As educators look at End-of-Year state assessments, End-of-Course results and other data points used to track progress toward achievement and growth goals, teachers are getting more experienced and comfortable identifying gaps in learning.  What they aren’t as comfortable and confident about is knowing what to do next – how to use what they’ve learned to take action beyond student grouping decisions – how to create lesson plans with specific instructional strategies aimed at engaging students more effectively in the concepts and skills needed. An even further reach is encountered when it comes to expanding their investigations into verifying the reasons “Why?” students are experiencing the challenges revealed. 

Continuous, effective use of data by teachers requires that all three components of learning from our data are part of professional routines in a culture where we believe it is our moral responsibility to help all students thrive.

  1. Examine student learning and other relevant data to identify who is getting it, who isn’t, what aren’t they understanding and what aren’t they able to do successfully.
  2. Use that information to plan specific instructional strategies to engage students in the areas needing additional learning and plan how to measure the impact of those strategies.
  3. Continue to broaden the analysis to identify and verify the root causes of student learning gaps.

No. 2 above is perhaps the most critical component of the cycle and it actually speaks to a topic that

in itself warrants careful attention and requires additional analyses beyond the classroom. What’s working? And what isn’t? Which students are we leaving behind?

The reality in most schools is that as teachers are focused on their students, they are also often implementing new materials, new intervention programs (Social Emotional, Growth Mindset, Brain-based Learning, etc), developing higher level questioning strategies, identifying ways to scaffold rigorous instruction for ALL students. The list goes on and it’s all happening concurrently. But when we see improvements or our state report card ranking moves up a level, we aren’t sure which programs or combinations of changes contributed to the outcomes, or which ones had no impact whatsoever, except on our budget.

New programs and initiatives should from the outset include the following questions: What is the change we want to see, what will it look like when it’s implemented successfully, how will we know that it is successful, what is the evidence we’ll gather to help us know if it’s working?

Are you asking these questions?

In this space we present all the ways data can be used by teachers and administrators fine-tune or dramatically reinvent how teaching and learning happen in classrooms. We share processes and techniques teachers can use to zero in on students’ learning challenges – the gaps and misconceptions they may be experiencing, in order to re-think how the next lessons need to be orchestrated.  We counsel administrators at the both the school and district levels in how they can both initiate and support the rigorous use of data to inform decisions that can address  immediate needs as well as how to collect data   to monitor the impact of programs and policies.

In both cases, whether working directly with teacher leaders and teams or with administrative councils, we always stress the importance of continually raising the question of “why?”. Why are we seeing these results? If our data protocols are not opening the door to a relentless search for the causes of student learning gaps, we are missing out on the greatest opportunity to question the most fundamental contributors to low growth levels of our students – curriculum and instruction. And we’re not opening the door for teachers to continue to develop deeper knowledge of the content and learning progressions associated with acquiring the concepts, knowledge and skills in a domain as a means of adding to our repertoire of instructional strategies and techniques to engage learners every day in every lesson.

So what does effective data use in schools have to do with pre-surgery checklists? This past week Boston has been a swarming hive of thinking and exchange of ideas in an event called HUBweek 2017. At historic Faneuil Hall, Dr. Atul Gawandwe, a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a professor at Harvard School of Public Health, discussed with Malcom Gladwell (author of Blink, The Tipping Point, Outliers and more) about many aspects of rethinking health care and “introducing innovative systems to help save more lives.” (Boston Globe, 10/14/17 Metro section). Here is what grabbed my attention in the article.

“Despite the rush to find new and innovative ways to save patients, the medical profession must also ensure that basic medical protocols are followed. The extreme complexity of modern medicine has exceeded are ability to handle it.” (bold mine) These two sentences resonate so deeply with what teachers are experiencing every day.

The innovation Dr. Gawande and his colleagues developed, which is saving thousands of lives around the world, is a simple pre-surgical checklist to be used by surgeons and their team before surgery begins on a patient. “The goal, he said, has been to create a new kind of science, one that defines where failures occur, where complexities overwhelm teams and find prototypes to fix these problems” (Boston Globe, 10/14/17 Metro section). See the connection!  They are also focusing on the “why?”.

Many schools where we are working have introduced or are introducing Instructional Rounds, another practice borrowed from the medical world in hospitals, where teams of physicians go from patient to patient to review patient status.  In schools, teams of teachers, administrators and specialists visit classrooms to observe instruction and provide feedback to teachers. Is there something we could learn from the pre-surgery checklist that could help us save student learning in classrooms?  It’s a question I invite you to think about and share insights.

In the version of the check list furnished by the World Health Organization (WHO), there are three instances when surgeons take stock – before anesthesia is administered, before the start of the surgical intervention, before any member of the team leaves the operating room. As educators, we drill down into assessment results after the teaching has occurred (summative), or while the teaching is in motion (formative) and in doing our causal analysis we bring a wider range of evidence to the table. Does this check list from the medical field offer us an opening for what evidence we might confront in the moment in our classrooms?

What questions could we ask our students before instruction begins? During instruction?  At the conclusion of the instruction before moving to another subject or classroom? What interactions with students would this require that help us agree on what the learning needs are and what is going to take place? And make students real engineers in their own learning? What data would this generate to assist us in planning and adjusting lessons?

