Make Classroom Data More Useful, Teachers Tell Ed-Tech Developers

Managing Editor

Austin, Texas

Much of the talk about student data these days focuses on worries about how to protect it, and safeguard privacy. But a new survey of classroom teachers underscores a different, and perhaps no less fundamental concern: that much of the data educators receive is of little use to them in their efforts to improve instruction.

The results, based on a nationwide survey of educators sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, were outlined during a presentation at the South by Southwest Education conference here today.

Gates has actually conducted two recent nationwide surveys of educators, one focused on their use of data, the other on their use of, and attitudes toward digital instructional tools. They’re both the latest installments of a series of reports called “Teachers Know Best,” meant to gauge teachers’ views of ed-tech.

The results on data use come from an online survey of 4,600 educators, which was supplemented with interviews. Among the findings:

  • Eighty-six percent of teachers say they’re constantly looking for ways to engage students based on where they are educationally; and almost as many, 78 percent, are convinced that data will help them meet those needs.
  • But 67 percent of teachers, working in a diverse array of schools, said they were not fully satisfied with the effectiveness of the data and tools they can access daily.
  •  Teachers described themselves as being in different places in their readiness to use data. Nearly half, 48 percent,  described themselves as “data mavens” or “growth seekers,” trying to individualize learning and tailor instruction using data.

The Trouble With Data

So what’s the problem with the data teachers are receiving?

Too much of it is delivered to teachers manually, requiring them to analyze it themselves, rather than spend time in more productive ways, like preparing for instruction, the Gates survey and report found. Data also come to teachers in “silos,” not giving them a sense of how students are performing, say, in other classes, and not allowing them to

teachers at SXSWedu
Teachers step into Apollo astronaut cutouts this week at the SXSWedu playground. Erich Schlegel for Education Week

integrate academic data with demographic data. Those data silos make it hard for teachers to get a “holistic” sense of students’ progress.

Data also tend to come to teachers too slowly, and in overly granular form, scuttling educators’ efforts to use it to modify their classroom practices. And a lot of data is one-dimensional, providing information on a test result that provides just a sliver of information on a student’s progress.

In addition, data is sometimes not transparent, so teachers don’t know where it came from, which makes it seem untrustworthy to them, the report concludes.

Some of the report’s observations rang true to Kerri Newton, a 1st grade teacher attending the SXSWedu gathering.

One of Newton’s core tasks is building her students’ reading ability. She uses a mix of approaches to collect data, from a tech-based reading assessment conducted once a month to quick formative assessments and other in-class efforts she makes on her own to gauge progress in areas like phonemic awareness and vocabulary.

The information from the broader, tech-based assessments tends to roll in no more than once a month, and not always in a form that’s easy to interpret, said Newton, who teaches in the Lake Travis Independent School District, in the Austin area.

To Newton, the most useful data is the information that she can quickly make sense of, without a guidebook.

“It can’t be too time-consuming,” she said. The best data is something “I don’t have to decipher.”

The second Gates survey, of 3,100 teachers’ use of digital instructional tools, found a clear majority of teachers—59 percent, across all subjects—said that digital tools are effective. That’s an increase from 54 percent in a 2013 survey, though teachers’ confidence in tech varies somewhat by academic subject.

In terms of how they spend their time with technology, educators report spending the most time—about 10 hours per week—using digital tools to provide instruction “directly to students,” according to the survey.

Teachers spend less time—about seven hours a week—using technology to vary the level of instruction, and less than five hours per week using digital tools to diagnose student needs.

Photo: Nancy Fuentes, left, and Jackie Gullett, both teachers at Pleasant Hill Elementary in Austin, Texas, stepped into Apollo astronaut cutouts this week at the SXSWedu playground in Austin, Texas.  Erich Schlegel for Education Week.


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