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Tulsa Public Schools uses visualizations to make it easy for teachers to look at student data and put their insights to use in the classroom.
Tulsa Public Schools uses visualizations to make it easy for teachers to look at student data and put their insights to use in the classroom.

Over the last couple years, the Tulsa Public Schools district has shifted from using data purely for accountability purposes to using it as a strategic asset to improve students’ learning. When Deborah Gist took over as superintendent in 2015, after leaving her position as the blended-learning-focused education commissioner in Rhode Island, she created a new office – the Office of Data Strategy and Analytics.

The office’s team of data analysts and developers provides the technical skills to make teacher and principal data dreams come true. The central element of their work is creating “dashboards,” which bring together a host of data that schools already collect but often store in multiple different systems. Just bringing it all into one place can save teachers and principals a lot of time. And because time is arguably the most precious resource in schools, saving time can be the key to making data analysis a possibility, particularly for teachers.

Districts have been monitoring data for years, but most of that work is done by administrators. Teachers, who could use data about their current students to tailor lesson plans and offer targeted support, often get the information they need long after it’s useful, or they see data in formats that are incomprehensible.

The Atlanta Public Schools have also been in the forefront of the new movement to provide teachers with useful, timely information without training them in statistics or data science. Atlanta and Tulsa are among a small minority of districts doing this work, all in hopes of making teachers more effective and students more successful.

One Tulsa teacher, submitting feedback through the data website, said “this is the most amazing resource I’ve had the four years I’ve been teaching in TPS. What an idea, to gather all the relevant data in one place. Thank you, thank you for making a dream a reality.”

Related: Making ‘Big Data’ useful rather than scary for teachers

Stephen Fedore Hoch, the Tulsa district’s chief analytics officer, said the teacher dashboards include data on attendance, behavior, coursework, assessment and demographic information for individual students, along with home address and parent contact information. The data is presented in easy-to-read visualizations, with test data going back four years so teachers can see their students’ performance trends, instead of just single points. And the reading assessment data includes a reading level, or lexile measure, that can be used to recommend appropriate books for students that match their skills.

One popular feature allows teachers to generate a letter to parents with just one click that details reasons why reading at home is important to student success, places a child’s reading skill in the context of typical grade-level performance, and offers three book recommendations at the child’s reading level along with two others that are just above it.

Fedore Hoch said parents ask teachers for book recommendations all the time. The online tool automates their responses.

Another similar tool automates parent-teacher conference prep. Teachers can print out a packet with five documents that arm parents with useful information about their child’s progress. For teachers, this takes no time at all, and it creates an opportunity for a much more productive meeting.

Even among each other, teachers are using the dashboards. Fedore Hoch said his team hasn’t been able to study the impact of their data work on teacher practice broadly because they’ve been focusing on developing the tools, but anecdotally Fedore Hoch has already heard that grade-level teams and professional learning communities can spend far less time poring over data because it’s so quickly and easily available to them. Instead of scouring the data itself, these teams can draw conclusions from a quick look at the dashboards and move on to developing intervention strategies for students.

“If that is happening at scale, we think it’s a really beneficial thing for teachers and students,” Fedore Hoch said.

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