How can data change education? Better research will point the way

Over the years, the foundation has invested considerable time and money in helping school districts, charter management organizations, and state agencies design and implement tools and systems aimed at giving educators access to data, with the hope that access would help them improve student achievement. We did it in Chicago, Dallas, Denver, New York and other cities.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, we’ve learned that making data more easily accessible does not automatically generate improvements in student outcomes. Net-net? Building systems to make data easily accessible to educators is a critical first step in improving student outcomes. But it’s not enough.

We now take a more holistic approach to fostering data-driven instruction. Our more recent work in the field focuses not just on access, but also on:

  • Building educators’ data skills and their capacity to make effective classroom use of the tools and data at hand
  • Identifying and supporting the school structures necessary for this work to take hold
  • Encouraging school leaderships’ commitment to building collaborative data cultures where all types of data are used to identify and respond to student learning gaps

That’s why we were especially excited to see the Spencer Foundation’s recent request for proposals for a new research project on Evidence for the Classroom, which seeks to fill the void of “good, high quality research on how teachers use data and what effects data use can have on teaching and learning.”

“In the current educational environment, there is much attention to gathering and analyzing student data, and considerably less to whether and how teachers can use these data,” Spencer states in the rationale section of the RFP. “The time is right to advance a research agenda that deepens our understanding of how and under what conditions teachers use data for instructional improvement.”

Spencer’s initiative seeks to take the data-in-education discussion where it needs to go — beyond the “here is the data …(now) improve” line of thinking as aptly described by Paul Goren, senior advisor to the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research and the Chicago Public Schools. Spencer’s goal is to kick start an exploration of current assumptions about “teacher’s use of data.”

Per Spencer, the assumptions that need to be better understood include:

  • The skills educators need “to interpret the data” as well as what “[capacities] and expertise” they need “to respond to those data in ways that improve their instructional practice”
  • The tools and systems that need to be “in place to ensure teachers will have access to the right kind of data”
  • The school structures and cultures needed to give educators the requisite time and motivation to analyze data and use it to inform and shape instruction

We couldn’t agree more. As a foundation, we applaud these efforts to better understand data usage, and look forward to new research that will better inform the field – including us – about how to best equip teachers to not simply access data, but put it to use to improve student achievement every day.

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