How One Principal Used a Student Work Analysis Protocol to Improve Outcomes
Featured Leader: Marisa Castello, Principal, PS176Q, The Cambria Heights School, Queens, NY
This story is part of the Follow the Leaders project, an ongoing series from Relay Graduate School of Education to share insights and inspiration on leading for equity, wellness, and achievement.
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How can we improve student outcomes when other strategies don’t seem to be working?
While Principal Marisa Castello had created a strong culture of learning at PS176Q in Queens, NY in her first few years of the principalship, she had not seen the improvements in student achievement that she had hoped. She knew she and her team had been working hard to implement new strategies like increased observations of teachers and implementation of interim assessments, and she didn’t know why these efforts were not yielding the changes in student outcomes she wanted. She reflects:
“I was doing everything I thought I needed to do. After implementing these structures, we still weren’t getting results, and we didn’t know why. We had to get a better understanding of our own data to make a difference.”
Student work analysis as the lever for feedback and improvement
To address these challenges, Castello shifted her lens on data analysis to look for challenges encountered by students in each classroom every week, using their work as both exemplars and evidence. She reflects,
“I’m not looking at trends and patterns in data at the whole school level, but really getting at what the problem is and making sure the teachers know what it is in order to correct it.”
In her theory of action, if she:
- Regularly examined student work alongside teachers from each classroom to get clearer on what students need to know,
- Supported teachers in identifying common misconceptions and developing targeted reteach plans, and
- Leveraged her classroom observations around student misconceptions to understand the impact of these reteach plans,
Then teachers would spend more time teaching what students needed rather than what they already knew. Castello explains, “We needed to attack specific gaps more quickly… How we get to the gap is by looking at student work. Let the data tell us where they are.”
Weekly Data Meetings to plan targeted reteaching strategies
To create a structured approach to regularly assess student work, Castello worked with her superintendent and Katie Yezzi, a leader coach from the Relay Graduate School of Education to implement and refine Weekly Data Meetings, a structured, collaborative process during which the principal and teacher(s) define the key concepts of a target standard and task, identify gaps in understanding based on student work, and prepare a reteach plan that pinpoints the most significant gaps. The process involves not just the scheduled 40-minute meeting, but considerable preparation by both the school leader and the teacher before they meet.
Preparation for weekly data meetings consists of two major components:
#1: Establishing a focus for the meeting by Identifying an important question, text, and standard to develop a “know/show” chart. This chart (shown below) names the conceptual skills required to meet the standard (know) and the ways in which a successful student “shows” mastery of it. Developing a strong know/show chart is vital, Castello says, because it outlines the high-leverage steps required for an effective lesson: “Do the teachers know the learning objectives and what they need to do to confirm student understanding? Once teachers can solve the steps they need to take for the lesson, everything comes together.”
An example know/show chart for a 3rd grade math standard from a Relay GSE example of a Weekly Data Meeting.
#2: Pre-analyzing examples of graded student work reflecting that standard. Exit tickets are vital evidence of in-the-moment student learning, Castello says, because they “help set the destination for where teachers are going with every lesson.” Along with calculating the number of students who completed the exit ticket correctly, both Castello and the teacher select examples of students who made mistakes that could help illustrate the gaps in the original lesson that need to be addressed in reteaching.
Castello also uses the standard and know/show chart to guide her informal classroom observations before the weekly data meeting. These observations, she says, helps inform her hypotheses about the gaps that she and the teacher need to surface during that meeting.
Weekly data meeting between 3rd grade teacher Vanessa Chionchio and Principal Marisa Castello.
Castello’s Weekly Data Meetings with individual teachers closely follow the language in the protocol — so closely that the principal rehearses the script to make sure she can recall it without consulting her notes. Following the protocol closely, she says, is essential to “keeping the focus the focus.”
The steps of the protocol include:
- Seeing past success. The meeting begins by celebrating a recent “win” that the teacher(s) has had on student learning. Upon review of the previous week’s exit tickets, the leader may say “Congratulations on moving your students from 55% proficiency to 85% proficiency following your reteach! What actions did you take that led to such success?”
Exemplar exit ticket for the standard illustrated by the know/show chart pictured above.
- Unpacking the standard and exemplar. The principal and teacher review each other’s know/show charts to ensure that they have a clear picture of both the conceptual and procedural understanding required of the standard and the task. Using a teacher and/or principal exemplar of student work, like the one pictured below, the principal asks the teacher to explain the keys to a correct answer that demonstrates that students have mastered the standard. Through an iterative series of questions, the principal guides the teacher through unpacking the steps required to correctly answer the question. Through these conversations, they revise their know/show charts based on additional conceptual or procedural steps that each may have identified.
