Why Does Data Matter?

Posted by Jeff WatsonO

February 26, 2018

Schools that prioritize data analysis aren’t simply ESSA-compliant — they’re committed to creating improved outcomes for students, educators, and school districts by significantly adjusting their approach to their work. Improvement is underwritten by a willingness to change, adapt, and improve.


It’s no secret that nearly every major industry is utilizing data in increasingly innovative and meaningful ways. But while data may provide meaningful insights for organizations, it’s arguably even more important in education settings, where it can be leveraged to answer crucial questions about helping students be successful. Consider the following questions:


  • What are my students’ needs? How might I group students and differentiate my teaching?
  • Are my students on track to their learning goals? Do I need to re-teach? Should I augment my curriculum?
  • Are students are on track to graduate on time? Who is most at risk of not being college ready?
    What data show me a whole-child perspective?
  • Do all students have the same opportunities to access and succeed in advanced classes?
  • What is driving our students’ attendance and behavior?
  • How can we manage our workforce more effectively?
  • Are district resources used effectively? What programs seem to be working?


The answers to questions like these can all be answered with creative and strategic applications of data. However, successful and transformative data use doesn’t just happen. Organizations have to ensure they strategically align data resources to their key instructional and administrative tasks. A data-driven culture is not an add-on in a district’s toolkit. It has to be built and maintained by educators and leaders and embedded within meaningful work.


All of the above is pretty standard thinking across the industry. The vernacular is safe. It is also somewhat detached from the real world of schools and classrooms.


From an educator point of view, data only matters if it helps us know something we didn’t already know. If data isn’t insightful, it will offer no benefits. Worse, it will take up already scarce time and energy. So maybe we should ask the question this way: Under what conditions does data become insightful?


Let’s rephrase those bullet points from above:


  • Data helped me get to know my students sooner and with a deeper understanding of their skills and competencies. Combined with my professional knowledge, this helps me plan instruction more effectively.
  • Data helped me project future outcomes before they happen so my colleagues and I can try to be proactive instead of reactive.
  • Data helped me see what is happening inside my student’s minds. Do they have confidence and faith in their abilities? Do they trust their school? Do they think that I am effectively engaging them?
  • Data helped me see implicit bias and inequity. Once I can see it, my colleagues and I can do something about it.
  • Are outcomes at all influenced by our collective actions? Are we moving the needle? What do we do more of? What do we stop doing?


I like this second bullet list much better, and I hope you do too.

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