Your Students Need You to Embrace Data in Education
How avoiding a data-driven culture holds you and your school back from its goals for student success and what you can do to embrace data in education.
Data in Education
I taught mathematics at the high school level for many years. Sharing this fact with another person, more often than not, predictably leads to this response: “Oh wow, I hated math in school!” Most often followed by something like, “I am not a math person, but good for you!” And in just two sentences, this person has categorized people into two camps: those who are “math people” and those who are not. I do not blame people for responding this way.
Much in the same way that the mention of ‘math’ can invite an immediate response of potential anxiety, the mention of ‘data in schools’ can invoke a fierce hesitancy. Some educators may feel overwhelmed at the idea of trying to incorporate another strategy into their practice. Others may not be sure of where to start in using data to inform their work, not thinking of themselves as “data people.” Even if you love using data in your practice, you may have colleagues who shy away from it.
Regardless of your current mindset towards or skill set with data, it is vital that you continue to find ways to use it to inform your practice. Our students depend on educators who can advocate and make decisions with their best interests at the center of consideration.
“Data becomes meaningful information when you consider the numbers within a context…When you tie that information to other information you have, your information becomes knowledge.”
You know your school community best. Armed with knowledge, we are able to make informed decisions for our students’ benefit. We can be strategic in our instruction for all students. We can evaluate policy decisions for their intended vs. actual impact on school culture and student achievement. And we can monitor our progress to ensure we are on track to meeting our goals before it is too late.
But how do I begin?
First, determine what defines success in your current role/school.
Finish this sentence: “I will have succeeded in my position if….”
What would it look like to improve your school community and/or your students’ learning outcomes? How would you know you accomplished that, or what result(s) would you need to see in order to fully meet this goal? Try to find 2-3 measures of success that will have the biggest impact on your students.
It is important to be specific here about what defines success. Saying “I will have succeeded in my position if I improve first period attendance” is a much different statement than “I will have succeeded in my position if my first period attendance rate stays at or above 90% by Quarter 3.”
By the first statement, I know I want more students in class and I might be able to observe days that are more heavily attended than others. In contrast, the second statement tells me that I need 90% of my students to attend on a consistent basis. I have a more strategic mark and a timeline to motivate my actions towards this goal.
Additionally, collaboration can be key to inviting others in your school to adopt a data-driven approach and to combat potential data anxiety. If you are looking to use data more effectively in your own work, consider looking for feedback on these goals with a trusted colleague. If you lead a team or department, gather the input of your team members – what is important to them? What goals can we agree are critical for our students’ success?
With a set of 2-3 priority goals for your school and a clear definition of the results you would need to see to achieve them, you can now begin to create a path towards that goal.
Second, determine where you currently stand and why.
What information or data do you have that tells you what your current progres is? What strategies have you/your team tried toward these areas in the past? And are there any conditions or circumstances to be aware of that impacted that progress? This step is critical to ensuring that we are moving in a direction of progress.
For example, let’s take the previous goal: “I will have succeeded in my position if my first period attendance rate stays at or above 90% by Quarter 3.” Do you know what your current attendance rate is? Who are the students who struggle with this attendance the most? Why might they be struggling to attend first period? If you’ve tried to improve your attendance rate in the past, what did you try and was it successful? Why or why not?
Answering these questions with concrete data will help you define the root cause(s) of the issue and therefore, the areas you can address in order to have the most significant impact towards your goal. This also prevents you from repeating failed strategies in the past. When you understand where you have been, you can better define how to change course to get to where you want to go.
Next, identify any potential mindset or skill challenges you/your team may have.
If you are just starting on your own data journey, this may involve researching how others in similar positions have collected and used data in their work. If you are leading or working with a team, this may require you to explore how your teammates approach data and determine an agreed upon set of norms and processes to collect and reflect on your data.
|Potential Challenges||Things to Consider|
|“This is just another initiative we will focus on for a year and then abandon”||
|“I’m being asked to collect and evaluate another piece of data? I have too much on my plate.”||
|“I already know how my students are doing because I am with them every day. I don’t need to collect more data to prove this.”||
|“We don’t currently collect any information around that specific goal. I can’t get data on this.”||
Finally, create an action plan to proactively check in and measure progress.
We have a specific goal, we know where we currently stand in relation to that goal and what root cause(s) need to be addressed to make progress. Select at least 1-2 action steps that can address each root cause and determine not only how you will accomplish them, but when you will measure your progress.
Planning out when you will evaluate your progress helps you stay on track to accomplishing the action steps you’ve determined to be most central to accomplishing your goal. If my goal is to reach a 90% attendance rate in my first period class by Quarter 3, I need to have a system for tracking my attendance rate before Quarter 3. Otherwise, I will not know if I am on track to achieve my goal and lose valuable time in evaluating what strategies may or may not be effective in supporting my students towards this goal.
This process can be as formal or informal as needed, but the key is committing to seeing it through. Great goals on paper mean nothing for our students if we do not take action and hold ourselves accountable. And creating a plan to collect and evaluate this data consistently is how we ensure our success towards our goals.
What do you have to lose?
You don’t need to be a “data person” to use data effectively in supporting students. Consistent reflection and action planning is something we do naturally in our everyday lives. This is how we get to work on time, pay our bills, and plan our weekends. We take the information we have in context and transform it into knowledge that drives our actions.
So with everything that educators have to accomplish in a day, week, semester, or school year, we know that time and resources can be limited. Setting goals that are informed by data empowers you to make strategic decisions so that you can use your limited time and resources to be most impactful for the people who deserve it most – your students.