Let’s play a word association game.  I say “education” and you say…

Teachers. Books. Learning. Field trips. Homework.

Maybe 5 or 10 years ago these nostalgic throwbacks would win you any game of Outburst. But now, there’s a new word in public education that parents, students and educators are rapidly finding out might just be as inextricably linked to school as segmented lunch trays, cliques and flu season.   That word is DATA and it’s not going away.

From pre and post-tests to parent satisfaction surveys, many states are now requiring the collection, analysis and evaluation of student, school, achievement, demographic and community data. This stems from a larger legislative demand for standardized testing and a new wave of educational research that focuses on results, in part, as a response to those testing demands. Technology has further aided this growing trend as many schools now have complete electronic and web-based data management systems, making standard information and the ability for cross-tabulation available to almost anyone in the school community.

We have reached a data revolution in education and the possibilities are numerous and exciting. Just think: A teacher can now easily access graphs that quantify a student’s growth on a particular unit, identify low performers and set goals for individual students. A guidance counselor can now determine which students are at-risk and group them in order to monitor for discipline referrals, grades and attendance. A parent can now view student grades in real time and run reports for each class to find commonalities across content areas and create game-plan for upcoming “rough patches” for their kiddos. These are now becoming regular scenarios for the use of data in educational communities and as we master more of the technologies involved in collecting, analyzing and evaluating data, educational leaders are starting to capitalize on decisions made from the use of this previously-unavailable information.

We want to use data and we should, according to most experts in education. Contemporary education researchers continue to tout the importance of using data in educational design and instruction. It’s no surprise, considering that most states now require data collection and evaluative action for school data. As a public school teacher in Pennsylvania, for instance, you can expect that you will be required to collect and analyze the following types of data this school year:

  • pre-assessment and post-assessment performance data for your instructional units
  • self-reflective data as it relates to teaching objectives of your choosing
  • special education data for Individual Education Plans
  • school-wide standardized test performance data
  • behavioral referral and progressive discipline data
  • demographic data and it’s correlation with other school improvement factors

You might then choose (or be strongly encouraged) to collect additional data like parent information from back to school nights and take-home surveys, or community data to help you decide how to best implement new programs that will affect future employers in the area. As an administrator in a public school, you will oversee even more data collection and analysis: college acceptance and performance data from graduated students, teacher observation and evaluation data, budget numbers and fiscal auditing, school-wide attendance/discipline information, and the inter-section between all of these types of data and overall student performance.

It can be overwhelming and the stakes are high. In PA, as in many other states, funding and punitive action is now determined by the evaluation of this data. Years of aggregate numbers can now be linked with individual teachers and administrators to stay on their “permanent records,” following them throughout their careers.  Suddenly, all of those bright possibilities where teachers and educational leaders were working together to solve problems with this data now seem like a confusing maze of numbers, with a word association game that has you tossing quarters in a jar. Many smart and gifted educators are left feeling unprepared and too insecure to tackle the time-consuming and highly specialized task of dissecting and translating the numbers into something meaningful for the eyeballs staring up at them 45-90 minutes every day.

The art of data collection, implementation and analysis is its own skilled industry, with full-time professionals equipped with the training and skills to look at information and turn it into insights. Unfortunately, education and the data industries have yet to make solid friendships. Many schools go about the rigorous process of designing research and analyzing the results in-house, using professional development time, their own teaching staff and a few PowerPoint Presentations to guide them. Validity, organization and data integrity are put at risk when the enormity of such data tasks become relegated to a few hours here and there spread over 9 months and forgotten in the summer. It’s not a wonder, then, that educators are struggling to find value in this process; that the rumblings of yet another “data day” at school are enough to make any teacher double the coffee intake and bring the Ibuprofen.

When did we expect experts in education to also be experts in data, especially without support? When did we start believing that professionals in the data industry were better suited to millions of dollars in market research for the latest potato chip flavor, but weren’t needed for our most important endeavors as a society? When did a political campaign need a team of data experts more than a school district?

If we truly believe that data and education are now all-time associates, then we need to assign resources to making that happen. The opportunity is there for both the data industry and the education industry to team up and make some magic happen. It’s unrealistic for us to assume educators can tackle the growing data opportunities with only a few minutes of direction each year. We need those skilled data professionals to help educational communities master the data collection technologies they have, strategize the best implementation of research and help school leaders and teachers analyze the findings using the years of collective experience in both domains. We’ll never leave the link between data and education behind us, but maybe “education” and “RESULTS” can be the next word association of 2015.

Emilie A. O’Neal, M.Ed.

Academic Research Consultant, FieldGoals Academy


Company Portrait