Research Summary: Data is a four letter word . . .

By: Nora Evers, SWFT Coordinator of Research

Some time ago I served as a data coach in a school district and on a first meeting with the staff of an elementary school, I came fully prepared with folders for everyone, handouts of their state test scores, individual school data. And more.  I was well-trained by Victoria Bernhardt to use demographic data, perception data, student learning data, and school process data. But I was not prepared for the teacher who, after a quick glance in the data folder I had handed out to all, closed it and said in a loud voice: “I do not do data.” Yes, data is a four letter word . . . This teacher became my challenge and I had to understand how to help people overcome their anxiety about using data and to regard data as information that must be used for continuous improvement.  

“You cannot force commitment.  What you can do . . . you can nudge a little here, inspire a little there, and provide a role model.  Your primary influence is the environment you create.” 

(Senge, P. M. 2006. The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization.  New York: The Crown Publishing Group).

From that point on, I started my workshops by asking participants, “What would it take to get learning growth for every student, every year, in your school?”  (Bernhardt. V. 2013. Data Analysis for Continuous School Improvement. Larchmont, NY: Eye on Education.)  I learned to listen better to teachers and to use their voices in walking the steps in shaping a learning organization.  I started with small steps from where they were, and we looked at all the information in a classroom or school that we could use to inform us what worked and what did not work.  In our Blueprint framework, we call this Performance Management: using multiple measures of data to support improvement of student, teacher, and leader performance.

In her article “Why Teachers must be Data Experts” (article), Morrison (2009) urges administrators to first have teachers think about what questions they would like to ask to improve classroom instruction, classroom conditions, and interventions.  Too often, questions about data in schools originate with administrators and district office personnel which may cause teachers not to feel ownership or curiosity about the data. Teachers cannot take the lead in data mining until they pose their own simple, measurable, and relevant questions (Morrison, 2009; Bernhardt, 2013; Adam and Quinn, 2002).

Analyzing the data, allows teachers to ask and answer the questions (article Quinn and Adam).  Teachers, with the support of their administrators, can develop the action plans that will be developed to have the most impact on student learning.  Adam and Quinn suggest to set performance targets that “stretch” but don’t set up for failure; “there needs to be a safe environment.” 

Data collection must be a priority of the school district and all stakeholders must be involved.  It should never be seen as threatening, even if it uncovers deficiencies; student learning must be the focus of the conversations. Morrison (2009) believes that teachers can learn to be both data lovers and their own data coaches if we encourage these expanding views about measuring teaching practice and learning.  As Andy Hargreavers’s (2007) vision states “Teachers will need to be the drivers, not the driven.” (Hargreaves, A. (2007). Five flaws of staff development and the future beyond. Journal of Staff Development, 28(3), 37–38)