By Rachael George
“You’re such a data person!” This statement was recently said to a colleague of mine at an educational conference, and I am pretty sure it wasn’t meant as a compliment. The tone of the person making the statement was one that took me back and made me reflect. Is being a data person such a bad thing? Shouldn’t we know where we are going and if what we are doing is making a positive impact? Why does it seem that people are either data-driven or not? If you aren’t collecting data or using it to inform decisions, what are you doing? Does being a data person mean you don’t support the whole child? These are just a few questions that I have been pondering over the past few weeks since the interaction.
Data is perhaps one of the most controversial topics right now in education. As educators and communities wrestle with how to evaluate student performance, school performance, and individual educator performance, all stakeholders have an opinion, and, most often, those opinions are very diverse. In fact, some conversations around data get folks so heated that people just decide to opt out of the conversation entirely or mask their real beliefs and practices for fear of being isolated by others in the field. Although this might be a good coping mechanism in the moment, it does nothing to move forward the conversation on how to best support our students and improve our education systems. I firmly believe that you can be a data person and also work to support the whole child, but, in order to do so, all of the information gathered and the purpose for the analysis of that information needs to be frontloaded. The intent of using data must be transparent, and student growth in all areas—both academic and developmental—must be the focus.
First, teachers and administrators need some serious in-depth training about data. I am not just talking about one graduate level continuing education class for your license renewal or the one you receive in your teacher prep program. Educators need some very specific training about the types of data, how it can drive instruction, how it can show building or district trends, and how it can be linked to student engagement and achievement. Data shouldn’t be limited to the end-of-the-year state assessment; rather, it should consist of an ongoing monitoring of student performance through summative and formative assessments, student work samples, running records, observations, and analyzing lesson plans. However, to really put this into practice and not make data a dirty word, educators need some training so they really understand the purpose and variety of data that exist to inform instruction and academic areas.
Second, data is not just about academics. Remember the old saying about what gets monitored matters? That is completely true, and if you are only monitoring academic data, you might want to think about branching out because you will find that doing so has a significant impact on the students and families you are serving. Are you looking at your attendance data—both your average daily attendance percentage and your students that have chronic attendance issues? Are you monitoring student behavior to look for schoolwide trends in location or time of day? As you walk through classrooms, are you checking out the quality and depth of knowledge students are demonstrating? How about the level of engagement students have with the lesson being taught? These are the kinds of things that should be monitored on a regular basis because they play a significant role in meeting the needs of our students.
Finally, people need to get to a point where they understand that you can support the whole child while also being a data-driven person. Initially, the data you are using is numerical, but once your school becomes proficient in using quantifiable data, you will be able to shift to and understand more qualifiable or anecdotal data that looks at each individual student and each individual teacher with the intent of meeting them where they are. As education leaders and administrators, our job is to grow and support our students and staff. A measurement of growth isn’t always found in a score nor is it always found in a checklist, summary, or survey. In order to support the whole child, we need to gather information and examine it holistically. We are in the people business; we need to treat individuals as people who are unique and special in their own ways and as a part of the group and the whole.
Explore these ASCD resources to help make data meaningful.
Rachael George is a member of the ASCD Emerging Leaders Class of 2015 and is currently the principal of Sandy Grade School in the Oregon Trail School District. Prior to serving as an elementary school principal, George was a middle school principal of an “outstanding” and two-time “Level 5: Model School,” as recognized by the Oregon Department of Education. She specializes in curriculum development, instructional improvement, working with at-risk students, and closing the achievement gap. Connect with George on Twitter @runnin26.