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Is Data-Driven Instruction Ready to Include the Instructors?

Effective use of student data to inform instruction has the potential to transform U.S. schools, but thus far education leaders and policymakers have failed to give teachers sufficient resources or support to take advantage of available information.

That was a consensus point made, in different ways, by a number of panelists and presenters who spoke at a policy-oriented event on teachers' data literacy yesterday in Washington.

The event was organized by Washington-based nonprofit Data Quality Campaign to highlight a policy brief the group released this week on improving teachers' use of data. The brief, written by the DQC in a collaboration with a host of prominent education organizations such as the National Education Association and the Council of Chief State School officers, lays out specific recommendations for state policymakers on integrating standards for data literacy into professional requirements for teachers and improving teachers' access to useable data.

At the follow-up convening, panelists frequently underscored the disconnect between policy discussions on the benefits of data-driven instruction in schools and the realities experienced by many teachers. Teachers work in a "parallel universe," said Adrian Dorrington, a senior policy analyst with the National Education Association, adding that efforts to get teachers to make greater use of student data in instruction have often failed to "recognize what a teacher's day looks like." To help teachers use data holistically, she said, school systems need "to help teachers carve out time" to examine and discuss such information.

Indeed, the importance of somehow making more time for teachers to analyze data was raised time and again at the event. In the keynote address, Mark Murphy, the secretary of education in Deleware, said that a key component of his state's efforts to make its schools more data savvy—and give the relevant work "back to the people closest to children"—was to allot teachers 90 minutes per week to dissect student-progress metrics in professional learning communities.   

Getting the Target Off Teachers' Backs

Dorrington and other speakers also pointed out, however, that many teachers have become distrustful of the emphasis on data-driven decisionmaking in schools because of the way student-assessment results have been used, or threatened to be used, to judge their performance. "Teachers see themselves as having a bullseye on their backs," Dorrington said.

On that topic, Sandi Jacobs, vice president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, said that states need to make it more explicit, both in their documentation and their actions, that the purpose of using student data in teacher evaluations is "to help teachers develop" and get meaningful feedback on their work. 

Jacobs also argued that, to change negative perceptions around data, school systems need to do a better job of "making data useful to teachers." They could do that, she said, by refining or "pre-sifting" the student data they provide to teachers so that the information is more intuitively tied to instructional needs and doesn't require a great deal of extra interpretation.

More generally, schools need give teachers a clearer picture of the aims of using data to inform instruction and address issues they may "feel uncomfortable about" through coaching and training. "You can't mandate a culture shift," Jacobs said.   

Holly Boffy, an educator in residence with the Council of Chief State School Officers, said that schools systems need to upgrade infrastructural support for teachers' use of data and be more explicit about the already implicit understanding in education that data literacy is a key part of effective teaching. "I'm not sure how you could demonstrate effective practice without being data literate," she said. "The two go hand in hand."

A Teacher's Experience

Throughout the event, speakers emphasized that  teacher data literacy is about more than just assessment data. Tellingly, though, the only active teacher who spoke said that assessments were the primary data source she was familiar with.

Jennifer George, currently a 4th grade teacher at Maury Elementary in Washington, explained that she had come to understand the value of student data when, as a Teach For America member working in a struggling school in Charlotte, N.C., she began creating her own standards-aligned assessments to gauge her students' progress. Her current school has a coordinated system for using ANET interim assessments, which she said has been critical, along with her own informal assessment methods, in helping her pinpoint and address students' learning gaps.

George emphasized that, perhaps despite some appearances, teachers are generally enthusiastic about about finding ways to leverage a range of data to better understand their students' learning needs. "If I were offered a data-literacy course, especially on social-environmental factors, I would be interested, as would most teachers," she said.

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