Data Can Drive Development

Teaching practice can improve if teachers can look at themselves and student data in an objective manner. In most teacher education programs, teachers were not taught to use data to design curriculum and analyze their teaching practices. Teachers need training in both data management and data analysis as well as in facilitating discussions about data. As professional developers, we can show teachers how to collect the appropriate data and evidence, analyze it for gaps in learning areas, find the patterns and themes that seem to show over time, work with them to develop curriculum that meets those needs, and then help them modify their teaching.

Teacher Research

Teacher research can be a valuable component of teachers' professional development. Although traditional educational research may not be useful for most classroom teachers, research that helps them become better teachers is very useful. Professional developers can facilitate this research process:

  • Help teachers decide on a focus or problem that they would like to reflect on. It could be their teaching practice or a curriculum area about which they are uncomfortable teaching.
  • Collect data or evidence over a specified time period to help teachers examine what they are trying to accomplish in their teaching practice. Evidence could be videos of classroom practice, samples of student work, and interviews of students and colleagues.
  • Analyze the evidence or data by looking at themes or patterns. You could create a database to input evidence under specific labels. Evidence could include pictures, student work, notes about students, metaphors, average test scores, etc.
  • Record what the teacher found from the evidence in a document stored in their portfolio with the steps to take for improvement or an explanation of why something worked.

This can allow them to use what they found to modify how they teach.

Leslie Peckerman technology facilitator for PJ Hill Elementary School in Trenton, N.J., shared how her district uses data to create graphs from its StarBase grading system, which illustrates grade distribution for each class. They create graphs from the standardized testing and compare them to the grades — literacy scores vs. language arts grades, etc. Leslie says this is a great platform for addressing authentic assessment of learners' skills. Being able to analyze the patterns from the data helps teachers justify the need for professional development and further an understanding of assessment.

Patterns and Themes

Teachers collect data all the time, but it can be our job as professional developers to help them understand how recurring patterns or themes can help improve their teaching practice. You can show them how to do this in a professional development session at the middle or end of the year.

  • Create a chart similar to the one below, adding or deleting any categories.
  • Demonstrate how to check for understandings by triangulating evidence to look for same themes or patterns in more than two types of data.
  • Encourage teachers to try to be objective and nonjudgmental, share their findings with another teacher and bounce off ideas and new questions.

Curriculum Area

Demonstrates Success

Needs Improvement

Patterns/ Themes

Student Scores

Student Work

Class Participation


Data Collection Tools

Professional developers can create several instruments that teachers can use to look for the evidence over a specific period, so they can become assessment literate. You can create:

  • Disaggregated student data in a spreadsheet or chart;
  • A classroom observation tool using a form, checklist or database;
  • An interview form to use with colleagues, students and parents;
  • Teacher, parent and student surveys;
  • A digital portfolio for each teacher to collect evidence;
  • Performance assessment tools that include examples of student products; and
  • Threaded discussions, other online discussion tools, or databases for teachers to store or share reflections of what is working or not.

In writing the Enhancing Education through Technology grant, it became apparent that data would drive the focus. At one district, the math scores showed that a very low number of eighth-grade students were recommended to take Algebra 1. Disaggregated data showed that specific subgroups were not able to comprehend algebraic concepts starting in sixth grade. Working with teachers, administrators and math specialists, we designed a program based on the Algebra strands in the math standards that included real-world, project-based learning activities relevant to different ethnic subgroups. Another district found through writing assessment data that their middle-school students were not able to write a coherent multi-paragraph essay. Math concepts were also a problem, so the district team developed a program in which students will learn to write mathematically and present their findings in multimedia presentations. Throughout both programs, professional development will collect and analyze student data to monitor the progress of student learning.

Mary Herring of the Educational Technology Division of the University of Northern Iowa, shared a data collection and analysis process they are using to assess the level of standards attainment by students. This process came about as a result of an application for National Recognition using AECT/NCATE's Educational Communications and Information Technology standards. The division members developed rubrics for all assignments, then identified which standard each component addressed.

Spreadsheets track how students do on each component. Then they see where students are falling short of the target level and discuss with the division ways the curriculum or learning environment can be changed so students will attain the learning goals. Tying the findings to curriculum or environment change is the key.

Classroom Observations

Teachers sometimes believe they are reaching all of their students when, in a classroom observation, the mentor sees several students off-task. Teachers have used video as an observation tool, but it is a good idea to work with a mentor, coach or another colleague to help reflect on the video. Mentors or coaches can use the Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment (BTSA) model when they work with teachers in their classrooms. New teachers are given support to examine, reflect on, and improve their teaching practice.

Mary Herring also explained how Iowa has adopted the No Child Left Behind effort's Teacher Quality Indicators as shown on the Iowa Department of Education's Teacher Quality Page. As for the guidelines for movement through the Iowa teacher levels, that state no longer uses class hours as the indicator of ladder movement for beginning teachers; it is now performance-based. Within the next few years, it is to be adopted for the rest of the teachers coming into the system. Below is a teacher observation tool that I use to help teachers look at their teaching practice.

Evidence Demonstrating Understanding and Success

Evidence not Demonstrating Understanding and Success

Supports Student Goals

Creates Supportive Classroom Culture

Manages Classroom Successfully

Communicates Effectively

Understands and Uses Content

Makes Learning Meaningful and Accessible

Uses Suitable Strategies

Chooses Appropriate Resources

Engages all Students

Connects Prior Knowledge

Uses Assessment to Guide Instructions

Provides Constructive Feedback

Using the Tools to Improve Teaching Practice

Successful schools are focusing on data-driven decisions and using more than tests, grades and reporting discrete numbers as indicators of success. Administrators participate in professional development in which they take an active role analyzing data with their teachers to define the focus of the student program. Yes, there are teachers afraid that the data will show they are not doing as well as they would like. This is where professional developers can facilitate the process so teachers use multiple sources of data to analyze whether what they are doing is working for their students without judgments or accusations.

Start professional development before school starts in the fall so teachers take an in-depth look at student performance, how classroom management affected learning, and their teaching practice and plan together to design new strategies. Schools that have their teachers and administrators participate in shared decisions on designing strategies to meet student needs, collaborative learning communities result. Data-driven discussions are a collective process in which all stakeholders share their understanding of the current situation and use inquiry, experimentation and reflection so teachers become active researchers committed to improving the way they teach so they can improve student learning. As teachers learn to link grades, scores, stories, evidence and shared discussions, richer forms of professional learning emerge.

Email: Barbara Bray is president of Computer Strategies, LLC and My eCoach. She moderates the CUE techstaffdevelop listerv and writes PDQs for where you can also submit tips.

Copyright 2003, CUE, Inc. Reprinted with permission.


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Assessment and Evaluation on the Internet

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Scribner, J.P. Professional development: Untangling the influence of work context on teacher learning. Educational Administration Quarterly. 1999. 37.1.