Craving For It

Educators need access to more meaningful data.

GUEST COLUMN | by Aaron Feuer

CREDIT Panorama EducationAs the CEO of an edtech company, I spend much of my time interacting with data about the health and growth of my company. I work with teams to define goals that can be tied to metrics and tracked. In our office, we have two screens streaming data all day, displaying data about our product usage and sales and marketing figures.

While businesses innovate more quickly thanks to new, real-time data sources, schools haven’t benefitted at the same pace.

Businesses both large and small are adopting big (and little) data and analytics to make timely, well-informed decisions on how to better run their operations, and even local government entities are looking to data to solve pressing city issues.

As professionals interested in doing their jobs well and improving over time, teachers and school administrators should be no different — and the educators we see are craving that sort of information. Unfortunately, while businesses innovate more quickly thanks to new, real-time data sources, schools haven’t benefitted at the same pace. Here’s how we think schools can better use data to improve the learning environment for both students and teachers.

Data Beyond Test Scores for Schools

Debates about standardized tests, including their frequency, influence on curriculum, and their weight in school and teacher evaluations, should be reframed as an issue of the paucity of data for schools. Educators place emphasis on test scores because they are readily available. Standardized tests, attendance rates, and rates of students who have diagnosed disabilities or are eligible for free and reduced lunch are sometimes the only data points schools regularly measure and track. Educators and students deserve more.

Some of the latest advances in education technology that get me most excited are the innovations that provide educators with more meaningful data by measuring what matters in schools. When this is done well, we can protect the privacy of students while ensuring schools gain access to data they need to innovate and improve.

Here are three examples of additional, actionable data streams schools can use in 2015 and beyond:

1. School Culture and Climate Data

For students to thrive and for schools to support student achievement, it is vital that students feel that their school is a safe, welcoming environment. Recently, colleges and universities have responded to reports of sexual assault on campuses with surveys about experiences with sexual violence, perceptions of safety, and the perception of available resources for help. Schools serving K-12 students can measure perceptions of threat and safety around key issues for schools, such as bullying, school safety, and students’ comfort in seeking the help of adults at the school in the case of an issue at school. And “softer” issues are measurable as well, such as whether students feel their teachers have high expectations for them, or whether parents feel welcome on campus.

When students, parents, and teachers talk about what makes a great school, most of the factors they value can be measured with culture and climate data, including feedback from everyone involved in the school. Schools can and should set goals and track progress across these metrics, just as we do with test scores.

2. Social and Emotional Learning

Research indicates that social and emotional learning is closely linked to student achievement — and common sense tells us that it’s a critical part of our education system. When we thinking about what education should do for students — such as helping students learn to persist through obstacles, or building an appreciation for hard work — we’re usually talking about social emotional learning.

Key aspects of social and emotional learning, such as self-awareness and self-regulation can be measured in students at different grade levels, and can be measured in individual students over time to establish grade-level and school-level trends. With access to social and emotional learning data in the aggregate, school administrators can focus on a part of school that’s just as important as the facts students graduate with.

3. Teacher Recruiting and Retention Data

Research indicates what our gut already told us — great teachers make a huge difference in the lives of students, and great teachers can make the difference in academic gains and achievement for students. But as a country, we still struggle to recruit great teachers into the profession, and to retain them. A recent report highlights that half a million teachers move or leave the profession each year, and many school districts can’t fill all of their open teaching positions. One of the most important uses of data in education will be to address this recruiting and retention problem — how can we make sure every student has an exceptional teachers in front of the class? As a start, we need to get better at measuring and monitoring recruiting and retention, and we need to use data to better understand what factors inspire people to work as teachers. (Hint: Small salary increases are not the answer.)

Demand More Meaningful Data

As we think about the role of data in the world, and what industries are optimizing profits through data, let’s also talk about the need for good data in education. We’re still in the early stages of figuring out how data will matter in education, but measuring and collecting more types of data to improve schools are important first steps. In addition, data must be analyzed and displayed in ways that make them broadly useful to school administrators and educators. Educators are professionals who care about growing professionally, and data will be an important tool for improving education across the world.

Aaron Feuer is the CEO of Boston-based Panorama Education, a data analytics company helping school districts, charter networks, and state governments conduct surveys of students, parents, teachers, and staff. Today, their technology platform runs survey and analysis programs in over 5,000 schools across 26 states.


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