We need a systemic approach to building educator data skills

Several weeks ago the National Center on Education and the Economy released a report titled, Standing on the Shoulders of Giants, describing the practices of the nations whose education systems lead the world concerning student performance. Marc Tucker, the author, concludes that “the strategies driving the best performing systems are rarely found in the United States.”

Tucker notes that in high-performing systems, teacher preparation focuses “careful attention” on fostering “skills in diagnosis and prescription … in the adjustment of instruction to the actual needs of students.” He also notes that this approach “has no counterpart in the American experience.”

We agree with Tucker’s analysis that the U.S. lacks a systemic approach to preparing teachers with such critical skills.

Quality data is not enough

What is interesting is that Race to the Top and other federal efforts have focused intensively on “improving data systems” and “developing high quality assessments.” But there has been little, if any, attention paid to the critical importance of building the skills of educators to diagnose student learning needs and adjust instruction. For example, the Data Quality Campaign informs that just one state has taken steps to promote teacher development of data skills.

Unless educators are systematically trained to identify student learning needs and implement instructional adjustments, access to even the most comprehensive data and tools will not improve the quality of instruction.

In more than half a decade’s work with school districts and schools throughout the nation, we have learned some hard-won lessons that federal and state policymakers might benefit from Chiefly, that data and data systems are simply a start. Unless educators are systematically trained to identify student learning needs and implement instructional adjustments, access to even the most comprehensive data and tools will not improve the quality of instruction.

More recently, we have begun making investments to enhance educators’ abilities to understand better and use student data. For example, we have supported The Achievement Network’s efforts to build data analysis skills of school leadership teams; we have helped school districts create teacher/data team guides and toolkits, and we have supported an innovative teacher preparation program that trains teachers to be expert diagnosticians of student learning.

Our hope is that our experiences in the field will inspire policymakers to couple efforts to “improve data systems” and implement “high-quality assessments” with a systematic approach to building the skills educators need to make use of all available student performance information and improve instruction. Failure to do so will result in needless expense and a continued inability to move the needle regarding student performance. And that’s an outcome none of us can afford.