How to Not Be Afraid of Data--and Make it a Valuable Teaching Tool

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By Kevin Cormier

After a district-wide- and a school faculty meeting, while most teachers in our building were bustling to set up their classrooms for the next day, six math teachers stared at me as I attempted to explain that the overwhelmingly intimidating Excel spreadsheet before them was really no big deal, and that they could use it in their planning and teaching. As a staff, we have been discussing data usage in theory, but this was our first attempt at putting it into practice. That is an entirely different feeling.

The look on my colleagues' faces was not unique. There are too many instances when the very idea of using data at the classroom level causes teachers anxiety and uneasiness. And yet, data usage is invaluable to measuring student progress. It helps bring to the forefront ways that we can help students on a more individual level. My classroom may have two students who are currently getting a C, but they have distinctly different areas that need improvement. Jacob is struggling with percent equations, while Kay is attempting to master integer rules with the division of fractions. As a teacher, tracking data on the individual standard level - not simply relying on overall grades - allows me to have a sharper focus and know exactly where the extra help is needed.

Which is why I believe that those of us who are comfortable with data should do all we can to demystify the process for all educators. We need to present it in such a way that it is not only considered a valuable tool, but that using it becomes a moral imperative because of the ultimate benefit to student learning and growth.

Here are a few steps that can help even the most data-averse educators get the hang of it:

Ease in. Start with the careful construction of the data culture in your schools. Much like a good educator does with students, scaffolding may be the best course. If you intend to have full implementation over the course of a school year, you're asking for failure. Rather, there needs to be a well-planned and deliberate process for teachers to take it a piece of at a time. That starts with constructing a system for every teacher to use that does not reach the administrative level, and has no evaluative component.

Allow each teacher to decide what data they want to collect, how often, and what they want to do with it. Give them a year of collecting data that matters to them, and seeing that no judgment comes from it. In our school, we built a system where teachers were only responsible for entering the unit when a question was asked, the date it was asked, and a "1" or "0" to indicate if the student had met the standard on that assessment. This helped us gauge student progress at the individual standard level and provide more relevant interventions to struggling students.

Find the Geeks. Creating individualized data collection systems can be time-consuming, and certainly cannot be expected of all teachers to do on their own. However, each school will have (hopefully at least) one person who either has the knowledge, or is willing to be trained to create and maintain a system. When school ended last June, all I knew about Excel was how to spell it and put things in alphabetical order. Over the summer, I paired with a colleague and trained with a consultant at Greybeard Educators to learn Excel. In a week I felt like Mr. Robot. We were able to create grade- and teacher-specific data collection systems, tailored to each of our teachers' preferences. The systems were a hit because they measured what the teacher wanted to measure, not what they felt they had to report.

It's Not Really About Data, Anyway.
That's the hidden secret behind data collection - it has very little to do with the data. The system we built will track student performance on Common Core Math Standards. Once we built it, we had to decide what data to enter. This meant that, in order to gather the evidence necessary to back our claims of assessment mastery, we needed to better understand the standards. This led to enriching conversations. Soon, "data collection" was just a backdrop to our conversations about how to better teach our students. "Data collection" also became about having better conversations with students - Jacob and Kay have now been empowered to assess themselves, by being made aware of their specific areas of opportunity. They are no longer relegated to feel an overwhelming sense of having to improve everything they do in math. They can identify their strengths and know where to focus their efforts for improvement.

There are so many benefits to data collection and analysis that it will soon become a must for educators to be well-versed in its usage. That's why the introduction to data usage is so crucial. Building a school culture that is unafraid of self-reflection is very powerful. If you can organically foster trust and confidence among the staff when it comes to data, you have the potential to do wonderful things with and for your students.

Kevin Cormier teaches 7th and 8th grade math at Nissitissit Middle School in Pepperell, MA. Kevin has served in a math teacher leader capacity for the last four years, and is expanding this role to head up data collection and analysis for the entire North Middlesex Regional School District. Kevin is a Teach Plus Commonwealth Teaching Policy Fellow.