Continuous Learning for Growth: Baselines, Targets, and Supports

A Gardner Perspective by Hadar Baharav & Liz Newman

Getting children to succeed in school, writes Larry Cuban in his blog on school reform and classroom practice, is a complex matter, an inevitable result of a system that includes an enormous number of moving parts and that is impacted by an ever-changing environment. Continuous learning, Cuban concludes, is necessary to the education system. At the Gardner Center, we are excited to support the hard work of school districts, community-based organizations, and youth-serving collaboratives that, deliberately and thoughtfully, take on the challenge of figuring out how to help their students succeed in school.

We believe that it is through the use of data and inquiry that partners in youth-serving systems build a deep, context-specific understanding of the youth they collectively serve.

By these means, systems begin to develop realistic assessments of, and draw connections between, the current starting points (baselines), future goals and the timeline for reaching them (targets), and necessary actions to take (supports).

The idea that youth-serving systems would set targets based on baselines and implement supports in consideration of those targets may sound easy and intuitive, but our experience suggests that this is not as straightforward a task as one might think. Setting baselines, for example, is not easy to accomplish. Even when administrative data such as GPA or attendance are readily available, there is still a need for systems to build consensus on measurement and reporting. Similarly, targets must have sufficient grounding in terms of (1) current baselines for the indicator, (2) strategies, and (3) reach. An even higher expectation is that targets would be based on greater contextual factors such as federal and state policies, the economy, or other societal influences. Lastly, systems must start to think of supports in terms of data and measures. Indeed, supports are actions taken to ignite change. When systems drive their actions via baselines and targets rather than intuition, expectations, and politics, among others factors, they position themselves to learn from the implementation of the supports, examine changes in baselines, and reconsider targets.

Strategic use of data and inquiry requires four commitments:

  1. to deliberately and reliably collect data,
  2. to engage stakeholders in cycles of inquiry aimed at identifying areas of need for intervention,
  3. to take appropriate action, and
  4. to reassess to evaluate effectiveness.

Undoubtedly, this is a huge task for a youth-serving institution to take on and a substantial investment. Nevertheless, strategic use of data increases the likelihood that investments will pay off and that their effectiveness will be demonstrated through measurement, thus strengthening stakeholders’ buy-in for action. From this it follows that strategic use of data and inquiry is both the expression and creation of the conditions for continuous learning for growth. And, if this is what is needed to get our students to succeed in schools, shall we take on the challenge?

Hadar Baharav is a Research Associate and Liz Newman is a Senior Community Engagement Associate.

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