Commentary: Data undermining

Districts need more guidance on using school and student data.
Districts need more guidance on using school and student data.

School data systems are getting more sophisticated–but are their users?

It’s a fair question to ask, in light of a recent Education Department (ED) report suggesting that school leaders are making progress in using data to improve student achievement–but they’re still looking for examples of how best to do this.

Using data to improve instruction is a key focal point of the Obama administration’s school-reform efforts. And the tools that educators have at their disposal are getting better: A perusal of exhibitors at this year’s Florida Education Technology Conference, for example, revealed at least two companies now offering systems that can give teachers the full history of their students’ test scores. That means teachers can begin a new school year knowing their students’ strengths and weaknesses immediately, without wasting valuable class time early in the year.

But while teachers see the obvious value of using data systems to track the achievement of their students and target their instruction accordingly, it’s a different story when it comes to using data to measure their own effectiveness.

In Houston, the school board voted last week to use student test scores as part of its teacher evaluation system; these are now one of 34 reasons a teacher’s contract might not be renewed. District leaders have promised to offer training and support to struggling teachers and to use termination only as a last resort. The district’s two largest teacher groups oppose the policy, however.

“We deal with children in poverty. We deal with lack of parental support. We do the best with what we can,” middle school special-education teacher Tuesday Neal reportedly told the board. “I do not want to suffer and lose my job, because I love what I do.”

Houston might be the largest school system to link student test data with teacher evaluations, but thanks to the federal Race to the Top program, it won’t be the only one. This same controversy is playing out in districts across the nation as their leaders vie for a share of $4.35 billion in funding–and tying teacher evaluation to student achievement is a key criterion for receiving Race to the Top money.

In her story Are unions blocking school reform?,” Managing Editor Laura Devaney reports on the criticism that teacher unions are taking for their wariness of this approach, and she explains the concerns the unions have. As Laura’s story notes, 54 percent of a child’s time is spent outside of school, under influences beyond a teacher’s control. When designing their metrics to measure a teacher’s effectiveness, are districts taking these influences into account?

Teachers are still the single biggest factor in the quality of learning that occurs in the classroom, as Associate Editor Meris Stansbury’s recent story on 1-to-1 computing research affirms. Yet, setting aside the many influences on learning that exist outside of school, there are a number of other in-school factors that also must be brought to bear: Are teachers getting the training and mentoring they need to be effective? Are they getting enough time to plan or collaborate with colleagues? Do they have access to software and other tools that can help them make sure every child succeeds?

Just as 1-to-1 computing programs are only as effective as the teachers who apply them in classrooms, a school district’s data initiative is only as good as the leaders who implement it. Districts need to make sure they’re collecting the right kinds of data–information that goes well beyond test scores. That includes data on their own leadership practices, too, and not just data on students and teachers.

As ED’s report suggests, districts need more guidance on using data to improve instruction–and here’s where the federal government can help. ED should lead by example, using the report’s findings to inform its own practices. It can do this by identifying and holding up models of effective data-use projects that other districts can learn from.

Shortly after the Houston school board approved its new policy by a 7-0 vote, Superintendent Terry Grier told me he was meeting with the union president to discuss the district’s plan. He said many details still had to be worked out, such as how the district would decide which teachers need intervention and what that support would entail. He said he would solicit teachers’ feedback on these areas and hopes to earn their trust.

“We want a [high-] quality teacher in every classroom,” Grier said, adding that teachers whose students consistently underperform shouldn’t be given tenure if they can’t improve or are unwilling to try. “In the process, we don’t want to mistreat anyone, and we don’t want to be unfair.”

How districts use data to improve the quality of teaching in their classrooms–as a blunt instrument of force or a finely nuanced system for change–will go a long way toward developing this trust.

Districts should work collaboratively with unions in designing their data-use programs. At the same time, the unions must be willing to come to the table as well.

As of press time, the American Federation of Teachers had not granted Laura’s repeated requests for an interview for her story. Here’s hoping the unions are more willing partners in negotiating change than the AFT was in responding to an editor’s questions.

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Dennis Pierce

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