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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

It’s Time to Stop Ignoring Data

By Peter DeWitt — January 08, 2015 5 min read
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Balance is key when it comes to teaching and learning. Finding a balance between those instructional instincts that tell teachers they have to change course because students seem to be lost, and using data to see where students are really not grasping a concept. Unfortunately, many of us lose the desire to look at data and go only with instinct...and we may be making some big mistakes.

Truth be told I have not always been kind to data. As a principal I looked at it, sometimes I received data interventions from my friend and colleague Kristin who was a data whiz, but I didn’t use it enough. Sure, if there was something really telling I had data conversations with teams of teachers, but unfortunately I had a bias against data.

At the time, data was being used against teachers which meant that it was used against principals as well. I had an internal conflict because there was data I thought was powerful and other data that I thought was created by the state to end up proving their self-fulfilling prophecy that all schools were failing. I lost my balance, and ended up ignoring data.

It’s time for a truce.

Fortunately for me, John Hattie has taught me that numbers don’t always have to lead to a bad ending. Sometimes we can use those numbers to find the true story behind what is happening in our classrooms and schools. Armed with my past experiences, I also understand how data can be misused against teachers. Valid and reliable data, mixed with strong leaders and supportive teams of teachers, can be very important to improving student learning.

In Using Data To Focus Instructional Improvement (ASCD. 2013) Cheryl James-Ward, Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey and Diane Lapp dive excellently into the effective use of data in a very non-threatening way. However, they also aren’t afraid to poke the hornet’s nest a bit and write about how many schools have been using data for the past few years.

James-Ward et al write,

The problem is not that some schools have access to information and others do not. Schools are awash in information about most aspects of their operation. Some schools just choose to ignore the information that is available to them. Other schools take a look at the information, perhaps take the time to acknowledge the problem, and then do nothing further about it. And still other schools examine the data, develop an intervention plan, and then fail to implement or monitor the plan."

Time and consistency are needed to follow through on a plan to improve learning outcomes for students, and we do need to improve learning outcomes for students. That is not meant to give the impression that schools are failing. It is actually meant to focus on the idea that we have many students who leave us unprepared for their future.

Clearly, improvement will take more than data. According to Hattie, data are important conversation starters among educators, students, parents and school leaders. In order for any robust discussion to take place in schools, there needs to be a climate that supports making all of this learning visible.

It Takes More Than Data

We can look at all the data we want, but it’s important to look at the story it is trying to tell us. I guess it’s why I’m a fan of Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset because I truly believe it’s not a matter of whether a student will get it or not, it’s a matter of time before we find the ways to help them get it at their level. Hattie’s Mindframes have helped me understand that we need to approach learning in a more open way, and that just because a student struggles doesn’t mean they should be doomed to struggle for the rest of their lives.

After reviewing data with grade level colleagues it requires everyone to take it one step further. Going deeper is not always easy, and we spend too much time on surface level details. This is why data-driven instruction is so difficult because there are other elements that are important. They are:

Effective Feedback - According to Hattie, feedback is “Just in time and just for me, when and where it can do the most good.” This is not easily done in a class with one teacher and many students. Perhaps though it is a case of time management. Instead of asking all students to hand an assignment in at the same exact time a teacher can do a rotation to provide them more time to give effective feedback to each student.

Learning intentions & Success Criteria - Hattie believes that every student needs to be able to answer “Where they are goingHow they are going” and “Where to next.” If we want to improve our data, which means improve outcomes for students, we need to make them a part of the conversation. They need to have a voice in what they are learning and understand what we are looking for when all is said and done. It’s why student voice is so very important to this conversation.

Assessment-Capable Learners - ACL’s are another part of the equation in Hattie’s work when it comes to improving learning outcomes for students. It does not mean that students need to do well on assessments. It means that students need to be able to assess their own learning. What did they do well? What can they do better? If you live life thinking that having a few extra parts left over when you finish fixing something is just fine, then ACL’s are probably not for you because it has to do with understanding that we can always improve. ACL’s know what to do when an adult isn’t around, and that has implications for life.

Instructional Coaches - Jim Knight is an IC expert, and I work with him. IC’s work side by side with teachers in order to make them privy to their blind spot (Scharmer). Everyone, no matter how great of a teacher or leader they may be, has a blind spot. They need someone who will show them those areas of weaknesses and strength that they do not see. Just like a coach can help an athlete see areas of weakness and strength, IC’s can do the very same thing. Even doctors have IC’s.

In the End

Data are just one piece of the puzzle that can be used to help make those improvements. The hard (unified through district) and soft (Teachable moments) curriculum teachers use throughout the day matter as well. James-Ward et al offer some reflection questions at the end of Chapter One when it comes to instructional improvement in schools. It would be important that any guiding coalition in a school get together to really focus on the answers. The reflection questions are:


  • What is the history of instructional improvement at your school or district?
  • What efforts and initiatives have worked well? Why do you believe that is so?
  • What efforts and initiatives have failed? Why do you believe that is so?
  • What lessons should be carried forward as your school or district engages in continuous improvement?

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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