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Data-driven improvement in schools

School improvement depends on leaders who set an explicit improvement agenda, but also on using data effectively to monitor and evaluate programs and student outcomes.

Informed decision making is fundamental in education. Collecting, understanding and acting on student data is something teachers do continuously to evaluate their teaching and their students’ learning, and inform their next steps in teaching so that their students’ learning progresses.

There are, however, several challenges in collecting, understanding and acting on data. Leaders and teachers can face technological barriers in using information management systems or difficulties in identifying issues and solutions as a result of limited data literacy. At the high school level, organisational structures can lead to challenges in collecting and discussing data, and planning across subject areas.

To address both the benefits and challenges of using data in schools, ACER’s Research Conference 2017 in late August explores how data-driven decision making is enabling school leaders and teachers to sustain educational improvement in schools and classrooms.

‘Effective and sustainable approaches to school improvement requires an explicit improvement agenda, clear goals and accountability, and skill in using data effectively,’ said Robert Marshall, Senior Project Director for School Improvement at ACER.

‘A crucial issue for schools is not the lack of data, but how to use the data effectively to identify the needs of learners and assist teachers in their planning,’ Mr Marshall said.

‘Consider differentiation, for example. If you’re collecting data occasionally, based on student test results and only in your classroom, you may be able to understand some things about student outcomes. However it is in efficiently collecting data – including data about attendance, behaviour and affective dimensions of student learning – and in analysing this immediately that you are likely to understand more about students’ learning, so that you can effectively differentiate your teaching straight away.’

Mr Marshall, who will speak at ACER’s Research Conference 2017 on the impact of the use of the National School Improvement Tool on the way school leaders plan and operationalise their school improvement strategy, said one of the challenges for many schools is establishing effective systems, procedures, resources and support for the collection, analysis, discussion and use of data. Most schools have detailed records in the form of school reports or mark books kept by teachers and departments, but lack student records which show regularly collected evidence of learning progress over time.

‘To collect the kind of data that enables monitoring and evaluation – of school programs, student learning or teaching effectiveness – school leaders need to lead discussions with the goal of obtaining agreement about the kind of data that will be truly informative. It’s often the case that we collect data that we can, not data that we need.’

According to Professor Amanda Datnow from the University of California San Diego, research indicates that particular conditions support data-use efforts to improve teaching and student learning.

‘At the school level, informed decision making depends on leaders and teachers being knowledgeable about the data they want to collect and how to use that data,’ Professor Datnow said. ‘Identifying the kinds of evidence we need is crucial not only to understand students’ learning progress but also to review program and teaching impact, identify successes and failures in our approach, and make changes.’

Professor Datnow, who will speak at ACER’s Research Conference 2017, said school leaders themselves may need training in using data effectively, while a key issue for teachers is how to develop the skills required to use data to guide decisions about differentiation and, where required, re-teaching.

‘In the classroom, data can inform how teachers plan lessons, identify concepts for re-teaching and differentiating instruction. Beyond this, when teachers share assessment data with students a further effect is to enhance students’ ownership of their goals and plans for improvement,’ Professor Datnow said.

Professor Datnow will also address the ways that data use can open or close doors for students. Data use can be an important vehicle for achieving equity, but it needs to be an explicit goal of the process. ‘Thoughtful use of data can lead to flexible grouping and differentiated learning plans that promote student achievement, but the misinformed use of data can lead to increases in long-term ability grouping that has been shown to widen achievement gaps between students.’

Research also shows that a more beneficial effect of using data is that the process of discussing and analysing data triggers changes in the way school leaders and teachers think about their professional practice. However, a great deal depends on the depth of inquiry in those discussions, as well as how the conversations are framed. Leaders can play an important role in framing conversations in ways that help lift the learning of all students, Professor Datnow explained.

According to Mr Marshall, effective schools ensure data are used throughout the school to identify gaps in student learning, monitor growth across the years of school and monitor program effectiveness.

‘There are many simple strategies schools can use to support the effective use of data. These include using common assessment templates, storing data centrally and making the information that is collected available to all staff, investing in professional development about using data to inform teaching, and providing time for within-school collaboration and discussion about data and its implications for next steps in teaching.

‘Schools that are improving, and those producing an unusually high “value-add” given their student intake and circumstances, have identified what they want to improve and how they will measure success.

‘They are also not afraid of “bad” data. Information that indicates that your actions or programs are not working is crucial if you are to succeed in improving learning.’ ■

Further information:

Professor Amanda Datnow and Mr Robert Marshall will be speaking at ACER’s Research Conference 2017, which addresses the theme, ‘Leadership for Improving Learning: Insights from research,’ from 27 to 29 August at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre.

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