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Improve Teachers' 'Data Literacy,' Education Groups Urge

Teachers need better access to a wide range of data about their students, as well as more training to help them effectively use that information in the classroom, says an education-advocacy nonprofit that has championed the need for improved data collection and sharing in K-12 school systems.

The Washington-based Data Quality Campaign has issued a new policy brief intended to promote improved "data literacy" among educators. The document is the result of a yearlong collaboration involving prominent organizations such as the Council of Chief State School Officers, the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification, and the National Education Association, which is the country's largest teachers' union. 

In an interview with Education Week, Paige Kowalski, the Data Quality Campaign's director of state policy and advocacy, described the focus on teachers as the natural outgrowth of recent efforts by the federal government and others to encourage states to adopt more comprehensive systems for tracking student performance over time and sharing that data with educators.   

"It became very clear that while these systems are starting to come online now, teachers aren't being prepared to engage in data in a meaningful way," Kowalski said.

The DQC policy brief envisions a K-12 world in which educators "continuously, effectively, and ethically" use multiple types of data about their students to personalize learning, improve their own classroom practice, and bolster student outcomes. (This infographic provides a visual summary of what such data use might entail.) Currently, Kowalski said, teacher data use too often involves looking at the results from state standardized tests months after such information could be used to help students.

Access and infrastructure are one set of problems, the Data Quality Campaign contends; too often, lack of connectivity and bandwidth or inadequate efforts to get student data in front of teachers in user-friendly ways inhibit effective data use.

Another set of problems, the group argues, lies in the mechanisms for preparing, credentialing, and assessing teachers; currently, just 19 states embed data-literacy skills into their teacher licensure requirements.  The policy brief recommends increasing that number, and doing a better job incorporating aspects of effective data use into teacher performance evaluations and professional development. Making effective use of student data a bigger part of teacher training programs is also a point of emphasis— and one that is supported by a key stakeholder group.

"Teacher preparation programs are working hard to ensure that candidates can produce and use data effectively in the classroom to realize positive student outcomes," said Sharon Robinson, the president and CEO of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, in a press release issued by DQC.

The big emphasis on data collection and sharing has sparked a backlash in recent months from some parents and privacy advocates. Most of those concerns have focused on the security of data and how personal information is used by private third-party vendors, but some privacy advocates are also worried that the push to have students' academic and behavioral data follow them from classroom to classroom over time will result in negative stereotypes and wrongful profiling that could ultimately lead to students not getting the classroom instruction and support they deserve.

Kowalski acknowledged those fears, but said effective training can help prevent such abuses. She also argued that providing educators with comprehensive sets of data from multiple sources can help ensure that students aren't "reduced to a single test score."

Delaware is one state that is ahead of the data-use curve, Kowalski said; that state's successful application for federal Race to the Top competitive grant funds focused on teacher data use, an effort that the state is currently looking to grow and sustain. Mark Murphy, the state's secretary of education, is among the guests speaking at a Washington event hosted by the Data Quality Campaign on Feb. 4.

Follow @BenjaminBHerold and @EdWeekEdTech for the latest news on ed-tech policies, practices, and trends. 

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