How Erica Lembke harnesses federal research funding to develop tools and methods that teach teachers to use data-based instruction in reading and math.
Photo illustration by Blake Dinsdale / Sources: Adobe Stock
In popular culture, teachers trend toward the charismatic — think Robin Williams in the film “Dead Poets’s Society.” Gut instinct takes the lead in show biz, but in real-life classrooms the script must flip, says Curators’ Distinguised Professor and researcher Erica Lembke. Instead, teachers should base decisions on observable facts and best practices. “Relying on intuition and educated guesses — those aren’t satisfactory approaches,” she says. That goes for all students, and especially for those who are struggling.
The benefit of acting on solid educational evidence plays out in various ways. For at-risk students not yet in special education programs, good data are key to whether they’re accurately classified as having a disability or not — essential for receiving appropriate services. “For students with disabilities, teachers have legal and ethical obligations to move them forward based on their Individual Education Plan,” Lembke says. A multidisciplinary team of professionals creates this roadmap for each student’s progress after collecting and analyzing various standardized test scores.
Using data day-in and day-out in special education classrooms also lets teachers build and refine individualized curricula by regularly determining successful approaches throughout the year. For the past decade, Lembke has harnessed federal research funding to develop tools and methods that teach teachers how to use data-based instruction in reading and math.
Learn about the different projects under the Lembke Research Group
In practice, it could look something like this: A teacher notes that a third-grade student is faltering in spelling. That is a foundational skill, so the teacher launches a 30-minute, thrice-weekly spelling intervention using evidence-based best practices. To assess progress, the teacher administers a weekly, three-minute writing exercise and graphs the data. “If the student isn’t on track in a month, the teacher implements another change,” Lembke says, calling it “data-based decision making.” She adds, “Rather than simply continuing to do what I’ve done in the past, I can see the child is not prospering, and I think about what I can change. For instance, maybe the student would improve in the more structured environment of group work.”
Lembke has seen strong results in her current studies, and not just in teachers, whom Lembke describes as being hungry for information. “We have good ways of teaching them how to employ data-based decision-making,” she says. Most importantly, she and her colleagues are seeing significant effects for student writing. That’s particularly gratifying, considering the difficulty in training teachers to use a challenging skill they must put into practice during the daily grind of teaching.
Over the past year, Lembke says, the data-based approach has seen a star rise in its ranks. Emily Hanford, a journalist who criticized publishing companies for selling ineffective materials, has used social media to rally fans of the science of reading and math. “After all the years of working on this, suddenly a Facebook group is making a big difference,” Lembke says. Publishers are reacting to the pressure and improving their offerings. And, ever the bearer of data, she notes that a science-of-reading conference she organized for April sold out in just two days. Four-hundred and fifty educators descended on Columbia from all over North America. “They really wanted to hear the speakers in person.”