What Data Should We Use?

School leaders and teachers have been besieged by national and local experts who emphasize the need to make “data-driven decisions.”  Check the agenda for any educational conference and you will likely find the term “data-driven decision making” in the description of several speakers’ sessions.  The term data-driven is a catchphrase of educational jargon that is gradually losing its meaning.  Like a song that has been over-played on the radio, the concept of data-driven decision making is losing its momentum and “listeners” are beginning to tune out.

How do we re-invigorate the discussion around the meaningful use of data in our schools?  Let’s start by broadening the definition of “data.”  What comes to mind when someone suggests an examination of school data?   Can we get beyond the obvious data sources and consider non-traditional data points that may be greater indicators of student success?  Here are a few thoughts that may broaden our definition of data:

Attendance– It’s really simple; students who attend school regularly do better than students who don’t.  What does your attendance data look like and what do you do when students don’t come to school?

Survey teachers– Ask your teachers what they see and what they need to be better at what they do.  You can save a lot of time by valuing the instincts of your teachers.

Interview students– Ask your students what they like, what they want, and how they like to learn.  Just be prepared for their answers.

Observe instruction– Another obvious data point.  What patterns (positive and negative) exist within and between grade levels?  How can we support teachers in the “nuts and bolts” of teaching?

Teacher expertise– How can we develop teachers on an individual level?  Can we differentiate their professional development in the same spirit that we expect them to differentiate instruction for their students?

Grades– Are grading practices aligned with instruction?  Are we examining progress toward the standards to refine our teaching?

Work samples/portfolios– Tests are not the only indicator of student success.  Can students retain and apply what they have learned and does it show in their daily work?  What does student work look like over time?  Is measuring growth still relevant?

Data-driven decisions should not be limited by examining only formative and summative assessments over the course of a school year.  Anecdotal and observational data are just as relevant when assessing student and teacher success.  Ultimately, an emphasis on a variety of data sources will provide a clearer picture of student performance.  Then you can get to work on what to do.

5 thoughts on “What Data Should We Use?

  1. Hi Christopher;
    It’s hard to believe that such data points are not already routinely included, but I believe that the future of data based whatever is growing due to the pending edtech revolution. Here is how I see the problem, tell me if you see otherwise.
    1. The complexity of education or any other social science based practice is greater than the resources that can be marshaled by single researcher or practitioner. This is why your suggested data points are not already routine or at least well studied. We need a large institution that is capable of tackling a large scope of interacting practice issues. (My vote would be for the AFT, but they don’t seem to be able to go beyond traditional union activities)
    2. The current ad hoc nature of research will be maintained as for profit edtech companies guide the coming data revolution to serve their best interest.

    I’m interested in your thought, especially in the direction of educational leadership.

  2. Howard, you make some really good points. I would rather see teachers supported in “how” to use formative data to make instructional decisions. Who knows the child’s instructional needs better? Collecting data is important, but only if it leads to a change in teaching. Teaching is one of the few professions where everyone thinks they are experts. Pay teachers well, train them, and support their efforts, the rest will take care of itself.

    • If there is a school where ‘everyone thinks they are experts’ I would be stunned. Any teacher/educator worth their salt knows that they are not experts. If they don’t then they are simply arrogant or in the wrong profession

  3. Hi Christopher,
    I think you make good points about using data to improve school success. As a health educator, I know that poor health is a major reason why students miss school. This means emotional and social ill health, in addition to physical illness. By using student health behavior data, schools can identify what supports need to be in place for students to have their basic needs met so that learning can take place. The Michigan Profile for Healthy Youth is a free online survey tool that helps Michigan schools get health-related data and it is correlated to student grades.
    How do you think we can encourage schools to remember Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs when trying to ensure student success?
    Thank you, Wendy

    • Great question, Wendy! Schools certainly need to provide the basics of Maslow’s hierarchy before they’ll be successful with students. Your response speaks to society’s role in education. We need wrap-around support for students through public agencies to improve health (mental/physical), nutrition and many of the other factors impacting learning.

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