A former Detroit educator, Alaina Dague recently completed a Leadership for Educational Equity Policy and Advocacy Fellowship at the Data Quality Campaign this summer. She has since returned to Michigan to work toward resolving educational equity challenges across the state.
For the past three years, I taught middle school English at a Detroit charter school. My sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students were lively and outspoken—and I loved every minute with them. Their endless excitement kept my job engaging; facilitating their “a-ha!” moments made the work especially rewarding. And I could always count on my students to let me know when my outfit just wasn’t cool or to show me how to navigate the latest iPhone update.
As an educator, I used a variety of information to better support my students—each with their own unique needs—every day. I firmly believe in the value of data in the classroom, but I don’t think it was always working for me or my kids.
As an educator, I used a variety of information to better support my students—each with their own unique needs—every day. I firmly believe in the value of data in the classroom, but I don’t think it was always working for me or my kids. Assessments are a critical tool that can provide insight into student learning. We have to be sure, however, that these tests are providing valuable data and that they aren’t the only source of information on students. My school’s data culture focused almost exclusively on assessments, ignoring much of the other information that could have helped me and my students. The emphasis on assessment felt like a compliance exercise, when the tests should have served to illuminate student needs. Moreover, I often felt like I didn’t have the time or training to effectively translate those test scores into useful information.
I’m not the only teacher who has felt this way. In fact, a series of teacher focus groups DQC conducted last year revealed that many educators agree that data is valuable; yet, they have been frustrated by negative experiences with data collection, analysis, and use.
So what can we do? DQC’s Four Policy Priorities offer a good foundation for change:
Measure What Matters
States and schools need to think critically about the data they are collecting: What do we want to know? Why? What is the best way to collect this information? And most importantly, how is this going to help us support kids? When “data” is synonymous with “standardized test scores,” teachers and schools miss out on all kinds of other important information about students. We also need to create systems for considering other important factors—attendance, socio-economic status, homework completion, and more—that relate to student outcomes as well.
Make Data Use Possible
Teachers need effective and useful training on modifying instruction based on student needs. And when considering the innumerable demands on today’s educators, they also need more time in the school day to analyze and act on data. States and districts should provide high-quality professional development to support their teachers in analyzing and using this information. Prep time needs to be provided, and teachers and school leaders need to commit to using that time for collaboration and data study. Feedback teachers receive from observations and evaluations should then correlate to their implementation of the data use strategies they were trained on and how these strategies are supporting student learning.
Be Transparent and Earn Trust
Schools should seek input from their teachers and communities regarding what information they need to support students. People must be informed about why certain data points are collected and how that information will be used to create a culture of trust. When teachers lack confidence in the validity or reliability of their students’ data, they become hesitant to use this information. Everyone seeking to improve student achievement—from policymakers to teachers to families—needs to understand what data is collected and why as well as how this information is used.
Guarantee Access and Ensure Privacy
Teachers (and families) need easy access to timely student information. If data is collected but not shared or used, it has very little value. After determining what to collect and why, the information should to be available to those who need it. On top of that, districts need to be sure that student data is kept secure to continue fostering trust within the school community.
I used an online reading program in my classroom last year to help my students improve their reading skills. The program differentiated passages to each student’s level, tracked their progress against several measurements, and awarded points to students for their growth and accuracy. My kids loved it—they were able to determine their exact strengths and weaknesses as readers and were empowered to build their skills. I loved it, too—the data allowed me to identify who needed additional support or a bigger challenge. When data works like this, it illuminates students’ needs and supports teachers in improving their instruction.
This fall, I’ll be returning to Michigan to advocate for educational equity across the state. As I transition from the classroom to working in policy, I hope to see that the implementation of these policy priorities helps create a culture shift that supports the effective use of student data.