Data as a starting point for getting better

Data is a starting point for improvement. Not the goal.

I taught high school science for 18 years.  I majored in history for my undergraduate degree.  I analyzed a lot of data, drew conclusions from it, and supported those conclusions with evidence.  As a teacher, I was consistently expected to use assessment data of all types to draw conclusions and improve teaching and learning in my classroom.

I guess what I’m saying is that looking at data, analyzing data, and using data to get better is a part of my natural rhythm.  When it comes to students, I don’t want to eyeball and guess at what they need to succeed; I need some data to help orient my compass in the right direction.

But I realize that using data isn’t a part of every teacher’s natural processes, and I think it’s because there’s some misconceptions and some knee-jerk reactions that float around data these days, such as:

  • People take data very personally.  What teacher hasn’t felt their heart sink when they’re looking at a test where most students did badly or standardized test data where students performed more poorly than expected? Having your ego crushed by horrible data is never a pleasant experience.  However, the next step is to take the next step in accepting what the data is telling us (if the data is valid and reliable in the first place) and figure out how to use it to improve our teaching and student learning.
  • Data is just numbers, and numbers don’t inform you about the whole child.  I believe this statement – numbers can’t tell you everything that’s going on with a student’s learning, and you must always make instructional decisions from a combination of the quantitative and the qualitative data at hand.  However, those quantitative numbers cannot be ignored, especially when the trend in the data is clear that something is amiss with instruction.  Ignoring data just because we don’t want to hear what it says is never a good practice, because students are the ones that suffer in the end.
  • Talking about test score data means all we care about is test scores.  If you know me at all, I loathe am not a fan of standardized testing, and it’s one of life’s biggest ironies that I am in charge of it at my district.  However, that doesn’t mean I won’t use the data provided to help learning improve for our students (especially since this year PARCC released test data by evidence statement, giving teachers more specific feedback about what students did well and what students need improvement upon…the first time in my 20 years in the education biz that I’ve ever seen any sort of useful accountability test data).  Unfortunately some educators equate looking at standardized test data with “teaching to the test” or that the district is just focused on test scores and taking away classroom autonomy from teachers. What we have to realize is that just because we hate the test the data came from doesn’t mean we can’t harness the information we get to improving teaching and learning.

To me, the mindset we should have around data is always using it as a starting point for improvement.  Those numbers are never the end goal – only a starting point for new opportunities and ideas about student learning.


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