Murder Mysteries and the End of the School Year?

  • Teaching students

What Do Murder Mysteries Have to Do with the End of the School Year?

Whether your school year ends in May, June (or even December for those in other countries), this article is for you.

I have only a few TV favorites, but I must admit, when I re-checked the range of shows I watch, most were crime mysteries (Hawaii 5-0, Elementary, NCIS, Mentalist and the CSI series). I must love a puzzle to solve! The format of every show is consistent; something bad happens at the outset and the rest of the show is about “figuring out how to make things right.”

So, back to the question of the month: “What Do Murder Mysteries Have to Do with The End of Any School Year?”

The answer is…everything!

There are 3 things that have to happen in every good crime show (aside from the crime) for it to work.

First, right after the crime, there is the evidence-gathering using autopsy, interviews, crime scene evidence, etc. Second, the show moves to theory or hypothesis-building; does THIS or THAT person have the means, motive and opportunity? Then, third and finally, there’s the trial and error process to pursue every possible avenue and figure out if it leads the team to the perpetrator. This trial and error often leads to some great insights and opportunities for growth.

We’ll begin with the basics. The annual event is “our school year.”

Let’s assume (just to be positive) that you found out your achievement scores were good, or at least not bad. Let’s hope there was no equivalent of a felony crime scene at your school, but only “misdemeanors” or minor crimes. Now everyone must jump in to the next step: evidence-gathering.

DATA: Evidence-Gathering

You’ll notice that in the crime shows, there’s ALWAYS a team looking at the data. Chances are pretty good you already have your own “data team.” Using data teams will expand the understanding and control of data beyond just the few (and chosen).

You want a broad data team with administrators, school leaders, teachers, departments, guidance personnel, special education and ESL teachers, instructional or literacy coaches, and transition coaches.

Different data teams can focus on discovery of the school’s own essential questions, identifying which data should be disseminated and to whom.

When a crime team looks at the evidence, they look also to the past. Have there been other crimes like this one? School data can tell you if you have any patterns over time, too. It all starts with asking the right questions. Here are examples of the types of questions you’d be asking.

Does any particular group or cohort of students show unusual improvement over time? Why? What did we do differently that is working?

1) What’s the change in the results from our literacy or math skills interventions?

2) Any success in reducing achievement gaps for selected groups of students?

3) Who is having attendance issues? Why? What will our intervention be?

4) What is our progress with low-performing students? How can we improve?

5) How do our students’ state assessments and standardized tests mirror (or not) our class and course grades?

6) Does our data suggest uneven grading criteria across subject-area course sections or across learning communities as we match up instruction with standards?

7) At the later grade levels, how do assessment results for students new to the district at the start of the year compare to the results of students who have been in the district since their middle school years?

8) What do we know from the student’s point of view? Have you already, or are you planning, to use student surveys before the end of the year? If not, you’re missing out on a HUGE opportunity to gather key evidence. Principals, if your staff is struggling, may I suggest doing a student survey? Nobody knows better what’s happening than the students.

For students from grades 4-12, your first line of evidence is, “How was the school year (or semester) from the student’s point of view?” Plus, it can help the staff see and hear a different point of view. One company I suggest YouthTruth ( does a very thorough survey and they do it for a fair price. (*By the way we never have and never will accept any compensation for any product or service we mention. If I like it, I’ll recommend it; if I don’t, I won’t mention it.)

Once you have the data from a student survey AND your other test scores, then you can start the autopsy. You now have the information to begin building theories about why students are (or, are not) performing the way you’d like. The next section will assist you in making this happen.


At this step you’ll need to start formulating an idea, a theme or hypothesis about WHY the “crime” happened. Are your specific reading or math interventions improving student learning the way they should? This is the part of analysis that starts getting things rolling. But it requires experience and knowledge to get it to work.

To understand your data, keep your “common sense cap” on. For example, if reading or math scores are low, some might say, we need either 1) more hours of the same program, or 2) to investigate a new program. But that might not get you what you want. Why? Ask yourself; do you know the factors that contribute most to student reading success? That question is a great starting point. Your list of “high-effect size” factors for developing K-5 reading skills might include the following factors.

For good reading scores:

1) ACCESS: Do your students have access to high-interest reading materials at home? If they don’t or can’t afford it, how can you make it happen?

2) SKILLS: Do you provide adequate skills in phonics and phonological processing and working memory? (Sesma, Mahone, Levine, Eason & Cutting, 2009).

3) VOCABULARY: Do they have the vocabulary needed for the reading?

4) EXPERIENCE IT: Do you role model reading relevant, interesting cliff-hanging stories to your kids?

5) ACTIVITIES: Do use structured reading activities embedded within cooperative groups. Naturally, the staff needs sufficient professional development to be successful. One of the highest rated reading programs is Success for All, though many others do a solid job (Chambers, et al., 2010).

In addition, (pun intended), do you know what supports growth in math skills?

Your list might include:

1) NUMBER SENSE: plenty of practice with estimation, counting and what we call “number sense” – for ages 4-8, go to This site can help (Wilson, Revkin, Cohen, Cohen & Dehaene, 2006).

2) SKILLS: working memory – both visual and auditory (Bull, Espy & Wiebe, 2008).

3) CONNECTIONS: daily connection of math to real world problems.

If you are not growing these “Big 3” your kids are likely to struggle. Remember these “must-haves” may not show up in your data; you’ll just have to know what works well. Then find out if those are the gaps.

Is your staff trained in going after the root problem or the symptom? A symptom might be kids who act out and disrupt the class. But the real problem may the lack of connections between the teacher and students. Or, the real issue might be weak classroom engagement or lack of perceived content relevance. Stay focused on the core goals or the “cheese” (which is the fewest items that make the biggest difference). Next year, you’ll have no more time than this year. Trim back what you do; just do it more efficiently and more effectively.

Once you have been able to use the data to answer your core essential Qs, then you can move on to the next step.

Trial & Error to Insights

Now that you have a hypothesis, it’s time to try out a theory. Will you succeed or fail? Stanford University professor Carol Dweck has studied mindsets as well as, or better than, anyone. Yet surprisingly, she did not begin by studying success. Instead, she studied failures. To make sense of this mindset, Dweck made key distinctions among a range of responses that all of us could potentially have to any particular failure (Dweck, 2006). She discovered that we could all respond (on a sliding scale) with either of the two choices listed below once we fail:

“I will try to avoid risk making future mistakes.” OR “I will learn from my mistakes.”

“I failed because I am not smart.” OR “My setback tells me to try something different next time.”

“I won’t bother trying again” OR “I will try harder next time.”

“I’ll dismiss criticism” OR “I will learn from criticism.”

“More effort is not justified; either you can do it or not” OR “I will persist until I succeed.”

As you can see, Carol Dweck’s work was NOT really interested in success. She wanted to know what happened when we failed. I tried out a lot of things this last year… did you? More importantly, what did you learn?

I think part of each staff member’s routine at the end of each school year should be to list 3 things that they’ll never do again, three decisions they made that show the growth mindset and 1 thing that’s a “keeper.” Each person shares that list with his or her small teams. Imagine the learning; it is how we respond to failures that makes us who we are.

Winning the lottery does not make anyone a better person. But developing yourself as a person and educator for 20 years will make you (and those round you) much better!

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