For data to be useful in increasing teacher effectiveness, teachers need to have access to it. That may seem obvious, but providing teachers with useful data for improving instruction in the classroom is rarer than we might think. In the past, data have only flowed upwards: from classrooms, to districts, to states, and to the feds, all to comply with state and federal regulations. Data were used more to check boxes than to help students learn. Thankfully, policymakers are realizing that data for data’s sake alone are not very useful, and states across the country are getting data back to school districts and teachers in ways meaningful to student learning.

At the Data Quality Campaign, we have a tasty analogy for this. Districts pick cherries — or data — and send them to the state, which then needs to turn those cherries into cherry pies to be sent back to the district. Or cherry turnovers, or cherry ice cream for that matter, because districts have different tastes. That is a colorful way of saying that districts need different things from their data based on the needs of their schools and students.

For some districts the issue may be dropout prevention, while other districts need ways to enrich high-achieving students, and every issue in between. The state needs to take the raw data districts send — how many students there are, how many are low income, how they did on the state test, etc. — and return them to districts distilled into accurate information that give teachers the best picture of how their students are doing.

More goes into cherry pie than just cherries. You may need flour, butter, sugar, vanilla and more. Likewise, there is more to data-based conclusions than raw numbers. States need to do several things to make sure they get high-quality, useful data back to teachers who are working with students every day.

First, it is important that the right teachers are linked to the right students. States need to define how they determine “teacher of record”— or which teacher or teachers are connected with which students — to make sure the right data are used by the right people. This is especially important where policies that link evaluation, compensation, and other employment decisions to student performance are in place.

Getting the data right is a major first hurdle; after that, it is important that teachers know what it is they are looking at. Connecting data use to teacher credentialing and pre-service training will help ensure that teachers enter the classroom knowing how to use this valuable new data to help their students. And of course, just like with content or classroom management, teachers will need ongoing professional development on using data in their classrooms.

Tennessee made a great commitment in its Race to the Top application to ensure that every teacher in the state can login to the online state data portal and look at how his or her district, school, classroom, and students are doing academically. And Tennessee is not alone. Georgia has taken data accessibility a step further by creating a “tunnel” directly from the state data system to each district’s existing log-on site, which teachers and principals already use. With just one username, teachers, principals, and superintendents have immediate access to their districts’ usable data. To learn more, check out a (very entertaining) DQC video on Georgia’s efforts to clear data gridlock.

To learn even more about the importance of data to improve teacher effectiveness — and thereby student learning — check out our upcoming event, Maximizing Data to Improve Teacher Effectiveness. The Tennessee Department of Education’s own Sara Heyburn is a panelist.