Data and Education – Q&A with Author of the New Book Data Literacy for Educators

Last month my colleague Edith Gummer published a book on data literacy for educators.

Edith is the research director in Education for the Kauffman Foundation, and her book is a groundbreaking resource describing data literacy for teaching, and highlighting cases of emerging programs using data-driven tools to create better teaching curricula.

To learn more about her work and this book, I did a Q&A with her. I hope you enjoy it.

Q. As you worked on this project, what did you find most fascinating about how educators use data? What did you find most frustrating?

A. What was fascinating for me was the diversity of the ways that we characterize data-informed decision making in education and the potentials we have to have to use of data to really inform what we do with and for students. I know that there are real problems with data privacy, such as unscrupulous people who use information from education systems to inappropriately target students for products and services that they don’t need, or data breaches where confidential data about students is shared. But there is so much we don’t know about the process of education that could be informed by better data used conscientiously to maximize students’ opportunities to learn. Data come from such diverse sources: micro level data from virtual learning environments, meso level data that could be collected from student-teacher interactions within the classroom, and macro-level data from administrative data systems at the district, state and national level. Data in education are really “big data” in that they are high volume, highly varied, and complex to integrate. I know of a project with the Summit charter school in California, where researchers are working with teachers to maximize the information that students provide in their virtual and face-to-face learning experiences to personalize learning for each students. That is really powerful. We decided to focus on data literacy for teachers in the book as they are the level at which using data has the greatest potential to influence experiences for students.

What is frustrating is that we really don’t have a culture that supports data use in districts, schools and classrooms. Frequently, the data that are available for the teacher (or administrator) aren’t adequate for the use to which they are being placed. For instance, student performance data that come from state or district level tests are not timely, of sufficient grain size, or connected to the decision the teacher needs to make in the day by day of her work. In addition, using data to really inform teaching is very hard, very complex. Teachers rarely get specific introduction to assessment or data literacy in their preparation programs, and professional development to develop mastery of data use rarely reaches into the classroom where data use has the greatest potential to affect instruction. What is also frustrating is that, for teachers, data literacy is as much about instruction as it is about assessment. Both are complex practices. 

Q. What’s the biggest takeaway you hope readers have from your book?

A. I hope that readers take away the point that it is meaningless if we create wonderful, deep, rich, articulated and integrated databases, but we don’t pay equal attention to supporting the opportunity to learn about how to use data. Understanding data systems and the use of data should be introduced early in educator preparation. Opportunities within the professional life of the educator to more closely coordinate using data to inform decision-making, especially around instruction, should be multiple and integrated with the work that novice teachers experience as they begin to build their practice expertise. Support for data literacy should be coaches that go beyond just providing information in workshops. Developing a data literate culture in the school means that teachers and administrators have to see data as flashlights they can use to improve their practice rather than as clubs to punish them for problematic performances. 

Q. Who did you write this book for?

A. The audience for this book range from policy makers to educator preparation professionals in colleges and universities to school level instructors and coaches who work with teachers. We are laying out the terrain of what a teacher needs to know and do to be data literate. Hopefully this will be a framework that will inform discussion of what needs to happen in education to help teachers become data literate. It isn’t set in stone, but it is a start.

Q. Come 2040, how do you hope schools and educators are using data on their days?

A. Come 2040, I hope that each student has a data backpack that he or she carries throughout their formal and informal education. Right now we are only focusing on in-school data collection, but we know that the majority of what people learn happens outside of formal schooling. Imagine what we could do to help inform opportunities for students if we knew that they liked to do puzzles as a child, that they had art class and museum experiences that focused on the intersection of mathematics and art, and that they excelled in computational experiences in grades 3-5. If we had the information about which students learned what under what conditions, educators could do a much better job of figuring out what the next educational experience the student needed next. I hope we have better information about how students interact in groups to figure ways to inform what social contexts will maximize learning.

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