Data That Guides Teaching and Learning

A culture of data use ensures everyone has access to the information they need to help kids advance.

Topics: Education Data, Teacher Effectiveness

Students and families deserve information that can point them down a path that gets them where they want to go. Educators deserve information that allows them to support students throughout a K–12 education. And principals deserve information that helps support students, their families, and educators while making informed decisions about resource allocation and professional development.

Take a student named Grace, for example. Grace needed information to help her navigate a path toward her goals. Whether it was her parents who needed information to identify the best early learning environment, or Grace herself who later needed information to figure out if a career and technical education program would give her the skills to enter the workforce quickly and succeed, data helped Grace and her family make the right decisions.

Successful transitions are difficult to accomplish without data to help guide students and their families. And principals play an important role in creating a culture of data use that ensures that students and their families have access to the information they need—and that educators have what they need to support those students along the way.

There are many reasons elementary school principals should have access to and use data to support students, their families, and educators, but the following list details five of the most important things that school leaders should know about—and be able to do with—data.

1. Why Data Matters

Data is one of the most powerful tools educators can use to inform, engage, and create opportunities for individuals along their education and workforce journeys. Simply put, data is information—any information school leaders use to support students, identify professional development opportunities, and make programming decisions.

While educators commonly think of test scores first when they hear the word, data is also classroom observations, information on the educator workforce in a school or district, and information that provides a fuller picture of student success and opportunity, such as academic growth, course and school climate information, enrollment, and grades.

Principals can demonstrate that they value transparency by sharing available data, ensuring that it is easy to find and use, and opening a dialogue about how to use it to support students and their families.

2. Everyone Needs Access to Data

Everyone needs data to answer questions and make informed decisions. But school leaders don’t always have access to the information they need to make those decisions. At the Data Quality Campaign (DQC), we have worked with The Harris Poll to survey high school students, teachers, principals, and district superintendents for the last decade, and all groups said they wanted access to more and better data to make decisions.

In the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic, only 46 percent of principals said they knew where to go to find the data they needed to understand how well their school prepared students for their post-high school education and careers. And 94 percent of principals said they would feel more confident in their leadership decisions with better access to such data.

Principals need information to make the best decisions for students, their families, and educators. When data isn’t provided or made clear by states and districts, principals are left in the dark. Knowing that data can support decision-making at all levels, principals can better advocate for access to the data needed to make those decisions in support of students, families, and educators.

3. Privacy Is Key

States and districts might have policies and practices in place that address privacy, but school leaders must also center privacy in their work, especially when it comes to student data. And while it’s important to keep data safe and secure, there’s more to it than just following the existing laws and policies.

Understanding the differences among privacy, security, and confidentiality is an important step; they represent three distinct concepts:

  • Confidentiality addresses the inappropriate sharing of private student information, such as talking about a specific student on the playground.
  • Privacy dictates when, how, and with whom school personnel can share student data. Privacy is violated when a staff member emails the incorrect person with personally identifiable information about a student, for example.
  • Security encompasses the physical safety of student data and is compromised when school and district data systems are hacked by outside parties.

While there are laws addressing student data privacy and security, it’s more difficult to legislate confidentiality. Privacy is built around norms and requires school leaders to build trust with their communities. It’s important for principals and other staff members to not only understand state and district privacy policies, but to also consider how they communicate data with teachers and parents to preserve privacy.

4. Teachers Need Data Skills

Teachers need time and training to use data to support students. DQC polling conducted by The Harris Poll found that 80 percent of principals felt confident that their teachers and staff had the capacity and skills needed to support the students’ academic needs with data in the coming school year. Unfortunately, teachers consistently reported lacking the time and training they need to use data effectively. For example, 49 percent of teachers did not feel that their principals gave them the time they needed to use data effectively.

Students have experienced unprecedented interruptions in their learning for the last few years, and they need teachers who can effectively identify and meet their unique learning needs. Teachers need not only the right data, but also the right conditions to use that data effectively. Data literacy skills take time to develop, and they are often taught during one-time professional development sessions or self-taught by teachers trying to master the skills on their own.

Students and schools succeed when educators have secure access to meaningful data and the time and training to use this data effectively. While teachers are hungry for data literacy skills, they continue to face obstacles in using data to support student learning.

School leaders can help. Principals can support teacher data literacy by working with districts to integrate teachers’ data use seamlessly into the school day. Too often, teachers have to dip into personal time to apply student data to lesson plans and teaching practices; time dedicated to data use during the school day and administrator support can help prioritize data use throughout the school year.

5. How to Talk About Assessments

In K–12 education, assessments provide leaders, researchers, educators, and parents with information about student progress. But different people use test results for different purposes, so the assessments aren’t one-size-fits-all. Leaders and researchers might use test results to analyze trends and understand what’s working and for whom. Teachers and parents might use test results to identify the best ways to support learning throughout the school year and from year to year.

Conversations surrounding assessment can be confusing, especially for students and families. Because of this, it’s important to ensure that parents and families understand the differences among the three main types of assessments and how they’re used:

  • Formative assessments are not specific tests; they provide immediately actionable, student-level insights that are used to check understanding and adjust instruction as needed. Formative assessments are short and happen often, so they are best for providing in-the-moment feedback.
  • Interim assessments—sometimes called benchmark assessments—measure student learning at certain intervals to track progress toward goals or standards. Interim assessments are given at set times throughout the year (e.g., fall, winter, spring). These assessments are more formal and happen less frequently than formative assessments, but they are comparable across districts and states, so leaders can compare results and strategies with other schools, districts, and states.
  • Summative assessments include any tests given at the end of instruction, including end-of-course and advanced placement exams; the term is most commonly associated with annual statewide assessments required under state or federal law. These standardized tests are given in every school in the state at the end of each year and measure student learning progress toward grade-level standards. Educators and leaders use summative exams to compare student outcomes across schools or districts, evaluate instruction, and inform decision-making.

No single type of assessment will meet every need; each assessment provides unique insights into an issue that matters for students. When leaders are able to give parents the information they need about what students are learning and educators can use data to tailor instruction and provide resources, they can better support all students on their pathways through education and beyond.

Jennifer Bell-Ellwanger is president and CEO of the Data Quality Campaign.