Ed tech should learn from educators

Over the last twenty years, I’ve been a classroom teacher, a school principal, a district administrator and (now) an accidental ed tech entrepreneur. That trajectory has shaped the way I think about what data is and isn’t, and about what data tools can and should do.

An evolving view of ed data

As a teacher, I was competitive. I wanted to be the best and to ensure that my students’ data (a.k.a. test results) reflected my own mastery. As a principal, I had a different view. I learned that data could be used to empower all teachers to do their best work, not just to demonstrate who ranked where. As an administrator I saw that data, which can be so powerful, was often used to confirm the broad-brush outcomes facts we already anticipated. In terms of my work at MasteryConnect, the ed tech company I helped launch in 2011, the most influential period was when I was a principal.

I spent my first years as a school leader working in a magnet school for the gifted located in a comfortable suburb just outside Salt Lake City. It was a great place to learn how to lead, but after four years, I was hungry. I wanted new challenges. When I submitted a request for a new school, district leadership happily placed me in one designated, based on end-of-year, summative test scores, as “failing.” The school was one of the lowest performing schools in a district tasked with serving over 70,000 students.  Recent budget cuts had eliminated our Title I funding and all associated supports services. This severely limited our ability to provide additional interventions for our struggling students and, with fewer than fifty percent of our students meeting proficiency standards, the impact was significant.

What ed data and summative test scores didn’t tell me about my new school

I started the new year with the preconceived notion that the school was broken. I had heard horror stories of challenging students, complacent teachers and an apathetic community. I had spent hours pouring over a mountain of test data meticulously gathered and organized into carefully labeled three-ring binders. All of the data supported my original assumption: I was taking on a failed school.

But once I arrived on campus, it quickly became clear that the data I was looking at told me a lot about how students tested, but little about the school as it existed day to day. Most of the students arrived every day full of hope and optimism despite facing personal challenges that humbled me to my core. Parents trusted the school to be there for their children when circumstances limited their ability to do it on their own. The teachers were some of the hardest working and most committed educators I had ever met. The data reflected none of that, nor did it capture any of the day-to-day growth or challenges happening at every desk and table in the school.

The child behind each ed data point

The mass of data we collected allowed us to reflect and compare our results to previous years and surrounding schools, but the charts and graphs presented a sterile view of our students’ abilities. Children are complex human beings with unique talents, abilities, and academic and emotional needs. The data we were reviewing did little to honor that.

In an effort to address the needs of each student in our school, the staff began a long journey to develop processes that focused on the use of formative assessments, mastery-based grading practices, engaging instructional practices and timely interventions for struggling students. We began to closely monitor and track each student’s reading progress with complicated spreadsheets and intense progress monitoring. The results were promising, but lack of time and resources threatened to derail our efforts. It was 2003 and No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was getting into full swing. Rarely did I attend an administrative meeting that didn’t mention AYP. We were under intense pressure to raise test scores.

Finding a solution, looking to educators to provide ed tech input

Flash forward 10 years: Today’s high stakes summative tests have intensified this sort of pressure even further. The good news is that, in the last decade, there’s been enormous progress on the technological front, especially in terms of tools that aggregate and sift data from a range of sources, and that make it accessible to teachers. But there are still gaps. Too often, actual educators continue to be left out of core design processes. The result is tools that don’t quite meet their needs, and that therefore, don’t quite hit the target goal of uncovering the child behind each data point.

In the fall of 2008, I began searching for solutions to address our challenges. My search came up empty, and at a dinner party with a few fellow teachers and their unfortunate spouses, I mentioned my frustrations. Mick Hewitt, the supportive spouse of a third-grade teacher, began to ask a series of questions that ultimately started the ball rolling on what would evolve into a solution that allows teachers to monitor student progress of the standards through easy-to-use formative assessment and mastery-based tracking tools. We began developing MasteryConnect in the spring of 2009 and officially launched to the public in 2011. The tool is now in over 72,000 classrooms in every state in America.

Acting on educator feedback

Key to our success, we believe, has been our commitment to soliciting and acting on educator feedback. For us listening is the key to developing ed tech tools that address the most critical challenges facing teachers. Using online tools, we collect input from teachers and administrators from all over the country. Each week, we discuss and evaluate user suggestions and feedback. It’s an integral part of our product development process; we can trace nearly every new feature or improvement back to a suggestion from a teacher.

The education technology sector is often characterized as being fascinated with bright, shiny new tools that do little to help teachers achieve their day-to-day goals. We’re charged both with creating a bubble and with living within one. That’s not where we should be. Educators are willing and able collaborators. Only when we, as a sector, prioritize their input will we build the kind of tools that can really make a difference for the parents, kids and teachers in so-called “failing” schools like the one where I spent my last years as a principal.

Trenton Goble is a former teacher and elementary school principal. He is now the chief academic officer and cofounder of MasteryConnect. Read more of the foundation’s posts on education technology