Data Literacy and Teacher Ed

When one thinks about the pieces that go into effective teaching and effective teaching education, much comes to mind. Content knowledge. An understanding of effective teaching techniques. Classroom management skills. Teamwork. The ability to wear about a zillion different hats, depending on the situation, the student, and the desired outcome.

Yes, we expect classroom teachers today to be educators and guidance counselors. Nurses and social workers. Juvenile justice surrogates and substitute parents. And now, of course, with such an emphasis on student testing and the use of assessment data in the classroom, we now look to educators to also serve as psychometricians.

Unfortunately, too few teacher preparation programs really do an adequate job in preparing aspiring educators with the knowledge and abilities to both understand the data provided to them by the school district and then put it to use in their classrooms. And even when a teacher is data literate, too often they are given student achievement data too late in the term (or after the term is completed) for them to even attempt to tailor instruction to meet the needs of their particular classes or students.

Step one in the process is understanding what it means to be “data literate.” What do we expect teachers to both know and be able to do with student assessment data? And how do we make sure that today’s classroom educators have the preservice and inservice supports to actually do what so many of us are asking of them?

The Michael and Susan Dell Foundation recently released a series of case studies that look specifically at this topic. In partnership with WestEd, the Dell Foundation examined what teacher preparation programs like those at Western Oregon University, Relay Graduate School of Education, Boston Teacher Residency, and Urban Teachers are doing to key in on the data literacy need. (Full disclosure, Eduflack has worked with Urban Teachers in the past, and just thinks the world of the program they have built.)

Coming out of these case studies, Dell — along with WestEd and the Data Quality Campaign — offered a set of nine skills that 21st century educators must possess to be “data literate” in today’s classrooms. They must:

  1. Define “data” broadly to include standardized test data as well as broader academic, socioeconomic, situational, behavioral and environmental data that affect student performance.
  2. Understand how to identify and apply critical grade-level standards in the context of individual students’ needs.
  3. Prioritize and validate relevant student data as it relates to learning and standards mastery.
  4. Develop high-quality informal and formal assessments in order to collect usable data on students’ progress against those standards.
  5. Administer assessments on an ongoing basis to monitor student understanding.
  6. Develop responsive lesson plans and differentiate instruction based on assessment and other contextual data.
  7. Use data-informed insights to communicate student achievement and needs to students and their families.
  8. Use data appropriately, knowing what conclusions can be drawn from what types of assessments.
  9. Understand that, although data is important, data alone does not define a student. Empathy and relationships matter.

Without question, this is asking an awful lot from teachers, particularly from those who never signed up for such “data-literate” priorities when they themselves first went through their own ed school experiences. But it isn’t too much to ask when one thinks of the students in their classrooms, what we expect of them, and the aspirations they may have for their own futures.

One can question the Common Core and its assessments and still believe in the need for data literacy. One can support the opt-out movement and still believe in data literacy. And one can demand the most stringent of student data safeguards and protections and still believe in data literacy for teachers.

At its core, data literacy is about improved teaching and improved learning. It is about further empowering teachers to do all they can to connect with that student or students who are struggling. It is about getting the most out of the classroom setting, and being able to demonstrate that the most has been achieved.

Testing has always been and will always be a key component of the K-12 learning experience. Regardless of what happens to a particular assessment instrument, assessments in the general sense will always be part of the learning process. It is the responsible thing to do to make sure those assessments are put to good use.

No, we don’t test kids for testing’s sake. We assess so we can improve the instructional process for a given class or child. And we can’t do that — or at least can’t do it well — if educators are not data literate.

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