Training data-literate teachers: Insights from pioneer programs

Today the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation  published a series of case studies that highlight pioneer teacher preparation programs that are defining what it means for a teacher to be data-literate. In 2015, the foundation and WestEd went into the field to see what we could learn from a handful of teacher preparation programs that have adopted an explicit focus on data literacy skills and practices.

Our mission was to understand what is new or different and how these programs are defining teacher data literacy. Over six months, we interviewed dozens of administrators, faculty, and students at four schools: Western Oregon University’s College of Education, Relay Graduate School of Education, Boston Teacher Residency, and Urban Teachers.

What did we find? We found programs actively working to develop new teachers with habits and professional skills necessary to ensure that teachers do not just teach; rather they teach to ensure students learn. We also found that the programs themselves are building or retooling their organizations to focus on their own continuous improvement processes. In essence, the programs are using data in a way that mirrors the skills they embed in their graduates.

What makes a data-literate teacher?

Our partners, including the leading teacher preparation programs, a working group at Data Quality Campaign, and our research partner WestEd, have helped articulate an emerging set of skills that define data-literate teachers.  According to this definition, data-literate teachers:

  1. Define “data” broadly to include standardized test data as well as broader academic, socioeconomic, situational, behavioral and environmental data that affect student performance.
  2. Understand how to identify and apply critical grade-level standards in the context of individual students’ needs.
  3. Prioritize and validate relevant student data as it relates to learning and standards mastery.
  4. Develop high-quality informal and formal assessments in order to collect usable data on students’ progress against those standards.
  5. Administer assessments on an ongoing basis to monitor student understanding.
  6. Develop responsive lesson plans and differentiate instruction based on assessment and other contextual data.
  7. Use data-informed insights to communicate student achievement and needs to students and their families.
  8. Use data appropriately, knowing what conclusions can be drawn from what types of assessments.
  9. Understand that, although data is important, data alone does not define a student. Empathy and relationships matter.

These skills put external state and federal accountability metrics in their proper context: as helpful dipsticks for the performance of student groups. They raise the importance of teacher-generated classroom data.

We found programs actively working to develop new teachers with habits and professional skills necessary to ensure that teachers do not just teach; rather they teach to ensure students learn.

Broadening the definition of education data

It’s important to emphasize that the education data conversation has moved far beyond high-stakes test scores . For too long, “education data” had been incorrectly defined as the information teachers received from external sources – from federal mandates or district administered assessments.

While these data matter, teachers haven’t been given enough credit and responsibility for the role they play as generators of the most important types of student data: the insights they glean from the instructional experiences they create in the classroom. These case studies highlight teacher preparation programs that understand it is the data generated inside classrooms – day in and day out – that matter greatly.

Reclaiming professional accountability

The programs we profiled all share the belief that it is the teacher’s responsibility to ensure the students they teach learn. The implications of this broader view of professional responsibility are significant and may contain seeds of a new vision for accountability beyond the current reliance on standardized tests.

A new book by veteran educator Trenton Goble, Reclaiming the Classroom: How America’s Teachers Lost Control of Education and How They Can Get it Back, explores this theme lamenting the unintended consequence of federal policies that “removed trust and autonomy from our classrooms and teachers.” Goble observes, “We [teachers] missed an opportunity to reclaim our school and classrooms because we didn’t understand the true nature of expertise…we didn’t act like experts. Our fear of external accountability kept us from communicating our results in a way that would also communicate our expertise.”

Data-literate teachers have the professional expertise to demonstrate student learning with evidence. If a better, more robust accountability system is to emerge, it will be from teachers trained to communicate the student learning they have enabled for students in their classrooms.

Training data-literate teachers

Teacher preparation programs are just beginning to define the key role they play in developing data-literate teachers.  Each program we highlighted provides an early picture of how to build the next generation of great teachers who can use data to not only to teach, but also to rebuild trust within the teaching profession. We hope some of the early lessons from these programs will help inform what it means for a teacher to be data-literate. And, we hope you learn how these programs are holding themselves accountable for the graduates they produce.

Below are links to the series:
Introduction: Training Data-Literate Teachers Case Studies
Case Study: Western Oregon University
Case Study: Boston Teacher Residency
Case Study: Relay Graduate School of Education
Case Study: Urban Teachers

If you’d like to read the entire series at once, download here.