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Five Reasons Schools Should Use Data. Faster.

Lessons from The A Word: Accountability — The Dirty Word of Today’s Education Reform

Article by Anne Wicks December 1, 2017 //   4 minute read

A sound accountability system produces ample data about the academic progress of students and the performance of their schools. But administrators and teachers don’t always use that data, especially in a timely way. 

Some educators even question the use of data, as Dallas school trustee Dustin Marshall discovered after his election to Dallas’ school board. “It was shocking to me that there are actually arguments made in education that data is bad, that you need not talk about data because data’s misleading,” the business executive recalled. 

Establishing the importance of data, and using it constructively in classrooms, came up frequently during interviews this year for The A Word, where national, state, and local leaders describe how they use accountability and how they would refine the concept.  Drawing from those exchanges, here are five reasons schools should use data -- faster: 

Data-driven schools use test results to provide rapid feedback to teachers. A good example is Summit Public Schools in Washington and California. “We use the data and information to get ourselves back on track towards where we want to go,” Summit Public Schools founder and CEO Diane Tavenner explained about Summit’s insistence on rapid information cycles. 

Unfortunately, states often report back state achievement test results several months after the test is taken. By then, it may be too late to get students caught up on serious deficits. 

*Results from independent exams allow communities to have honest, but difficult conversations. Without reliable data on classroom performance, districts can pretend that all their students are doing just fine. “Left to their own devices,” former U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings acknowledged, “[districts] are going to go easy on themselves. That’s human nature.” 

*Data empowers school districts to meet their larger goals. Tom Boasberg, the superintendent of Denver Public Schools, repeatedly emphasized in his interview that, like Summit, Denver uses data to drive the district’s overall aims. “Accountability is being clear on your performance goals and standards. It’s being transparent on where you are reaching and not reaching those goals. And, importantly, it’s a willingness to change when you're not meeting them.“ 

*Train educators to use data. Simply possessing reams of data is not a good on its own. Educators need to know how to use the information that flows to them from tests and other sources. One way to strengthen accountability, as Spellings suggested, is to better train school leaders to see data as their friend. Colleges of education and school districts alike have a role to play here. 

*Most of all, data is a way to help schools improve. If they know how to apply it, campus leaders can use data to get the resources they need, such as a math or reading specialist to help students struggling in those subjects. Without knowing their deficits, schools may never get the attention of policymakers – and the supports they deserve. As John King, who served President Obama as education secretary, concluded: “[People] should see data as a resource to help students improve.”