Is Data-Driven Instruction Dehumanizing?

GUEST COLUMN | by Lori Fey

Data is a hot topic in education. For some people it raises a lot of fear. Is data-driven instruction really good for students and educators? Is it dehumanizing? Does it demoralize teachers? Does it place an additional burden on teachers and pull them away from time with students?

Others believe that the more you know about your kids, the more effectively and efficiently you can work with them.

The fact is that tools that that give teachers easy access to a wide range of student data help them get to know kids better and do their best work. Well-designed data dashboards are incredibly powerful. They consolidate data from multiple sources to give educators a holistic view of students. They capture everything from grades to attendance to behavioral issues to standardized test scores. They flag special designations such as special ed student or English language learner. They also capture essential data such as which school a student is transferring from, family contact information and academic records from earlier years.

And what we hear back from teachers who use these dashboards is consistent enthusiasm. Dashboard-driven insights contribute in dramatic ways to stronger relationships between educators and the kids they teach, to teachers’ ability to be more effective in their classrooms every day, and to more productive, action-oriented conversations with both parents and students.

“I have one kid who misses my first period class a lot,” says one eighth-grade science teacher in Lubbock, Texas, where dashboards designed by the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation have been in use since September. “I use the dashboard to look at the correlation between how he was doing in my class, and how he’d done in science classes in previous years. And I can see that, when he didn’t have first-period science, he did better. I was able to take that information to his parents and say, ‘It’s not that your son isn’t good at science. It’s that he’s missing half of my class almost every morning.’ It was a powerful thing for his parents to understand that correlation.”

We heard similar stories during our 2011 evaluation of dashboard usage in North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district. “Using the data has allowed me to really reach those kids who need it,” said Ashley Smith, a third grade teacher at Charlotte’s Endhaven Elementary.  “So, if I only have two or three kids that need sequencing, I don’t have to teach the whole class. I know it is a cliché, but I am teaching smarter. Because of the data that I have, I am not spinning my wheels teaching a whole classroom full of kids stuff that they don’t need.”

These types of anecdotes are common. Dashboards give teachers and school leaders alike the ability to go to a single place, access a holistic picture of a student, and then dig more deeply into areas that really need further exploration. “It’s a one-stop shop,” is a refrain we hear often.

In the 2009-2010 school year, the Denver Public School district, a high-needs urban school district serving almost 80,000 students, rolled out web-based teacher and administrator portals to provide educators with immediate access to critical data about student needs. The portals, which are part of the district’s Digital Door project, have enabled teachers and administrators to make on-the-spot adjustments that help students achieve better results.

“My team and I use the tool to monitor attendance data on a daily basis,” says Nicole Veltzé, principal at Skinner Middle School. “If we see that, ‘Oh my gosh, we slipped to 89 percent today,’ we make a plan of attack to intervene instead of waiting to the end of the year. This year, we’ve seen tremendous growth in attendance, and kids’ academic performance is also increasing. We believe that attendance drives that academic growth, because if kids are here, they’re learning, and that supports their increased academic achievement.”

I’d like to see us stop the debate over the value of data in education once and for all. From where I sit, the evidence is overwhelming: The right data tools give educators deep insights into individual student needs, empowering them to help students when and where they need it most. They help teachers redeploy valuable hours away from fruitless scavenger hunts for basic information and toward meaningful interactions that change students’ lives. And in the end, that’s the change we’re all looking for, right?


Lori Fey is the policy initiatives portfolio director at the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation and is the Executive Director of the foundation’s Ed-Fi initiative. With Lori at the helm, the foundation has championed the development and adoption of a national data standard, and has helped accelerate the implementation and rollout of teacher-friendly data dashboards in a growing number of districts and states nationwide. As part of an initial requirements exercise to understand how teachers could benefit from data dashboards, Lori participated in gathering input from more than 2,600 educators.

  • joebeckmann


    It all depends on the data. Curricular data is drivel. Attendance, health, student-focused data are dramatic. Focus on the drama and there’s plenty to do. Focus on drivel and you do damaga. Or, as it were, “earn a D.”

  • Tim Holt


    My response to this article:

  • Matt


    The data you reference in the article is generally not what most educators think of when they hear “data-driven instruction”. Who would ever think using attendance and discipline information is cumbersome or dehumanizing? Many teachers see “data-driven” as standardized test driven…because there isn’t much performance data out there that is actually reliable and controlled besides what we get from the big tests. That data, from yearly and cohort trends to item-by-item analysis, is increasingly driving our curricula. Many of us think do not think that the choices we make regarding student learning should be driven by national or state tests that often do not assess true learning/thinking/progress or meet the needs of our individual students.

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