- Identifying the gap. The teacher and principal then review examples of incorrect student work to identify the missteps in the process described above. When the teacher identifies a gap, the principal asks her to provide an example of student work that demonstrates the most common misstep, then articulate the misstep in a gap statement. The principal then returns to the know/show chart to help the teacher determine whether the challenge is conceptual (know) or procedural (show). They then highlight the parts of the know/show chart that reflect these gaps.
- Developing a reteach plan. The principal and teacher then work to develop a reteach plan based on the gaps identified during the meeting. The first step involves determining whether to use modeling or guided discourse, which requires them to consider whether the nature of the gap is conceptual or procedural and go back to the exit tickets to determine if enough students answered the question correctly to anchor a classroom conversation or collaborative activities with peers such as turn and talk activities.
The principal and teacher then take 10 minutes to develop a reteach plan supported by examples of student work demonstrating the misconception, then swap them with each other to compare — a process called “sparring.” They then discuss what the teacher might add to the reteach plan.
3rd grade teacher Vanessa Chionchio models a planned reteach lesson for Principal Marisa Castello.
- Practicing and modeling the reteach. The teacher then models the reteach plan for the principal, walking through the lesson — which may include modeling, or if the reteach lesson focuses on guided discourse, a series of questions and/or a turn and talk activity involving student work during which students evaluate the exemplar response and one with the key misconception to discuss which one is correct. At various points, the principal may intervene, stopping the lesson and modeling herself. Through this process, the teacher identifies differences in the language she is using that are more appropriate for the grade level.
Finally, the principal asks when she can observe the reteach in the teacher’s class and asks for a cue she can use to jump into the lesson if needed.
Rolling out Weekly Data Meetings
To avoid challenges with schoolwide buy-in and her own capacity, the principal first introduced Weekly Data Meetings to the school’s third grade team, whose students, on average, had struggled to meet grade-level expectations in previous school years.
As the meeting cycle began in fall 2021, Castello quickly discovered that even in a small team of three teachers, there was considerable variability in the assignments given to students, making it difficult to surface meaningful learning gaps. She explains, “When you don’t have strong work, a weekly data meeting isn’t a weekly data meeting — it’s a planning meeting.”
She paused the Weekly Data Meeting cycle to have the team collaboratively review and plan common learning tasks aligned with standards and year-end expectations. After that process became a regular part of the team’s weekly professional development time, the Weekly Data Meeting cycle resumed. Castello says the cadence of the regular meetings helped shape instruction throughout the year because “once you do it consistently, teachers know they don’t want to come unprepared. They internalized the script so it guides their thinking even when I’m not there.”
Student achievement, teacher shifts
After implementing Weekly Data Meetings in the third grade during the 2021–22 school year and aligning classroom tasks, students showed significant gains in the year-end state test, with more than three-quarters of third graders scoring proficient or above in both ELA and math, above citywide averages. “We’re adjusting instruction in real time and shifting the way teachers think,” Castello says.
During the 2022–23 school year, Castello has expanded Weekly Data Meetings to additional grades, with the school’s instructional coach working with the second grade team, the assistant principal with kindergarten, and one of the teachers supporting the third grade team as the principal follows the same group of students by meeting with teachers in the fourth grade.
Despite the time involved in preparing and participating in the regular meetings, teachers have come around to the process because, as Castello says, “they don’t want to talk if there’s nothing meaningful to discuss.”
Fourth grade teacher Lennox Ann Bailey, who was introduced to the process during the 2022–23 school year, agrees, calling the meetings “a constant conversation about student work, about pinpointing the gap, being laser focused on the gap, and reteaching. It becomes a muscle memory once you keep going.”
Castello points to a common language around teaching and learning that has created a virtuous cycle — the cadence of her meetings with teachers has bubbled down to activities in which students examine each other’s work to identify misconceptions. She explains: “Exactly the same prompts and the same language I would gain from working with my coach was what I was sharing with my teachers, and what my teachers were sharing while working with students. And that then rubbed off on our students speaking with each other, using that same language. Once teachers feel successful, students feel successful, too.”
Taking it Back to Your School
- What existing structures in your school (data teams, formative assessments) could you build on to make data analysis more granular and timely?
- To what extent do you use student work to guide classroom observations and feedback to teachers?
- In what ways could you use structured processes like Weekly Data Meetings to help build a common language in your school?
About the Featured Leader
Marisa Castello is the principal of PS 176Q, The Cambria Heights School, located in Queens, New York. Prior to serving as the school’s principal, she worked as an assistant principal and has worked as a teacher in independent, district and charter schools. Castello received her B.A. in Communication Sciences from the University of Vermont, her M.S. in Childhood Education and Special Education from St. John’s University, and Ed.M.in Educational and Building Leadership from Teachers College, Columbia University.