Education data tools: A third wave of teacher-driven innovations addresses pressing classroom needs

Are we seeing a third wave in data-driven education? I believe we are. If the first and second waves focused on accountability, teacher quality and infrastructure build-outs, this third wave of education data initiatives is fundamentally different. It’s explicitly focused on providing teachers with solutions that meet their most pressing classroom needs.

As this wave builds energy, it has the potential to shift authority back to educators in the classroom.

Education data tools: Waves one and two

The first two waves of the education data movement too often treated teachers—and support for their day-to-day work as an afterthought.

For instance, wave one, which was kicked off by No Child Left Behind, prioritized summative test results and longitudinal data trends. These efforts to bring important insight to educators were helpful, but not sufficient. Daily instruction and the formative insights provided by students in the classroom were too often overlooked and undervalued.

The second wave of the education data conversation then focused on using data, including value-added data, to evaluate teachers. Arguments over evaluation metrics trumped a focus on supports to help teachers improve instructional practice.

And although the sector embraced tools and laid the foundations for interoperable data pipelines during this second wave, efforts to rethink the types of supports that would be useful and relevant to teachers in their daily practice were more the exception than the rule.

The result was that teachers, already overloaded with work, were often also overloaded with information and the expectation that they’d be able to readily transform data into better outcomes for students. Data was often viewed, at best, as tangential to day-to-day professional practice and, at worst, as a blunt instrument for administering accountability in its most punitive form.

The changing outlook: Education data tools that help teachers do what they do best

The good news is that lessons learned during those first two waves are on the verge of bearing fruit. We’re now seeing a wave of innovations focused on ensuring that teachers have access to data tools that address their most pressing needs.

The foundation’s work to develop studentGPS dashboards, which are now being implemented across Texas, Arkansas and Tennessee, represented an early foray in this direction. Through focus groups, over 2,000 teachers vetted what insights would be most helpful to identify emerging issues such as problems in attendance, class work and test performance. Continued advancement of tools that address a broader range of insights and instructional needs is vital to addressing the pressures teachers face as their profession evolves.

To accelerate third-wave innovations, the foundation has begun to look for solutions that address the pain points we’ve heard time and again from teachers. These include:

  • Better access to high quality, differentiated content to help tailor lessons to the needs of individual students
  • Better tools to support specific populations of students for targeted interventions (e.g. English Language Learners, special education students, or a particular instructional approach like Response to Intervention)
  • Tools that can integrate not only attendance, demographic, disciplinary and test data, but that are built to incorporate other rich sources of information (particularly formative data such as  exit tickets and class homework) in real time

The foundation’s approach is rooted in a firm belief that more effective use of the daily information generated and gathered by teachers is the key needed to finally unlock the power of education data. These daily data surface learning patterns and gaps that might otherwise remain unnoticed, and make routine the insights that great instructors have always been able to tease out of their students. They are the core of great teaching & learning practices.

The wisdom of the classroom crowd

One recent foundation investment with MasteryConnect, a company that focuses on helping teachers track student mastery of learning standards, seeks to accelerate this third wave of innovation. MasteryConnect grew from co-founder Trenton Goble’s insight into needs of the public schools where he built his career. As a long-time public school teacher and principal, Trenton recognized insight into student learning from exit tickets and class homework could be put to much better use than it was. Teachers needed a better way to understand what students had and had not learned.

The company’s MasteryTracker tool, on-line learning community, and common assessment sharing platform were developed and provided free to teachers.  To date, over 70,000 teachers across the country participate in the site’s learning community. This represents 27,000 schools in over 8,700 school districts.  These teachers are not using data provided top-down from the state or district. Adoption grew from bottom-up teacher use, vetting and insights gleaned from working with students in the classroom.

As this third wave gains momentum, those of us helping to shape it— educators, entrepreneurs, foundations, technologists, and others — should all work to ensure commitment to an iterative process that gives teachers’ voices equal billing. Tapping directly into the wisdom of the classroom crowd, as MasteryConnect has done, is one way to ensure that.