Future of Learning

Making ‘Big Data’ useful rather than scary for teachers

How one district created a system to make data “a flashlight, not a hammer”

Sylvan Hills Middle School Assistant Principal Monica Blasingame, center, and Principal Artesza Portee, right, discuss “big life goals” with a student as part of a goal-setting exercise in Atlanta Public Schools.

Sylvan Hills Middle School Assistant Principal Monica Blasingame, center, and Principal Artesza Portee, right, discuss “big life goals” with a student as part of a goal-setting exercise in Atlanta Public Schools.

ATLANTA — School had already let out for the day, but the teachers at Hollis Innovation Academy in northwest Atlanta were gathered around tables in the library, laptops open, strategizing. Their screens showed how their current students had performed on last year’s state tests by subject, like English or math, and specific domain, like vocabulary or measurement. Students were sorted into three categories coded by color — red for “remediate,” yellow for “monitor” and green for “accelerate” — and teachers could quickly see where they clustered.

Ron Blaché and Marie Hall were comparing notes. Hall teaches fifth grade and Blaché teaches art, so they share students. Blaché was zooming in on the math domain “measurement and data.” Hall’s students had struggled in that area and she had asked if Blaché could incorporate art projects that might help them. His ideas came quickly. He knew he could get students measuring with rulers more frequently, for one.

“I just have to be more creative,” Blaché said.

Blaché and Hall were looking at the district’s new teacher dashboards — curated collections of data with student-level information directly useful to teachers. The Hollis teachers’ introduction to the dashboard took less than five minutes, and then they were set free to explore the data and strategize in groups. This type of collaboration, built around data, is rare in U.S. public schools. But maybe not for long.

Screenshot of teacher dashboards from Atlanta Public Schools

Screenshot of teacher dashboards from Atlanta Public Schools

Atlanta Public Schools is on the leading edge of a new trend in education: getting helpful data to teachers in formats they can understand and leverage with their students. For years, districts nationwide have monitored standardized test data and other measures, reporting it to the state and watching trends across schools. Some have passed along that data to principals and instructional leaders to guide school improvement work, but few have sent it all the way to teachers, who make the day-to-day decisions in classrooms.

Related: Schools collect reams of data, inspiring a move to make sense of it all

For one, it’s complicated. Making sense of reams of data can take time teachers don’t have, and useful insights often come only after laboriously cross-referencing data stored in multiple systems.

Also, there’s a psychological factor. At least since 2001, when No Child Left Behind set strict student achievement benchmarks based on standardized tests, teachers have had reason to fear data. It has been used punitively, as a way to point out their shortcomings, threaten their jobs and take away their classroom autonomy. In Atlanta, an emphasis on test-based accountability once put so much pressure on teachers and administrators, some resorted to cheating.

But Atlanta Public Schools and a sprinkling of districts around the country are trying to give data a new reputation. And not by turning teachers into statisticians.

“One of our mottos is ‘Let teachers be great teachers,’ ” said Michael LaMont, executive director of Atlanta Public Schools’ Data and Information Group. His office’s goal is to do the hard work of collecting data and making it easy to understand. That second piece they accomplish with visualizations. Instead of showing educators spreadsheets full of numbers, they create color-coded charts that can quickly reveal achievement gaps or widespread strengths and weaknesses. The data dashboards make clear which students need extra help and which need more challenging work, giving teachers an opportunity to tailor their lesson plans accordingly.

The Atlanta district is in its third year of rolling out the dashboards to members of the school community. In the first year, district leaders were given access to a dashboard version of the big-picture data they cared most about. Last year, LaMont’s team unveiled new dashboards for principals and instructional leaders, which zeroed in on each school’s performance in relation to the rest of the district. This year, the teacher dashboards are being introduced, offering information for teachers at the classroom level.

The Data and Information Group in Atlanta Public Schools strives to give teachers visually appealing, actionable data to help them transform instruction. They are on the forefront of this practice nationally.

The Data and Information Group in Atlanta Public Schools strives to give teachers visually appealing, actionable data to help them transform instruction. They are on the forefront of this practice nationally.

In northern Atlanta, Will Melton, a Grady High School math teacher, pored over his dashboard to prepare for the first day of school. By the time he met his students, he already knew how they had performed in prior years, whether there were any trends in that performance and where their behavior fit in.

“Knowing and understanding that is huge information to know,” Melton said.

He has already been structuring his pacing and lesson plans based on this early prep. And next year, many more teachers may do the same thing.

Related: Schools collect more data, but how is it used?

Melton had early access to the dashboards because he provided feedback during the development process, to ensure the dashboards really would be understandable and useful to teachers. Over the next few months, district administrators say, all of Atlanta’s 3,000 teachers will get access to their own dashboards, unlocking a new tool in the effort to serve students based on their individual needs.

Although these teachers have long had access to information about their students, the dashboards bring it all into one place, which is pretty ground-breaking on its own. Education data is notoriously fractured. State test data lives in one system, district benchmark data in another and student information in a third. In past years, teachers could find data about one student at a time, or just one year’s worth of test data, for example. Identifying trends by using data across multiple years was extremely time-consuming, if not impossible.

