Making school data work for teachers

Payal Jain and Sapna Saleem

“The price of light is less than the cost of darkness.” – Arthur C. Nielsen, Market Researcher & Founder of AC Nielsen

Utkarsh English Medium School, Pune

Arthur Nielsen puts it well when he talks about data and business. The same can be said about school classrooms. For far too long, scoring well in exams has been considered the ultimate goal of schooling in India. A student’s status and value among peers depends on his/her ranking in various areas of academics. The real purpose of testing and examinations has been quietly ignored and forgotten, and in most cases, not been explored at all. This has effectively been a barrier to using the data regularly produced in classrooms.

School administrators and leaders need to facilitate an urgent change in teachers’ mindset towards data. Teachers need to realize that data is more than just test scores. Teachers must be given time and guidance to make connections between different types of data that will ultimately enrich the teaching environment.

Schools produce an immense amount of data on a monthly and yearly basis. However, only a small percentage of this is ploughed back to help plan forward. For instance, the data received after an examination can help a school principal identify the general trend in the performance of students, such as what particular subjects are getting better scores and what are not. Similarly, acquiring data about which grades are performing well overall and which are not.

An in-depth analysis of such information can help the school leader identify teaching and learning gaps in students. Records on students’ profiles, attendance and even physical health can reveal why a certain child was not attentive in class. At the level of a teacher, student scores and answer sheets provide insights into which students need help and specifically, in which area. This helps the teacher plan the instructions she needs to give the children and make customized plans to improve student learning. When the evaluation of these tests is done effectively, with proper feedback, each student recognizes his/her area of strength as well as weakness. This is one of the most effective ways to improve student learning.

Schools, therefore, need to find a way to ensure that teachers see data as another useful tool of their trade and collect relevant information connected to the larger goals of the school. Teachers need to know why they are collecting a certain kind of data, how it will be used and what insights it has to offer. If teachers start seeing data as a useful resource, it can help them connect with their students and empower their teaching through constant reflection.

The ISLI (India School Leadership Institute) City Fellowship Program recognizes the effective use of data as a crucial resource to plan for the entire school. ISLI trains school principals on how to read and interpret data and analyze and plan action steps that can be implemented. This practice is encouraged so that it trickles down to the classroom level, where teachers cater to students by letting data drive instruction.

K. Prathyusha, (TSWRS Thorrur)
For instance, after a workshop on ‘Data in classrooms’ conducted by ISLI in Hyderabad, a school leader K. Prathyusha, (TSWRS – Telangana Social Welfare Residential Educational Institutions Society, Thorrur) worked with the ISLI Hyderabad Programme Manager to analyze half-yearly test data for one of her secondary grades. The school leader identified two key areas that needed improvement. Connecting this to her regular classroom observations, the school leader realized that the current methods of instruction being implemented in these classes did not focus on these two particular skills. The school leader shared these insights with the respective teachers and created a monitoring template for the same. The teachers then began to conduct weekly tests to collect relevant data. After collection, teachers worked together to analyze this data, grouped students based on progress and defined action steps for each group. This also resulted in teachers improving their weekly plans to target the areas for improvement, as identified through the analysis.

Here are some methods school leaders can implement in their schools and to guide their teachers:

  • Chalk out time, ideally after exams, for teachers to sit together in a group and reflect on the data collected and discuss with their peers. These reflections can then translate into action steps.
  • Start by providing teachers with a list of simple questions to ask when analyzing data (How can I group students based on their skills? Which students in my class have shown growth since the last assessment? Which skills have my students not mastered at all?)
  • Use data when giving feedback to teachers after a lesson observation. Ask teachers to bring along data from the class (student notebooks, test papers, etc.) to provide evidence during de-briefing of any lesson.
  • Share school-level goals and data with teachers to help them realize they are part of a bigger system. Ensure teachers are collecting only the right data that connects to the school and classroom goals.
  • At a further stage of making a school more data-driven, schools can also train teachers on creating assessments that connect to curriculum standards. This will ensure that schools collect high-quality data.

In most cases, there is a lack of this crucial communication between school leaders and their teachers. Unless this gap is filled, progress in student outcomes will be stagnant. Communicating data to parents is also as essential as it is to communicate to students. Very often parents of students from low-income backgrounds find it difficult to take action on this data due to illiteracy or other reasons. Nevertheless, keeping them aware of the strengths of their child will be a motivating factor for them to further support their children at home. With this shift in perspective towards effectively using data, more schools can successfully prioritize where they need to focus their efforts, leading them towards better learning outcomes.

The authors work at the India School Leadership Institute (ISLI), an organization that focuses on supporting school principals as leaders in private and government schools to drive high-performing schools that commit to academic achievement and character development of children from underserved communities. They can be reached at info@indiaschoolleaders.org.