By Diana Nunnaley, Director, TERC’s Using Data

Depending on where you sit, and which frame of reference shapes your work, you either celebrate charter school efforts or think charters reflect a “right” wing or “left” wing  (take your pick) conspiracy to undermine the role of public education in the United States.

A blog post is too short a space to weigh into the considerable arguments both pro and con that can be made regarding the place for charter schools in America. To my thinking, charters are a natural consequence of Americans seeking a solution to a social problem. We may not agree on the substance of the problem or the direction of the solution, but in a society that values and applauds entrepreneurial efforts, charters are here to stay. That is, they have a place until we learn more about the experience (hopefully by examining the data) or, have a collective epiphany about the impact of poverty on kids’ success in learning and activate the collective will to change the way we fund and support local education.dictionary page with definition of the word data somewhat out of focus

Charter School Vision Equally Blurred

Based on my experience working in schools across the country, the reality is that teachers in charter schools bring the same passion and desire to help children learn as teachers in any other public or private setting. They face the same staggering challenges and then some. And they bring the same blind spots to the table when examining their student learning data.

It’s interesting that as teachers, we tend to share similar assumptions about the reasons behind students’ poor performance in the classroom. Karen Seashore-Louis, Rodney Wallace Professor of Educational Policy and Administration at the University of Minnesota, calls this the “tacit knowledge” we carry in our hearts about who can learn what, and when they can’t learn, why (see Our Reality is Our Reality). This tacit knowledge greatly influences how we interpret the student achievement data we examine, until we become conscious of our “blind spots.” Sometimes the blind spots relate to beliefs about student abilities, the demographics of our student population, or unmentionables about teacher quality and content knowledge. Once these blind spots are revealed, we see the data, and potential solutions, through a new and more effective lens.

image of a car pulling out into the road without seeing an oncoming motorcycleon the leftAs experienced drivers, we become aware of our car’s potential blind spots, and we take additional steps to make sure the lane is open before moving over. Likewise, experienced data teams learn to take extra caution (examining multiple evaluation measures, frequently making equity and cultural checks) before taking action.

A recent experience when I was facilitating data teams from charter schools in New York State revealed how teachers were beginning to become aware of their blind spots. Having completed a drill down through state and local data, we had just completed a round of examining student work to shed additional light on student thinking. That’s when data team members made a comment that indicated a turning point: “Analyzing data is more than just looking at the numbers. There is so much more we can learn.” This sort of epiphany comes as a result of learning about and engaging in a structured, facilitated process of data drill-down and honest collaborative inquiry.

A Tool to Improve Data Vision

Administrators, take note. It makes no difference if you lead a public school, a charter school, or a private school. Furnishing your grade-level teams with elaborate binders of student data and giving occasional scheduled time to analyze the data, doesn’t necessarily translate into deeper understanding of the nature of student learning problems and a collective responsibility to address them. Too often we don’t go beyond looking at that data through our blind spots and selecting solutions that can be off the mark.

I offer a gauge that can help determine the extent to which your schools’ analysis of data is accurate and will translate into decisions that can successfully address the learning challenges indicated in that data, leading to increased student achievement. The Low- and High-capacity Data Use Continuum (scroll down to the fourth bullet) developed by TERC’s Using Data staff can be used as a self-assessment, as a talking tool during professional conversations with teachers, or as a collaborative assessment of how the data team perceives the quality of data use in the school. It can serve as an indicator about whether your teachers might benefit from professional development that could support them in becoming high-capacity data users able to take a leadership role in making data-informed decisions that improve student outcomes in your school. We find it helpful in our work, and we hope you will, too.