A new study shows 86 percent of teachers try to engage students based on their different needs and learning styles, and 78 percent believe that data can help them do that.
The problem—according to the study—is that two-thirds of teachers are not satisfied with the effectiveness of the data and tools they have to access it.
Many digital education tools that use data do need to improve, as they often are incompatible with one another and don’t provide teachers with actionable, easy-to-access data. But there is a broader issue here. A tool is only useful if you know how to use it.
Teachers aren’t tapping into the full potential of data because they haven’t been given the proper knowledge, skills, and capacity to be data literate. Like good teaching in general, good data use doesn’t manifest out of thin air; it is the result of many supports—proper training, pedagogical knowledge, skills, access to resources, and lifelong professional learning.
At a briefing for the new study Teachers Know Best: Making Data Work for Teachers and Students, a panel of teachers described the variety of challenges holding back their ability to use data effectively. From what they said, it’s clear that everyone—policymakers, school leaders, teachers, and product developers—have a role to play to make certain all educators are effectively using data to help kids.
“Unfortunately, I think too often the school system in general, and frankly the way the profession has been organized, is constantly like fighting upstream,” said Eric Westendorf, former public charter school principal and current CEO and cofounder of LearnZillion. “To actually be really data-driven you’re constantly fighting against the wind.”
“I’m not sure that very many teachers get good training on writing a good assessment and how to read that data,” said Nichole Cerra, teacher of English and design, and cofounder of Design Tech High School. “I think teacher education programs have a real role to play there.”
She’s right. To alleviate this problem, data literacy should be included in the curriculum of schools of education, and be one of the standards for all licensed educators.
Teachers and school leaders can also help bridge data literacy gaps. Allison Dodson never used data for the first six years of her teaching career. It wasn’t until her administrator encouraged and supported it that she started. Dodson now returns the favor, leading professional development classes to teach teachers how to use data at Spry Community Links High School in Illinois.
“What also needs to be done in schools is giving teachers more time to use the data,” Dodson said. Every weekend, she uses her free time to analyze data and group students for differential instruction. This is where school leaders have a critical role to play, creating the flexibility needed to provide time and resources for educator data use. Furthermore, states and districts have and will need to continue to ensure that schools have the bandwidth and up-to-date technology necessary to use digital tools and data. And they must consider teachers’ needs and wants when supplying data and technology to schools.
Teachers are the most important in-school factor to student success. Day in and day out, in classrooms everywhere, they’re responding to the real needs of their students. It’s our shared responsibility to ensure that they can do their best. That won’t happen until we support their ability to use data.