When I was six years old, I acquired a little brother. Like many young children, I found this addition rather unpleasant, and after having him home from the hospital for a couple of days, I asked my mother, “Can we take him back now?” I was instead forced to accept this major change to our family dynamic. Many of you have likely gone through this process yourselves, or have been told of older siblings’ trials at your arrival. But I bring it up to make a broader point: big change is hard and it takes time to get used to. Change is not just hard for six year olds either; it’s hard for all of us, even when the change is logical or even imperative.
The point I am getting to here is about education—specifically, data-driven decision making in the classroom. Much like adding a new member to the family, changing the way one does things everyday at work is a significant request. Many teachers and school and district leaders may be thinking, “Can we take it back now?” about the data they are being asked to use. In order to facilitate data-driven decision making in the classroom, states and districts must endeavor to have to right data, and work to build a data-driven culture. One state, Oregon, is leading the way in building that culture.
Knowing that data could have a powerful impact on Oregon schools—but also understanding the challenge of changing the way things are done in the classroom—leaders of the Oregon Data Project (ODP) have set out to make sure that making the shift to data-driven decision-making makes sense to those it affects. They did so by starting with input from the field, asking teachers and administrators to think collaboratively about what their needs are, making sure to communicate the value of the new data system. To nurture a deep appreciation of data, not just a one-off explanation, ODP is implementing data-driven decision making through ongoing professional development that takes place during the school day, in the buildings where teachers work. After just two years of implementation, teachers at participating schools already feel better about this change and have a better understanding of how data-driven decision making works in their classrooms. And you want to know what else? Their students are making significantly larger gains in reading and math than are students at schools where ODP is not used. And this is all just the beginning: imagine what several years of training and culture change will yield!
Since I am talking about teacher’s attitudes toward using data, I thought it might be good to actually talk to a teacher. So I called my friend Hunter Jean, who has been a teacher for the last four years in charter schools in Houston and Atlanta. Hunter Jean stressed the importance of having “the right data”—those that are useful to the students in her classroom at any given moment. She told me that “a lot of time data are done to teachers and students,” because the district or state gives teachers whatever they have—such as last year’s test SCOREs—and simply says, “Here, use this.” And that is not always what is needed to drive and improve instruction for students.
Hunter Jean makes two very important points here. The first goes back to what we discussed above, that teachers need time to understand the value of data and how it impacts their students today. If you just give teachers last year’s test SCOREs and say, “Here, use this,” without any further explanation, it is unlikely that those data will make their way into instruction. That data is just not valuable to the teacher in isolation. And the second point is that data are more than just test SCOREs. Mickey Garrison of ODP highlights the importance of making the distinction between test and assessment. Assessments are the kinds of things that allow teachers to have a constant picture of how their students are doing, what skills they have mastered, and which they may have missed all together. To drive data-driven decision making, state and districts need both the right data—which many states, such as Tennessee are well on their way to having—and a culture of data use centered around giving teachers the tools they need to help students in the classroom every day. The second part may be the most vital yet, and it takes time to get there. But it is an imperative change that every state must invest in making.
If you want an easy way to explain the importance of creating a culture of data use, check out the Data Quality Campaign’s video, here.