Last week, Education Week, Teacher Magazine’s sister publication, released Technology Counts 2006, its ninth annual survey of education technology. This year’s report, titled “The Information Edge,” focuses on state and district efforts to make greater use of student data to guide classroom instruction and school policy. In a recent interview, we spoke to David Hoff, one of the senior writers for the report, about the findings and their implications for teachers.
Q: Why are states and school districts taking a greater interest in the instructional uses of student data? What’s behind the trend?
A: The major factor is the effort to make sure all students are proficient in reading and math—mostly driven by the No Child Left Behind Act. Even before, there were a lot of major efforts in this direction under various state initiatives. But it’s getting more intense now because of No Child Left Behind. In addition to the goal that all students are proficient in reading and math, the data is now being made available to schools. As required under No Child Left Behind, all school districts must test in grades 3-8 and once in high school, and people out there see that as a treasure trove—a place to go and look to see what students need to know and be able to do in order to be proficient, if they aren’t already.
Q: You mention in the lead article in Technology Counts 2006 that a “data-rich approach to instruction will eventually be commonplace.” Can you describe what this might mean for teachers? How will their working lives change?
A: Well, I think the utopia that people envision is that every teacher will have a computer in the classroom, and on that computer he or she will be able access a database of just about any information that the school has about a student. That database might have emergency contact information for the students’ guardians and parents. It would certainly have test scores—not only on the state test given the previous years, but on classroom tests given during the year. It might include attendance records, health records—all the things that the school currently collects would be available for the teacher to look at.
The most important thing, at least in terms of student achievement, would be the test scores, and maybe even samples of other work the student has done. Ideally, the teacher would look at this information, and say, “Let’s see, last spring, on the state test, this child was having trouble with reading comprehension. I see some progress throughout the school year on the tests we’ve given him here.” So, there might be some clues in there to help continue the progress so that the student scores better on the state tests in the current year.
Q: The report concludes that school systems still have a long way to go in developing effective computerized data systems. What are the primary barriers to reaching this goal?
A: Right now, the technology is there for any school district in the country to have the type of system I just described. But one of the big barriers is trying to figure out how to merge a variety of types of data sets into one tool. Right now, all this data gets collected in different formats, in different databases, for different reasons. It’s a very complex task to analyze each piece of data and filter it down into one tool that a person could use at his or her desktop. That’s a financial barrier as well as a logistical barrier. In getting policymakers to envision how data analysis could be used in schools and why it’s worth the investment, it’s probably the biggest barrier out there.
Q: As you know, teachers are already extremely busy, in many cases overwhelmed. Has any thought been given to how they will find the time to learn new data-analysis tools and integrate them into their work in the classroom?
A: I think people are just beginning to think about this issue. I don’t think these tools are readily available enough for most teachers, so policymakers aren’t quite ready to figure out what the training or preparation would look like.
Based on some of the early tools I’ve seen, I think in some ways it will be like learning a new user-friendly software product. A good example might be Turbo Tax. Anyone who’s got a bare-bones literacy at the computer can figure out how to file their taxes. However, you can use Turbo Tax for more advanced functions than just filing your taxes—and that takes extra training. I think what we’ll see are a lot data tools for teachers that are pretty easy for someone to sit down and figure out how to use. But there would probably have to be advanced training for teachers to get the utmost use out of them.
Q: According to the report, 43 states now have identifier codes to track teachers. How are they planning to use those identifiers?
A: Florida, which is the state with probably the best data system in the country, is using its teacher-tracking system to reward teachers whose students seem to show the most progress on state examples. I think you might start seeing that in a number of places—it’s a very popular idea out there in policy circles. Already, in Tennessee—another state with a very rich data system—part of the teacher evaluation is based on the scores of the teacher’s students on the state tests. So that’s the most immediate use. Down the line, there may also be principals or superintendents who use the codes to identify teachers who are in need of some help, so that they can help students reach higher achievement levels.
Q: Is there any concern that the trend toward instruction based on student data could dehumanize teaching or make it overly mechanical?
A: I’m sure some people are concerned about that. But I think the bigger question out there could be: Are these data sources going to tell teachers something significant that they don’t already know? Most teachers pretty much know, particularly in the earlier grades, how well their students are reading and how well they’re doing math. How much value are these data systems going to add to current knowledge teachers get from their day-to-day interactions with students and from weekly quizzes, monthly tests, and other measures they use? Teachers are already evaluating their students on a regular basis, so the big test will be to see how much these data systems add to that analysis.