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Creating a Data-Driven Classroom Blog Series (2 of 3)

What C1stMEMEan Cereal Teach Us About Data?

As I shared in my first post, demystifying data is the first step in changing the way we talk about it in the classroom. This week, the discussion about data use and its tremendous impact on personalized instruction and learning in the classroom continues with a simple question: How do you use data? For me, it begins with an unforgettable experience I had with my wife years ago after we returned home from a two-year deployment overseas. We were standing in the cereal aisle at a local grocery store, and after several minutes we caught ourselves simply staring at all the options in front of us. What does this have to do with a data-driven classroom? For two years my wife and I had grocery shopped at a Post Exchange (PX), where cereal choices were fairly limited and the decision-making process was rather easy. But when suddenly faced with dozens of colorful cereal boxes to choose from, we were temporarily overwhelmed with the options. And now, when I engage in conversations about using data, I am often reminded of that feeling.

Not All Data is the Same
This is where cereal and data have more in common than you may think. There’s much debate surrounding if and to what extent a particular cereal brand is more or less healthy than others, especially when you factor in nutritional value, artificial coloring, added or natural sugar, sodium, whole grains, imitation or real fruit, nuts, fiber, saturated fat, and calorie count. Let’s just say not all cereals are the same, and choosing your breakfast flakes of choice seems much more complicated than ever before. However, thanks to increased customer awareness, anyone can make an informed cereal decision.

Much like cereal shopping, determining the value and utility of data is equally complicated and challenging. It’s no surprise that many find themselves overwhelmed with what to do with it. As the recent report, “Making Data Work” from the Gates Foundation outlines, the use of data to inform instructional as well as school district decisions has led to improved practices, programs, and outcomes. However, to scale with impact and truly transform teaching and learning, data must go beyond just informed decision making. It needs to expand from simply informing, to providing educators with actionable insights that leverage their knowledge about instruction to meet or exceed the needs of each learner. Moreover, data that both informs and provides insights is foundational to authentically personalizing instruction and learning.

How to Use Data Effectively
As a superintendent, I was keenly aware and concerned with the demands placed on teachers. It was absolutely critical to me not to ask our teachers to do more, but rather provide the know-how to use information more effectively. Project Tomorrow’s recent Speak Up Report shows and indicates that this approach is much needed in the classroom. The result in my case was that the focus shifted from data for informing, to a culture where data was embraced, used effectively, and resulted in improved practices, programs, and student achievement.

To that end, I looked at two factors for effectively using data:

  1. Selecting the right data
  2. Building the capacity, competence, and confidence of staff to effectively use data


Factor 1: Selecting the Right Data
Determining the “right” data requires a clear understanding of the intent, question, or problem the data is expected to address. In my district, for example, we asked, “Do we want to prevent failure to learn or treat failed learning?” We challenged ourselves by asking different questions. However, I will admit that this is much easier to say than do.

The question about prevention versus intervention led us to assess the data we were using for instructional and program decisions. What we discovered was that for the most part, the data we were using could inform us about the impact or effect of instruction (much like a label can inform the health value of a box of cereal), but could not provide insights to how a learner was learning during the learning process. We needed data that assisted us in monitoring and measuring leading indicators of learning.

I began using a data selection framework (an iteration of SMART) that asked:

  • Is the data specific to the question, problem, or issue we are attempting to address?
  • Is the data measuring the process of learning and/or the progress or outcome of learning?
  • Is the data actionable, relevant, and timely to both the teacher and the learner?

This served as the first step in shifting and building capacity, competence, and confidence of our educators to understand and apply the use of data differently.


Factor 2: Building Capacity, Competence, and Confidence of Staff
The use of data, especially in the form of feedback, is not new to educators. However, most educators today are not equipped with the skills, knowledge, or experience with the design, administration, and interpretation of qualitative and quantitative assessments. This reality caused me to refocus efforts in professional development (PD) with the explicit purpose of raising the awareness, understanding, and application of assessments and their data to effectively drive improved teaching and learning. Our PD was centered on the WHAT + WHY + HOW = Results framework:

  • WHAT is the purpose of the data and what are we trying to learn, understand, or address?
  • WHY does the data provide the understanding to answer the question or problem addressed?
  • HOW is the data SMART and how does it provide understanding for both the learner and the teacher to the question, issue, or problem to be addressed?

The present accountability system for schools and school systems has demanded and required schools to become heavily dependent upon data. Yet with so much data, how does a teacher, let alone a school or school system, choose which data to pay attention to? Therefore, the challenge to the effective use of data, is to select the “right” data. Similar to choosing and eating the right cereal, there is good data that feeds into your criteria and the result of having the right foundation is a healthier, SMARTer framework to build upon. 

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Dr. Gregory Firn
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