The teacher dashboards, by contrast, offer all of this critical information via several tabs on the same system. And while teachers can dig down into the dashboards, uncovering more detailed information about their students, just a quick glance can be useful, too.

One tab teachers can select when they log into their dashboards is a comparison of schools based on the Georgia state tests. This basic view shows a color-coded view of what portion of students at each school are categorized as “beginning,” “developing,” “proficient” or “distinguished” learners, giving teachers a glimpse of how their school compares to others. This is a start. Teachers can also select from dropdowns to filter the data by grade level, subject, test year or student subgroups such as ethnicity or English-language learner or disability status.

Screenshot of teacher dashboards from Atlanta Public Schools

Screenshot of teacher dashboards from Atlanta Public Schools

Clicking to another tab offers a comparison view within a single school, so teachers can easily see where achievement gaps are in their own buildings. Teachers can explore additional tabs that zoom into their current classes. They can see overall achievement, performance on specific domains in a given subject — like geometry in math — and detailed information about individual students.

Hall, the fifth-grade teacher at Hollis, said simple classroom observation told her that most of her students needed remediation. But she was surprised, looking at the charts in her dashboard, to learn that one of her students should be accelerated in a math domain. Now she knows she should tailor certain lessons to challenge that student. And for the students who need remediation, Hall has a granular understanding of what parts of math or reading or writing they’re weak in.

Hollis Innovation Academy’s principal, Diamond Jack, has high hopes for how the dashboards will influence teachers like Hall and Blaché.

“It’s going to be a game-changer for them,” she said.

As at other high-poverty schools in Atlanta, Hollis teachers have more students who need remediation than acceleration. It can be discouraging for teachers in such schools to monitor this data. But principals can play a role in setting the right tone.

Related: Three lessons from data on the best ways to give feedback to students

At Barack and Michelle Obama Academy, an elementary school in southern Atlanta, Principal Robin Christian has hired a staff of teachers who are willing to track data to better understand what works with students.

“It’s not a bad thing if your kids don’t do well,” Christian said. “But it’s a bad thing if you don’t do anything about it.”

That’s the kind of philosophy LaMont hopes to scale district-wide. He recently completed a two-year professional development fellowship program, run by Harvard University, to support this work. He is one of about 250 people from school districts, charter management organizations, state education agencies and education nonprofits to have completed the Strategic Data Project fellowship since it began in 2008.

Sylvan Hills Middle School Assistant Principal Tara Cotton discusses performance with a student during a goal-setting exercise in this Atlanta Public School. Empowering students and teachers with data is a key initiative in the district.

Sylvan Hills Middle School Assistant Principal Tara Cotton discusses performance with a student during a goal-setting exercise in this Atlanta Public School. Empowering students and teachers with data is a key initiative in the district.

Miriam Greenberg, who oversees the program, said a small but growing number of districts are figuring out how to engage teachers with data. She said the challenge for these project fellows is to lead a culture change in schools, so that their colleagues don’t just tolerate data, but actively demand it.

“Not just providing one-off analyses to shock people into change,” Greenberg said, “they’re trying to develop in students and teachers and principals the need to have data to make better decisions.”

LaMont said one way to do this is by using data as a flashlight, rather than a hammer. Instead of drawing attention to teachers’ failures, he said the data should be used as a resource, one that can support teachers’ daily work and doesn’t require a massive investment of time.

And while the teacher dashboards aren’t even fully rolled out yet, the district is already thinking about bringing parents and students into the fold. In some schools, there’s a demand for this.

Sylvan Hills Middle School started student goal-setting meetings last year, asking students to think about what they want to be when they grow up and to connect their school performance with their life goals. Just preparing for the meetings by creating student profiles for every child — complete with grades, test performance and attendance data — was incredibly time-consuming. It took an entire semester to prepare for and meet with all 600-plus students last year, and administrators opted against repeating the exercise in the spring.

But this year, they will be able to do it in just a couple of weeks, according to assistant principal Monica Blasingame. The student profiles section of the new dashboards brings together all the information Blasingame wants from the disparate systems housing that data. LaMont’s team also created goal-setting forms online, so that as soon as a teacher discusses goals with a student or identifies strategies to meet them, the details can be logged for the student’s other teachers to see.

Blasingame said the goal-setting empowers students with their own data and gives them visual depictions of what matters — how attendance correlates with grades, for example. It also ensures that teachers know students’ goals and puts them in a position to support student progress.

Eventually the district expects to give students direct access to the forms and offer parents the opportunity to participate as well.

“That is the arc of where we’re going,” LaMont said. “Getting more people to see the data and come together to take action with it.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about the Future of Learning. Sign up for our newsletter.

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Tara García Mathewson

Tara García Mathewson is a staff writer. She launched her journalism career with two award-winning pieces co-produced during a three-month stint at the Kitsap Sun… See Archive

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