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Is All This Student Data Changing the Way Teachers Teach?

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 Christy Novack works with students in her Burlingame, Calif. classroom. Francesca Segre/MindShift
Christy Novack works with students in her Burlingame, Calif. classroom. Francesca Segre/MindShift

With so much access to student data these days, teachers are experimenting with different tactics, and figuring out what's working and what's not. As with most scenarios using education technology, it's a mixed bag. But questions of privacy aside, how it's used depends on a variety of factors in each school and in each teacher’s classroom. Some teachers are embracing student data to inform their teaching, while others believe there's a risk of an over-reliance on hard numbers that doesn’t take into account the human factor.

For example, for Amy Walker, who teaches Spanish in a small, rural, low-income school in Marionville, Missouri, says using data can be helpful, but she’s leery of relying too heavily on it.

"There is a place for data, but it can be overrated,” she says. “If you only use data, you're overlooking the humanity of the students."

Likewise, another educator raises a similar concern. “What then, you may be wondering, does a teacher do to assess a student's learning? Easy: We look, we listen, we give regular quizzes and tests to see what a child has retained. We confer with children, we ask them what will interest them, what will make them tick and want to keep working hard at school,” writes commenter Dave in response to an article about storing student data.

But educators who do embrace data-driven teaching report that using data adds one more tool to their existing teaching tool chest, allowing them to help students in more specific areas of need.


Of the hundreds of educational apps and software programs on the market, most fall into three categories: analytical, motivational and instructional tools. And of these, many cross over and serve more than one purpose.

Pinpointing Student Needs

At Roosevelt Elementary School in the small, affluent San Francisco suburb of Burlingame, Calif., teacher Angelique Barry gives students short reading assessments, and uses DIBELS literacy software, an analytical tool, to determine precisely where a child needs help. As an intervention specialist, she checks the analytics daily, then circulates between classrooms giving extra instruction to kids who need it.

“The data allows me to hone in on what specific area the student needs,” she says. “Instead of just saying ‘Johnny’s not a good reader,’ well, what makes Johnny not a good reader? Is it his fluency? His comprehension? His decoding?”

Barry says the numbers allow her to group children with similar needs together and come up with diagnoses and solutions without subjective input from teachers or parents.

“It takes the narrative out of a teacher’s story about Johnny. Whatever he comes to the table with – behavior, family or whatever. That might be a different part of what Johnny needs, but he doesn’t need reading help,” she says.

Down the hall, third-grade teacher Christy Novack says the OARS program, which stores assessment scores and tracks alignment to Common Core standards, helps her communicate with parents.I can say a child is fine, but if I’m not showing data, it’s hard to convince a parent.” Novack, who has been a teacher for 14 years, says she already knows which children need help, but that the analytical software pinpoints specific needs more precisely than she can -- and it removes subjectivity. “How I perceive something is not how another teacher perceives something,” she says. “If I have data, we can examine it.”

But does having access to student data have a real impact on learning? “It’s hard to attribute student growth to any one factor, there are so many variables,” says Daniel R. Venables, author of How Teachers Can Turn Data into Action. But he says, “If we don't use data, we are left to rely on our hunches for making important instructional decisions.”

Can Software Really Teach?

Roosevelt Elementary in Burlingame is piloting an instructional – or prescriptive – software tool called iXL, which provides homework exercises aligned with the Common Core. Students can log into the iXL program from home and a teacher can get an analysis of the student’s homework right away.

Third-grade teacher Megan Horan says she likes using the software program because “it tracks how they’re doing and adjusts the problems accordingly. If they keep missing a certain type of problem, it makes it a little easier; if they’re excelling, it makes it more challenging. So it’s not everyone doing the exact same things.” The program awards students virtual medals when they achieve certain levels and parents are emailed decorated certificates with messages like, “Congratulations! John has answered 200 math problems!”

Francesca Segre/MindShift
Francesca Segre/MindShift

While some may argue online practice and certificates are the equivalent of decorated certificates, Horan says the fact that it's online is capturing students' attention. “There’s a lot of buy-in from the kids,” she says.

For Novack, the other third-grade teacher at Roosevelt, moderation in using data is key. Novack gives kids access to the iXL program about two hours a month during class time. “You don’t just pop a kid on a computer for an hour and a half everyday. That’d be as boring as worksheets or writing out times tables,” she says. “It’s a supplement. You’re not replacing teaching.”

