in this analysis struggle to discriminate academic achievement separate from poverty, the resulting presentation echoes the original City Lights presentation.
Below are 6 slides from that presentation. The first of which shows the typical school learning environment for schools where only 10% of the students were able to demonstrate language arts mastery. The next five are for schools with 20, 30, 40, 50, and 60% language arts mastery. To better understand how we display our data, you can view our video, The Snapshot Report. But for this blog I will provide a very brief tutorial.
Snapshot collects data on six environmental focal points: academic and interpersonal skill development, instructional support and collaboration, and parent involvement and community support. For this summary we use data from students to summarize the first two, from teachers for the next two, and from parents for the latter two. For each of these focal points we inquire about four conditions: clarity of performance expectations, the intensity of basic skill development, recognition for meeting performance standards, and the quality of relationships between all school actors: teacher to student, student to student, principal to teacher, teacher to teacher, school to parent, and finally parent to parent. Thus, we go beyond asking if students know what is expected of them academically and socially, we ask if teachers know what is expected of them individually and as collaborators. We even ask parents if the school has well defined and supported their role in their child’s education. We do the same for skills and recognition.
Finally, we separate elementary from secondary schools because those environments are both qualitatively and quantitatively different. There you have it, 6 focal points by 4 conditions for 2 age groups: 48 colored bubbles. Even if you don’t consider the details, it might be enough to just sit back and enjoy the colors.
In this first slide you can see that there are a lot of red “lights” and fewer lights of the other colors. The fact that some environmental conditions are already green (and one purple) suggests that even these struggling schools feel they are doing some things right. In many cases, the green circles eventually turn purple, demonstrating that the discrimination is there, but exists across higher levels of satisfaction. In other cases, the circles don’t change color at all, as some audiences can’t discriminate differing quality in the learning environment due to noise in the test score data. I have confidence that as more data are collected, these relationships will pop out as they always have.
Data noise aside, these low performing schools show little instructional support, and the secondary schools struggle to provide conditions for students to learn either academic or interpersonal skills.
The second slide is not that different from the first. This would suggest that small but noticeable changes in the school environment might have huge impacts; jumping tests scores beyond this slide to the next.
The third slide is where we see the first big difference in school learning environments. At this point elementary faculties feel much greater instructional support and are more confident about the quality and effect of professional collaboration. There is also a huge jump in the interpersonal skills of elementary aged students. It is no surprise that struggling schools should start by creating a strong support system for the faculty first. Remember what they say before takeoff; put the mask on yourself BEFORE you help your child.
The fourth slide is where we see the first big jumps for secondary schools. This is where instructional support kicks in. And again, when that support is in place, students report experiencing much better classroom and overall school environments. In these schools attendance is higher and schools are perceived to be safer as well.
Elementary schools at this level of achievement generate better community support. In general, parents are more positive about the direction the school is going and communicate that to each other.
The jump from the fourth to the fifth slide is where we start to see quality community support in the secondary schools.
You can see in the final slide that elementary schools performing at this level record quality in every aspect of the school learning environment, and purple is the predominant color. The one exception is the parents’ evaluation of their own skills to act as confederates in their child’s school success. This is amplified in the secondary schools, as they have not progressed from the first slide. This suggests that schools, even at this level of academic success can do a better job communicating student progress and how parents can contribute.
This presentation is very cool when all 51 slides are shown in order. You really get the City Lights concept. However, these few slides clearly show that improved school learning environments are strongly related to improved academic achievement. And given other research we have conducted in the past, changes in environment precede changes in test scores, supporting the common sense notion that the learning environment as measured by Snapshot, predicts and likely has a causal relationship to academic performance as well as many other school outcomes.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m trying to find the phone number for Hans Rosling’s agent.