Schools need models for linking data, practice

Data-driven decision making must be an ongoing process, a new federal report says.
Data-driven decision making must be an ongoing process, a new federal report says.

States and school systems are making significant progress in building educational data systems and are starting to use these systems to improve student achievement, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Education (ED). But school leaders are still searching for examples of how best to connect student data to instructional practices, the report says.

“Data should be part of a feedback loop used to drive improvement at every level of the education system. This study helps us understand the kinds of data that need to be available for teachers and school leaders if they’re going to use data to improve their practice,” said Carmel Martin, assistant secretary for ED’s Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development.

In “Use of Education Data at the Local Level: From Accountability to Instructional Improvement,” researchers surveyed officials from 529 districts, conducted in-depth site visits to 36 schools in 12 districts that are leading the way in data usage, and analyzed secondary data from a survey of more than 6,000 teachers to get a national view of current data-use practices at the local level.

Major findings from the report include:

(1) Districts are much more likely to have electronic systems with data such as student demographics and test scores than to have the ability to combine data from different types of systems or to link instructional resources to achievement data.

More than 90 percent of the districts surveyed reported having electronically stored data on student demographics and attendance, student grades, student test scores on statewide assessments, and student course enrollment histories. In contrast, less than half of districts have electronic data systems that allow them to link outcomes to processes as required for continuous improvement.

For example, only 42 percent of districts can generate data reports showing student performance linked to participation in specific instructional programs, and just over a third (38 percent) can execute queries concerning student performance linked to teacher characteristics.

(2) Schools in districts that emphasize the use of formative assessments were more likely than other schools to show an increase in data use from year to year, and they also provided the most striking examples of positive changes in teachers’ instructional practices.

(3) School leaders said the most common barriers that keep them from using data to improve instruction include a lack of time to analyze the data, systems that are difficult to use, and the inclusion of data in the system that are not useful. In addition, they said strict district policies regarding the pacing of curriculum coverage can prevent teachers from going back to reteach content that their students have not yet mastered.

(4) Teachers who were surveyed identified the following problems with the quality of the data available to them: delays in receiving information on their students, lack of alignment with standards, lack of alignment with the school’s instructional approach, and a lack of longitudinal data on their students.

(5) Having a common set of assessments that everyone teaching the same content gives to their students at about the same time encourages teachers to sit down and share both their data and their teaching strategies.

When several teachers have given the same recent assessment to their students, they can compare their results to identify strengths and weaknesses at the class level, the report says—something that isn’t possible if teachers assess different content at different times.

The report’s recommendations include the following:

• Data-driven decision making must be an ongoing process rather than a one-time event centered on the acquisition of a data system. Districts will get more out of their investments in electronic data systems if they think about data-driven decision making as a system-wide innovation and develop a long-term strategy for its implementation as part of a continuous improvement process.

• To influence teachers’ day-to-day instruction, data systems must provide teachers with information that is both timely and relevant to their instructional decisions. To be useful to teachers, systems need to provide data from recently given assessments that provide diagnostic information on students’ learning needs.

• Human and organizational supports for data use are just as important as the technical quality of a school district’s data system. Professional development around the use of data to improve instruction is widespread, but only a small minority of districts and schools have made data use a regular part of teachers’ practice.

• Districts can promote data-driven decision making in their schools by providing time for teachers to meet with colleagues to discuss and use data, funding positions for instructional coaches who help teachers connect data to alternative instructional approaches, and modeling data-driven decision making for continuous improvement in their own operations.

Using data to improve instruction is one of the Obama administration’s four key areas of school reform. The federal stimulus package included $250 million to help states improve their data systems—a figure that adds to the $65 million available in fiscal year 2009 and $58.2 million available in FY 2010.


“Use of Education Data at the Local Level: From Accountability to Instructional Improvement”

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