Guest Blogger: Jennifer Ungermany colored 3-D question marks

I have worked with so many districts and schools where the leadership proudly points to their “data binders”—most recently I recall a three-inch D-ring binder. Not that binders filled with data aren’t helpful or good, but I caution that if they are not being used to guide instructional and programmatic decisions, well, then they can be a waste of precious time and money. More importantly, if they are not connected to a shared ownership of the questions a group of educators has about instruction and programs and similar concerns, then they can serve no meaningful purpose.

So how do we get from just having data to using data for meaningful change and improved results?

I recently attended a conference session presenting one of the many robust educational data warehouse systems that is available to schools. Given what I was hearing and seeing in the first five minutes of the presentation, I was really impressed with the possibilities.

My mind drifted back to some of the things I had heard from the data teams with whom I had worked. I could hear them bemoaning the fact that they didn’t have easy access to just the kind of data that was being showcased in the presentation:

“I wish we knew who our at-risk students were early on in the year, and in their early years!”

“If only we had a better understanding of the degree to which our students go on to college – do they graduate? and what challenges faced them once they started classes?”

“The yearly state assessment data isn’t about my kids. My kids have moved on to another school (or grade). I need information about the kids that I have right now – their challenges, their strengths.”

Maybe this data warehouse system could offer just the right data at the right time…

Returning from my reflection to the presentation at about its 12th minute and 31st slide, my enthusiasm started to wane, and then whimper. I became numb and overwhelmed with data. I think the only people in the room who continued to be excited about the system were its developers, and they had every right to be. They had thought of every possible data source one might want to access and every possible question that people could possibly ask about it. Then they demonstrated how they had sliced it and diced it again and again. All in all it was a pretty awesome technical undertaking.

I paused to look around at the darkened conference hall to gauge the reaction others were having to the presentation. I saw a room full of shadowed faces focused deeply on their cell phones or tablets, and I don’t think they were using them to access their assessment data—at least the people at my table weren’t. They were reading and responding to emails and “tweeting” to colleagues (maybe even at the same table about the applicability of the information in the presentation?).

When the break finally came, I turned to a couple of people at my table and said, “So what do you think? They’ve got data to answer every question.” Whereupon, one of the participants, who I knew was a principal at a large middle school in a small urban setting, briefly turned his head away from his cell phone and said, “Yes. But they aren’t our questions.”

This struck a chord with me. It gets as the heart of our beliefs and our work in schools with TERC’s Using Data model. What is so critical are the conversations that those who own the data engage in about the data that makes it so useful, so valuable, and potentially so powerful. It’s not about others posing questions and answering them for you.

Putting binders of raw data and data reports on the table in front of a group won’t lead to effective data use. It takes facilitated collaborative inquiry. Helping groups engage in meaningful dialogue is key to getting their questions going, and then the data flowing, in valuable ways.

Speaking as a fellow educator… We won’t use data if we don’t need it, and we won’t need it until we have an opportunity to engage deeply with the questions we need answered. Then data become part of the tools, the evidence, and the portholes illuminating solutions that can make a difference.

Jennifer Unger is Director of The GroupWorks in Massachusetts and a Senior Facilitator for TERC’s Using Data Project.