Is Data Getting a Bad Rap?

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Helen Barahal

Down with data! Our children are more than just numbers! I hear this rallying cry from many teachers and some parents across the country. But what is everyone so against?

Some in education equate data with standardized test scores, but in reality data is so much more. At the base of this outcry, I believe, is the concern that decisions not be made about children based solely on a standardized test score.

On this point I couldn't agree more. Student learning is multifaceted, as are students. Today’s emphasis on data can be interpreted as primarily using standardized test scores. However, making decisions about student learning means examining and using all the data available to us as educators.

To an informed educator, program director or school leader, data is all the information we have related to student learning: assessment and survey results, attendance records, observation and anecdotal notes, basically anything you can see, record and use.

Educators have always used this information intuitively to make decisions about how to approach and guide student learning. Now we have more information available to us than ever before; and educators are being asked to make their decision-making processes more visible, and more obviously connected to data sources.

One example where having a lot of concrete data has proven really useful is early literacy. Learning to read is a complex endeavor with many moving parts. There are discrete skills that children need to learn, and many children need specific supports.

With the right combination of observation and assessment we can now get detail about whether a child needs support with segmenting or blending sounds, making inferences versus retelling facts about a reading, or reading fluently versus comprehending. Without all this information and the techniques and strategies we try as educators based on this data, many more children would have great difficulty becoming proficient readers.

Having lots of data means using lots of data. Using information to make decisions is not a new concept. But the sheer amount and easy access to it can feel new and overwhelming to many who work with children.

The information you need to make an informed decision can be difficult to decipher. Processing and making decisions based on education data comes with the added weight and responsibility of having a child’s education at stake.

Knowing what to do with so much education data — what decisions to make or strategies to try — requires support and experience. Those in leadership positions can help by learning the basics of data use themselves, having frequent solutions-oriented conversations based on data with their staff and providing coaching and training when needed.

Data is not the enemy. But it does take work to understand and use all the concrete data we have available to us. In the 21st century we use data more than ever in our personal lives; the same is true in education.

Let’s continue to use all the information we have at our disposal to make decisions — especially when it comes to something as important as our children's education.

Helen Barahal has been a teacher and afterschool/early childhood center director in New York City. She holds a master's degree in international education and has spent the last 20 years in nonprofit and school settings working with children and educators. She is part of the professional services team at Amplify working with educators and education leaders, focusing on early literacy and data use.