Data Usage in Classrooms: Everywhere and Nowhere

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By Kenneth J. Retzl, PhD and Teach Plus Nevada Teaching Policy Fellows

The education community is facing a data revolution of sorts. Schools, districts, and states are stressing the importance of data through phrases like “data-driven decision-making” or “data-driven instruction.” To better streamline and standardize across school districts and states, data following a student from early childhood education to their integration into the workforce is being collected to track student trajectories and outcomes. We at Teach Plus and the Guinn Center celebrate the importance placed on education data. But, the numbers that are widely available and commonly reported are items that are measured once, maybe twice, a year. One example is summative assessments, which are given to students at the end of a school year to understand their comprehension of material. Another example, chronic absenteeism, is an annual calculation of the percentage of students missing at least a specified number of school days. And growth data is generally measured year-over-year.

Unfortunately, often overlooked is the data most likely to have the greatest impact on student learning – data generated constantly in the classroom (e.g., homework grades, classroom participation, quiz/test results, etc.). In the first of what will be a continuing discussion, the Guinn Center and several Teach Plus Nevada Fellows (Emily Bassier, Jennifer Loescher, and Connie Thomson) discussed classroom data. This post is a summary of our initial conversation and highlights the pathways or barriers to increased data usage in the classroom.

Leadership Matters

As with many other domains, leadership matters. The Teach Plus Fellows viewed school leaders as an important—if not the most important—variable in understanding how schools and teachers use data.

  • If a principal has a laser-focus on data, then it is more likely the teachers will as well. However, if a principal emphasizes non-data topics during meetings, teachers will not view data usage as important.
  • How the school leader engages with data is essential. If the analysis is superficial, teachers likely will not leave the discussion with a clear understanding of how they should use that data. However, if a principal spends time explaining the data, discusses how it can be important to teachers, and how to implement it in the classroom, the teachers are more likely to internalize the importance of data.

For school administrators wishing to do something immediately, modeling the behavior they would like implemented is the most helpful thing a school leader can do. Specifically, administrators should demonstrate how to narrow the data confronting a teacher into a manageable and meaningful research question that can then be answered by the teacher.

The Promise of Data

The Teach Plus Fellows agreed that real-time data is most beneficial in improving instruction. Formative assessments given at specific periods throughout the year could be used to monitor student progress. This data can then assist in differentiated instruction as the teacher is aware of the struggles of various students. Similarly, continued reviews of classroom tests and quizzes can provide more granular datapoints to ensure students are acquiring the content being delivered over a much shorter timeframe.

Interestingly, the Fellows also thought that given the appropriate framing, data could be used to highlight the positive outcomes happening in classrooms. From the conversation, the Fellows noted that, among their peers, education data is often strictly seen as punitive tool, rather than seen as “evidence of the impact a teacher is having on students.” Absent a balanced approach to how data use is framed, there may continue to be lackluster implementation efforts. Teachers may support a “data as accountability” framework if the outcomes measured are relevant and can inform instructional practice.

The Barriers to Data Use

The Fellows identified several barriers to teacher data use, but most related to two themes: a lack of training and time. Related to the first topic, the Teach Plus Fellows did not believe teachers have been trained to analyze data. Specifically, the concerns were as follows:

  • Teacher preparation programs are not adequately instructing future teachers how to ask a research question and then find data to support an answer to that question.
  • There is a belief by teachers that aggregated data can mask and/or allow one to overlook individual students who are part of that data. Teachers are trained to have the best interests of all students at heart, so the fear of missing the opportunity to help one student who might not be learning the material is overwhelming.
  • Meaningful data is often in separate locations which makes analyses that much harder. This is especially true when behavior or absence data is kept separate from academic performance measures.

Time constraints is the second theme the Teach Plus Fellows suggested as a major barrier to data use. To combat this, individuals mentioned it would be helpful to have someone on their campus, trained in data analysis, whose sole job is to assist teachers. It was suggested that most often this data assistance would simply be aggregating numbers or identifying trends.


Overall, from the conversation with the Teach Plus Fellows, it was clear that teachers will follow the direction of the school leader if they prioritize data usage and model the desired behavior. However, in the current data environment, the Teach Plus Fellows did not feel like teachers have the appropriate understanding of the data (a school-based issue) nor the skill-set to use it (a training issue). The feasibility of hiring an individual to complete desired data analysis is an interesting solution. However, depending on the size of the teacher and student population, some schools might need multiple data analysts. This might not be possible in many districts due to the current school funding environment. Additionally, for that data to be relevant, it must be provided to the teacher timely (especially if analyzing trends in recent quiz/test performance). This means that each teacher will likely have their own data needs, suggesting a school will need more data analysts to ensure the timing of analyses does not suffer.

Data generated in the classroom provides another avenue for teachers to understand the abilities and needs of their students. Ultimately, the challenge will be determining how to empower teachers to use and interpret that data. With appropriate modeling and positive encouragement by the principal, as well as additional time, teachers can incorporate data analyses in their regular teacher preparation activities.

This post is a collaboration between Teach Plus Nevada and the Kenny Guinn Center for Policy Priorities (Guinn Center). Teach Plus is a national nonprofit that empowers educators to take leadership over key policy and practice issues that affect their students’ success. Nevada Teaching Policy Fellows Emily Bassier, Jennifer Loescher and Connie Thomson contributed to this post.