Back to School: Using Education Data to Support Real World Teachers

Sam Chaltain’s back-to-school post, “Empathy for a Teacher,” recently caught my eye. In the post, Sam describes dropping his young child off in a school classroom for the first time. As he surveyed the scene, he was rightly concerned for his child’s well-being, educational opportunities and growth.

But meeting his child’s teacher also highlighted another longstanding concern: The inaccuracy of ideology-driven school reform discussions that paint teachers with a destructive, binary brush. In the typical school reform narrative, Sam notes, a teacher appears in caricature, either as ‘an aging, selfish laggard” or as “a youthful, sleep-deprived warrior.”

The real-world of ‘every child, every day’ instruction

Sam’s point is well-taken. Let’s assume, just for the sake of argument, that the teacher population falls into the classic Bell curve, with the bottom 10 percent being on the laggardly side and the top 10 percent more or less warrior-like. What do you call the 80 percent in the middle?

I’d call them the real world teachers. They joined their profession out of a desire to do great work with kids. They face tremendous challenges and pressures trying to meet each child’s needs every day, both due to systemic constraints (budget shortfalls, time pressures, large class sizes) and their own ideals. Sam describes them this way: As committed adults and curious professionals who are working to create an environment in which “the school adapts to the child” rather than vice versa.

From my perspective, that statement is as good a description of a data-driven instructional environment as any, and it’s one that assumes an ‘every child, every day’ approach to education that is both mandatory and possible if we hope to transform education in America. It’s an approach that is already in practice in schools like YES Prep Public Schools and in many blending learning environments, and that has begun to take hold in leading district schools nationwide.

Murfee Elementary School in Lubbock, Texas is one such district school. Fifth grade teacher Robin Fulbright is a 20-year teaching veteran who neatly fits Sam’s description of a “committed and curious” professional. She’s dedicated and talented, and is constantly looking for ways to connect with and help her students. Robin recently told me a story about how she helped a young student who was struggling in math. She had recently gotten access to an education data dashboard that gave her easy-access (and visually accessible) data about each of her students’ past and current performance. Looking at the dashboard, Robin noticed a troubling downward trend in one boy’s performance. One day after class, Robin took the simple step of gently telling him what she’d noticed.  Her description of the look on his face – the look that said ‘you care’ – reduced both of us to tears.  More importantly, though, the student asked to stay after class to get extra help in math the next school day.

“I’m always going to say yes to that,” Robin says.

The year ahead: Some bright spots, too many blank slates

Over the next few weeks, 3.2 million teachers will welcome nearly 50 million students into their classrooms.  Each one will face a roomful of students with unique strengths and weaknesses, needs and concerns. And unlike Robin, most teachers will have precious little information about their students – in spite of the slew of education data every child generates (and every teacher logs) every day.

It’s a situation that frustrates me. There’s no reason teachers need to start each school year with students who are blank slates. The education data that makes such insight possible is available. The technology to provide them access to the data on day one is easy to implement. Even the support to help teachers and principals gain skills in data-driven instruction techniques is available. And yet we still see teachers on day one of each school year rifling through boxes of index cards with names, pictures and little else.

Sam Chaltain is right: If we’re serious about education reform, we must do more than focus on either-or prescriptions (charter vs. district, traditional vs. blended, innovation-focus vs. accountability-fouced, etc.) And we must discard our binary, laggard-vs.-warrior view of teachers, and instead focus on equipping real world teachers like Robin with the supports and tools they need to do their best work with every child every day.

I know how I plan to tackle the issue over the coming year. I’ve set a goal: I’ll be working to ensure that 700,000 teachers have access to the same Ed-Fi tools that have given talented, caring professionals like Robin Fulbright more insight into her students’ needs. And I have an action plan that involves traveling around the country, talking to teachers, vendors and state and district education leaders about what it will take to ensure that we all, collectively, move to a system of standardized data-driven instruction that ensures that every teacher has the deep insight they need to reach every child every day.

What will you be doing?


As president of the Ed-Fi Alliance, Lori Fey manages the rapid growth and adoption of the Ed-Fi data standard for states, school districts and vendors across the US. Prior to leading Ed-Fi Alliance, Lori served as portfolio director for policy initiatives at the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation and was responsible for the foundation’s policy initiatives focused on institutionalizing performance management in the U.S. public education system.

Read more of Lori’s posts here.