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A smiling girl looks at a boy who is reviewing a paper on a school desk in an education setting that uses data

Data-driven education: Why data matters

Guest Author: Jami O'Toole and Dan Stasiewski

At the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, we are passionate about improving outcomes for students, particularly low-income students. We believe empowered teachers improve outcomes for students by providing high quality instruction that meets each individual student’s learning needs. We also believe data is a critical component that enables all stakeholders involved in a child’s education to meet students where they are in their education and maximize their potential for learning.

But this isn’t always easy.  While we expect teachers in classrooms and leaders in schools across the country to maximize the potential of our students and give them the skills they need to succeed, it’s becoming an increasingly difficult job.

  • The skills we expect students to master have become more complex.
  • The diversity of students in classrooms continues to grow.
  • The ways in which students learn is evolving with changing technology.
  • Finally, teachers still face the challenges of competing demands for their time with 20–30 students in every class to attend to and requests from principals, administrators, and parents.

The importance of data

Sending a teacher into a classroom or a leader into a school without the data to understand and the appropriate tools to respond to student learning needs is much like leaving for a cross country road trip with no map or GPS and your gas tank near empty. You may eventually reach your destination, but the trip will be filled with obstacles, stress, and unnecessary setbacks. Teachers must rely on data every day to provide instruction so that their students really do learn the skills they need to succeed. School leaders and other educators in the building must use data to appropriately support teachers and to be instructional leaders and coaches. So what does this look like in practice?

  1. At pick-up time, a parent mentions to the teacher that her child is increasingly hesitant about attending school. The teacher has observed this student in her class having difficulty grasping a pencil, cutting with scissors, and tracing letters. The teacher has tried to provide additional in class support but realizes now that additional intervention is needed. The teacher connects the parent with the occupational therapist at the school so the student can work on fine motor skill development for an hour each week.
  2. A teacher sits down with one of her students for a quick weekly check-in. They both look across the student’s homework papers, assessments embedded in online courseware, and recently submitted class project and confirm that the student is struggling with comprehending complex texts. Through their analysis and discussion, they determine the student struggles because she hasn’t mastered the vocabulary appropriate for the grade level text she is reading.  The two agree that the student will spend her independent work time in the computer lab using online courseware to boost her vocabulary.
  3. A middle school principal reviews enrollment projections and state assessment results from the area elementary schools for the incoming sixth graders. She determines that enrollment is likely to increase, and two to three more teachers will be needed so she gets a head start on the hiring process. She also sees that the incoming sixth graders have scored consistently low on the math assessment, particularly struggling in basic operations with fractions and decimals. She plans to work with the teachers during their beginning of year planning time to identify students who will need extra support early to learn this foundational concept.
  4. A high school freshmen is nervously contemplating which high school graduation plan she will select. A counselor examines the student’s skills assessment results, course grades, and state assessment results.  They use this information to identify careers that might be of interest to the student and determine which high school graduation plan best supports the student in making the transition to her desired career.

The above examples highlight just a small set of ways data is used in classrooms and schools to provide instruction that meets student needs. They illustrate that teachers must be able to craft assignments, projects, quizzes, classroom observations, and assessments to determine what students are learning and how they are learning it. School leaders need to support teachers by providing the right tools, training, resources, thought leadership, and autonomy to do their job. Parents and students need to engage in data and play an active role in seeking the supports they need to succeed.

Data-driven education

Our data-driven education work is focused on enabling these practices at scale to change outcomes for low-income students across the nation.  We all have a vested interest in ensuring every child receives a high-quality education, which in turn improves the trajectory of his or her life. As parents, we want our kids to grow up, become financially independent, and live a fulfilling life. As members of the business community, we want employees that have the skills to do their jobs well and advance the mission of the company. As members of society, we want all kids to positively contribute to the economic, social, and civic fabric of our country.  By equipping educators with the right skills, we can achieve those aspirations.