But at Mendez High School in Los Angeles, a school serving low-income kids, reality buffs the shine out of instructional software. Math teacher Geovanni Arellano says he tried assigning online homework using ST Math, but less than half of the students ever logged in. “A few had legitimate reasons, like ‘I don’t have a laptop at home,’” Arellano said. Other students only have internet access on their mobile phones but there was no phone app for ST Math, a format problem echoed by other teachers seeking educational software access for low-income students. And when it comes to using instructional software in class, he rarely has enough working computers to go around. Unlike third graders, Arellano finds high schoolers aren’t impressed by the tech, and when kids do get a chance to get online, they often wander away from the instructional sites.

Creativity With Software

While online homework and exercises aren’t proving effective with Arellano’s classroom full of high school students, he’s finding that a combination of access to learning software, real-time data and including his students in analyzing the data motivates his students.

Arellano teaches Algebra 1 to teens who didn’t take or pass the class in eighth grade. “All of my students have experienced failure in math. They hate math, so motivation is a big piece of it,” says Arellano. “I have to look for a lot of teaching strategies to get their attention.”

Almost every week, Arellano gives the students a quiz, and when they’re done, they immediately scan their bubble sheets into an Illuminate analytical program on Arellano’s laptop and get their results. “As soon as they’re done, I project the data in front of the class, and together we’re able to have a data discussion,” he says. He shows the students the Response Frequency Report, which indicates how many kids answered which questions correctly. He then asks the students what they think the class needs to focus on. “Students like the data,” he says. “They’re very competitive. They want to see how they did compared to the other class. Did we beat them this time?”

At Roosevelt Elementary in Burlingame, Novack is also using data collection as a hook for her students – but in a completely different way. Novack’s third graders are learning about surveys by conducting them. The kids posted QR codes in the community and then used an app to collect and analyze the data.

“We are really pushing to be creators, not consumers of technology,” says school principal Matt Pavao.

Drawbacks of Data Software

While teachers’ use of data and software can help motivate, engage and specify instruction, some teachers find the obligation to input data time-consuming, they’re skeptical of the intentions of the software developers and they fear judgment from school administrators.

Roosevelt Elementary teacher Novack says inputting student test scores into the school’s data program can be chaotic. “January is a huge benchmark for a lot of school districts. If you have writing and ELA all at once, and there’s an expectation to get it in the data base by a certain date, and that is stressful,” Novack says. “You’re not given extra time to do this.” She says some teachers were so busy scoring and inputting assessment data that it took away from time usually spent preparing the curriculum. Teachers at this school reported spending as little as two hours annually to 40 hours a year to keep the data systems updated.

At the Los Angeles high school, Arellano says when he uses tests and answer keys that the district has already uploaded, the process takes virtually no time for him. However, when he creates his own exams and teaching tools through the software, it takes more time. “You get out of it what you put into it,” Arellano says.

While Roosevelt Elementary’s Megan Horan likes the software, she says, “I know there’s been a lot of resistance with teachers because they’re afraid it’s like Big Brother looking at them because the principals and district offices have access to it.”

There’s also the persistent argument that the educational software surge is investor-driven, with developers pushing software just to make a buck. Principal Pavao in Burlingame says he gets solicited every week to buy new software.

Teacher Training

Educators who report the most satisfaction with educational software have functioning computers for students and strong training on data software for teachers. “I see a great need to support teachers on tech. Training makes things easier and more engaging,” Novack says.

A Gartner Group study concluded that teachers found data more accessible and useful when they were allotted time and given training on the software. The study of the Fairfax County Public school district, the 11th largest in the nation, also found that when stakeholders (teachers, students and parents) were consulted on which tech to use in the school, there was a higher likelihood of tech alignment with the schools’ vision.

Venables adds that another critical factor is collecting ongoing data, as formative assessments, throughout the year. “Macro data can indicate what is happening and perhaps even to whom it is happening, but to find out why it is happening and how to fix it, teachers and teacher teams need to turn to the more detailed and frequent microdata,” he says. Analyzing and acting on microdata during the course of learning is where real change can take place.