3 Tips to Improve Your Product’s Approach to Effective Data Use

Founder, CEO & Chief Data Wizard at Schoolrunner
child with tablet
The tool is just a reflection of its surroundings.

Rupa Gupta opined recently in a provocatively titled takedown of the data dashboard as a central tool for school improvement. She presents some key challenges to use of data in this way, such as the lack of time for analysis, as well as lack of student ownership over data. We often get sidetracked into thinking the tool is going to be the solution when in reality any dashboard is simply going to reflect the culture of the organization.

But there are strategies to make data work for both students and teachers. Here are three keys ways a systematic approach to using data and technology can positively impact student outcomes:

1. Clarity of expectations

Nobody likes to be told they’re not performing up to standard. Too often in schools, however, the goals are unclear. “What’s expected of me in this class?” a student might ask. We tend to be fairly clear about, say, the rubric for an essay grade, but rarely are we so clear when it comes to behavior. And we know that motivation is affected by the perceived value, so making clear to students that we are paying attention and keeping track can be very powerful.

2. Consistency of expectations

Kids can spot unfairness a mile away. They also know how to get creative to find the weakest link to get the answer they want (think about asking both Mom and Dad for permission in case one turns you down!) One big challenge for schools without a systematic approach to their culture is that students are getting different messages from different teachers. It’s hard enough to know what’s expected of you without those expectations changing every 42 minutes.

3. Can I change it today?

Another mistake schools make is thinking that the data the state cares about is the right data for them to care about. I remember sitting in the fancy corner office at a large urban school district seeing a demo from the CIO of their new multi-million dollar data system. After half an hour of looking at longitudinal studies of state test scores, I stopped to the demo to ask: “What would a teacher do with any of this?” There was a long pause followed by some hemming and hawing. For dashboards to be useful they have to present data that educators can use to take action to change today.

This is true for both students and teachers and it’s a critical reason why many dashboards go unused.

Critically, whatever it is you’re measuring has to tie back to the overall mission and culture of the school. If it seems arbitrary, like the random inspirational poster on the classroom wall, it’s unlikely to resonate with students.

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