← You're reading a post on Code for America's Blog Archive. Head back to our main site.

Empowering Teachers Using Agile Curriculum

“We start with the student and they are always at the center of thinking and planning,” explains Dr. Vince McKay, Assistant Superintendent for Somerville Public Schools.

Somerville, Massachusetts, a current Code for America Fellowship partner, is a diverse city in the Boston area with a large immigrant community representing many cultures and income levels. You could imagine the challenges (and of course the opportunities) of educating the children within such a culturally rich context. Even with the challenges and opportunities of a diverse student body, the school district receives high marks on their state tests. Vince McKay, Assistant Superintendent for Somerville’s Public Schools has developed a data-driven, iterative, user-centered process that helps teachers better meet their students’ individualized needs.


Ellen Isbitz, a teacher in Somerville explains their process to the fellows.

Massachusetts’ Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) tests — a summative assessment — provide an annual snapshot of a student’s progress over time. The nimble process implemented in Somerville has teachers bringing student work to weekly ‘assessment and reteach meetings’. These meetings review formative data — used to inform their instructional strategies, making sure all their students comprehend the course material. The assessment and reteach meetings allow teachers to truly collaborate with one another, sharing lessons of what worked and what didn’t. The information in these meetings is not used in any external reporting and therefore removes the pressure of external accountability, freeing the teachers to confidently share failures as well as successes. This professional autonomy shows the trust Dr. McKay holds in his teachers.

“Part of the beauty of an assessment system that is meant to be strictly formative — the teachers own it and see that it’s for them,” said Dr. McKay.

The teachers in Somerville group and regroup students based on subject matter and relative success, making sure that every child’s need is met. The illustration below by 2015 fellow Amir Hadjihabib represents the annual cycles of how teachers continually group students based on their progress.


There have been many reports that show that when teachers are empowered with data, students do better, but a good program doesn’t just rely on good data. In Somerville it is clear that it takes great leadership and community buy-in as well. Implementing this process has only been possible because of alignment with municipal leadership, school administration, teachers, elected school committees, parents and the community. Superintendent Pierantozzi has been in his role for ten years (much longer than the national average tenure of 3.6 years) enabling him to establish long term goals, build the public confidence needed to reach them, and put the time in to align with data-driven Mayor Curtatone.

Here’s some advice on how to implement the assessment program:

  • Focus on your users: in this case the students.
  • Build your team, make sure everyone is aligned:
    • Superintendent Pierantozzi has been around for 10 years and Mayor Curtatone has been implementing data driven approaches to city services for 11 years their collaboration has established an, often communicated, belief system that avoids quick fixes in favor of capacity building and enduring results.
  • Ensure community support:
    • Clearly articulating the long term goal, and showing the path to achievement
    • Make sure you identify your constituency and invest in proper outreach: Somerville invested in the Parent Information Center to help their large immigrant community. Denise Taylor, Communication Director in the Mayor’s office played a key role with identifying who was in the community and how to reach them to build support for the district’s plan.
  • Empower you constituency with formative data and trust:
    • When teachers share failures without the fear of being judged they can trade effective teaching techniques.
  • Work iteratively, create short feedback loops:
    • Teachers meet weekly to review student work, and constantly regroup students until everyone is proficient at all the state standards.
Meet Dr. Vince McKay, Assistant Superintendent for Somerville Public Schools, at the 2015 Code for America Summit. Register today >