Is there an opportunity here for us to develop the Pre-Instruction Check List to help us ensure we’re getting ready to teach with absolute confidence in the lessons coming up? What would we include in that check list? What are excellent teachers already checking moment by moment during instruction? Could such a check list focus our attention of the most vital elements required for ensuring that all of our instruction produces the desired outcomes?Fishbone Close Up

In facilitating teams of teachers who are focused on using their data to figure out next steps for instruction (or school level teams focused on teaching and learning), Using Data facilitators introduce processes and protocols to support genuine inquiry.  There are the 5 phases of continuous improvement (or the 6 or the 8). And frequently schools implement cycles of improvement.  What they so frequently miss is one element that makes it work.  In music, it’s “all about the bass”.

In data analysis it’s all about discovery,  being open, being in exploration mode, which means leavimultiple pieces of large chart paper displaying data analysis that creates a hand-drawn data wallng assumptions at the door. The tension here is that as humans, we aren’t that comfortable with holding out in uncertainty.  We want to solve problems quickly. We want to feel confident that we know what we’re doing. And any suggestions to the contrary, render us incapable to doing anything but sticking to what is familiar instead of taking the risks that high performing schools have come to relish.

If we extend the notion of being open a little further, it isn’t too far a stretch to realize that  along with discovery and exploration goes one of the 7 Norms of Collaboration – screen-shot-2016-12-01-at-10-21-07-am“Presuming Positive Presuppositions”. In other words, assume that everyone at the table only wants what’s best for our students. And most importantly, when looking at our students’ results, presume that every student wants to learn and to be successful. If we can presume positive presuppositions about them while we stay in discovery mode to learn more about their strengths, their sometimes hidden or buried aspirations, we can figure out how to design instruction that overwhelms the effects of poverty, learning disabilities and language differences.

In other words, explorers don’t let students’ historical and demographic profiles bias their instruction. Instead they are continuously open to the possibilities that are within every student we teach. Teacher teams who have learned how to confront their low expectations for student learning use the data to surface the questions leading to the next great discovery rather than jumping to premature conclusions that typically result in same old, same old – cycles of reteaching, assigned interventions and test prep.

On another note, with this week’s announcement by President-Elect, Donald Trump that his nomination for the Secretary of Education position is Betsy DeVos, a strong advocate of education vouchers and charter schools in Michigan, perhaps we could slow down any rush to judgement and instead, benefit by using some of the same processes for using data effectively (be in discovery mode, triangulate the data, search for root causes, monitor progress toward goals)  before we draw conclusions about the implications of this appointment.

By Mary Anne Mather, Managing Editor
TERC’s Using Data For Meaningful Change Blog

bo and girl lean over folders on a table and work on indpendent student projects

Photo Credit: Clyde Gaw, TAB Educator

 Too often, when people think about using data, they limit their thinking to consulting test and assessment data from state tests, to district benchmarks, to classroom assessments. And while consulting this level of data has its merits, being truly data-informed requires so much more! As teachers, we can come closer to “data-genius” if we tap the treasure-trove of data that a classroom genius hour reveals… (more…)

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? (more…)

Introduction by Mary Anne Mather, Managing Editor
TERC’s Using Data for Meaningful Change BlogGroup of teachers analyzing and charting data using 4-pahse dialog
…with a link to Data Quality Campaign’s Flashlight blog on
How Educators Use Data: A Four Step Process

Effective Use of Classroom Data: It’s a topic that weighs on the minds of many educators these days. It’s also the title of a workshop that TERC Using Data recently facilitated at MESPA (Massachusetts Elementary Principals’ Association). The educators who attended were seeking strategies and resources to bring back to their schools that would help them build a culture of data use that is continuous, meaningful, manageable, sensible, and effective. Who isn’t?

There is little doubt that, in the news, education-related data are routinely discussed, bandied about, and sometimes applied in ways that are not efficacious for supporting effective teaching and learning. TERC is dedicated to making data a sweet and welcomed word, not a dreaded mandate. That’s why we were so excited that Rebecca Shah (@rebecca_shah) from Data Quality Campaign was a surprise workshop attendee! Rebecca took one of the teacher-level data analysis processes shared during the workshop and used it to reflect on the session and its outcomes. Her thoughts and related resources are posted on the Flashlight, Data Quality Campaign’s blog: How Educators Use Data: A Four Step Process. Enjoy!

And if you’d like to learn more about Four-Phase Data Dialogue, visit our Data Tips (see Tips 2-5).


By Mary Anne Mather, Managing Editor
TERC’s Using Data for Meaningful Change Blog

2013-12_LFGroup2The 2013 annual Learning Forward Conference in Dallas, Texas faced quite a challenge this past December as a major ice storm glazed the area in a slick crust of sheer slippage. Flights were canceled, and Texas-based drivers found themselves snarled on impassable roads. Using Data, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was scheduled to present a full-capacity, all-day session on Monday, December 9 entitled Effective, Continuous Data Use Requires Prepared Leadership. Would we make it? Would our participants? (more…)

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