Using Data to Inform Teaching & Change School Culture

classroom data
(Image credit: Image by Adrian from Pixabay )

During the early days of the pandemic, everyone in education was talking about using the crisis to change education for the better. 

School leaders at the Barrington School District 220 in Illinois wanted to do more than just talk about change, they wanted to learn from the moment and make sure it would help steer the district going forward. To that end, the Barrington 220 Leadership Council undertook a massive data-gathering effort to learn from their educators, students, and parents what pandemic-necessitated innovations should be amplified and which should be discarded. 

Here’s how they gathered the data and how it’s changing the district going forward. 

“A Once-In-a-Lifetime Opportunity”  

Between January and April of 2022 the Leadership Council asked three questions of staff members: 

1. What have you learned throughout the pandemic about what education and
school could be?

2. How have relationships changed between you and your students and their
families?

3. What programs or services developed out of necessity during the pandemic would you like to see continued?

The council collected 1,503 responses from the staff of all 12 of the district’s schools. Additionally, focus groups were held with graduating seniors who were asked how the district might better prepare students for life after high school. 

A key to getting so many responses was explaining to the staff how important the data would be. “[We] set the context to let them know the importance of gathering this information, and how this is really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to not only think about doing things differently but to actually start to put those things in practice and really reimagine education,” says Dr. Melissa Byrne, assistant superintendent for Teaching & Learning. 

What the Data Revealed 

The overarching themes that emerged from the staff survey were around technology, flexibility and adaptability, relationships, social-emotional learning (SEL), and home/school connections. 

Many educators spoke positively about the relationships they formed with students and their parents and the deeper connection between school and home that technology fostered. 

“Because they were literally in students' home for the first time in their careers and seeing what kind of environment the individual students had, it connected them to families in ways that they'd never been connected before,” says Matt Fuller, assistant superintendent for Technology & Innovation. 

The district is looking to continue to foster this connection going forward. One part of doing this will be allowing remote student-parent conferences as an alternative to in-person conferences. 

The student focus groups revealed similar themes around technology and connection, with many students suggesting the district expand opportunities for blended learning. 

“The extent to which our seniors talked about extending blended learning experiences at the high school surprised us,” Fuller says. “That was something that was directly impacted by the pandemic, and it's something that we're putting a lot of time and effort into now, as we're moving forward in the areas of personalized learning, and also future-ready learning.” 

How the Data Is Influencing the District Going Forward  

The survey has also encouraged the district to renew its focus on personalized learning. “We have launched our flexible learning cohort with a team of high school staff, who have been identified by their peers as what we call 'influencers,'” Byrne says. These innovative teachers and principals meet regularly to discuss personalized learning best practices and are dedicated to promoting it at their schools. 

“We’re really making the focus about the students and empowering our students to own their own learning, so that they can truly have agency,” Byrne says. This ties in well and mirrors the work that is being done at the high school level around expanded blended learning opportunities, she adds. 

Another factor the district is focusing on in regard to personalized learning is making sure student staff recognize the difference between personal success skills and academic success skills. 

“Academic success skills are attached to a particular grade level or content, and they're mostly used in a chronological fashion,” Byrne says. “So you learn these literacy skills in kindergarten, these math skills in third grade. Whereas the personal success skills are really developmental, and that can change over time based on your age, based on your grade, based on the task that you're engaged with.” 

The insights gleaned from the data, however, go deeper than talking points and will continue to influence the district in the years ahead. 

“We've heard a lot of people, especially leaders, step forward during the pandemic and say, 'In every crisis, there's opportunity,' and what are those opportunities for schools, but we saw very little follow through,” says Dr. Robert Hunt, Barrington’s superintendent. “We made a decision in Barrington to take the time to reflect and work with the people who were in the trenches and learn what it is that we need to pull forward when we think about redesigning our schools in the future.” 

Erik Ofgang is Tech & Learning's senior staff writer. A journalist, author (opens in new tab) and educator, his work has appeared in the Washington Post, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.