Teachers: What Should We Be Asking of Our Data?

teachers, data, analytics

We’re excited to have a guest post this week by one of our partners, Joe Ten Brook. Joe is Assistant Middle School Principal over at Austin Achieve, and has spent a number of years in the field of education, both as a teacher and (currently) as a teacher coach. After hearing his session at SXSWedu (Sustainability Gap: Teachers, Data and the Future), we were impressed with his commitment and thoughtful approach to serving students and supporting teachers, so we asked him to share more of his thoughts on teaching and data with our readers. Enjoy!

img src: Data Journalism Handbook

It’s undeniable that some words graduate to buzzword status over time, while some begin life that way. It’s hard to say which way is better or worse. I can only assume that it makes little difference since many of these buzzwords fall into regular use after they lose their buzz, while others fall into obscurity or out of use altogether. It happens with regularity and inevitability. Words just can’t be poppy and snappy forever, can they?

Not that long ago I traded in a graduate study in history for teaching history to middle school students. More recently still I traded in my teaching jacket for an administrative jacket so that I could begin a career of coaching teachers. The jackets fit pretty much the same, but each new leap in my career left me with some pretty cool insights and reflections on what I had been doing.

Back when I first started teaching, Data was one of those buzzwords I mentioned earlier. Clearly this is not one of those words that is going to fall out of favor quickly – if at all – and that is a really good thing. The best decisions are built on data, so incorporating data into education is critical if we want to ensure that all of our choices lead toward what is best for students. Still, data for sake of having it does not guarantee a strong school, curriculum, or teacher. Viewed in that context, looking at data initially seemed more like a box that needed to be checked rather than something that was actually expected to drive instruction. While I don’t want to lay blame at anyone’s feet for this development (you hardly can with the rate at which the landscape changes in education), analyzing assessment data became a thing teachers and schools expected because it was a buzzword, not necessarily because it was driving decisions.

Giving tests and examining distributions and bell curves struck me as “the old way” when I began in this profession. Eventually, the questions around testing became a bit more complex, and when I finally got my own classroom, reviewing data was very different from the grading I had done as a TA. Suddenly I’m expected to know not only how classes performed, but also how that performance is going to drive my instruction? You mean those lesson plans that I already wrote last week will need to be adjusted? I realized pretty early on that data was a pretty buzzy word, and that probably was not going to change anytime soon.

My first foray into data, where I began truly digging into numbers and information, was an opportunity to learn to make better decisions about my practice. Ultimately, I would learn that we need to ask way more of our data. In order to do what was best for students I needed the right information to make the best decisions. Decisions can be dangerous without the right data, and so what follows are some of the questions I began asking to ensure I was always tapping into as much data as I could to make the best possible choices for my scholars and my school.

What Does This Tell Me About My Practice?

As a teacher, and a human, I often ask myself what I can do better. Most teachers default to that question the second a lesson goes off track. I have a bad tendency to assume I am doing something wrong when a lesson goes south (or even when it goes well), but before I get there I often try to stop myself and evaluate my practice. It’s the classic step-back question if you’re like me and jump before you know you need to.

In short, I looked at the data to determine basic next steps in my lessons, management, or things like how I was communicating and using data with my students. As anyone with a growth mindset can attest, the lens of “getting better” is almost always in play. However, sometimes we just need to stop and analyze what is before we can consider what ought to be. A growing arsenal of data tools means that I no longer have to be as speculative when it’s time to review and eventually make judgements about how I execute in the classroom.

Going back again to my first experience, assessment data was leveraged to see who missed information and thus what would need to be retaught. If you really dig, this data can reveal a good deal of possibilities, but alone it can often be speculative. I cannot even begin to count the number of times I went into panic mode, speculated based on a single set of data, and eventually sent myself into that most treacherous of spirals – you know, the one where you think you’re not doing a very good job as a teacher.

If you let it, the growth mindset and the data can take you to that horrible place. This is why it is especially important to not only ask your data how you can get better, but also more generally to ask, What am I doing in the classroom? This opens the door to a discovery of all the things that are going well, along with the myriad of things that should be replicated (and probably even shared with other teachers!).

img src: Data Journalism Handbook

Using a variety of data to create a narrative of my classroom practice allowed me to actually execute on the whole “get better” thing. Despite my brain trying to make the leap to assessing my ability, it was – and remains – absolutely critical to step back and get the full picture. As you will see later, getting the complete picture is critical to actually nailing down what needs to get better. A question like this is also a powerful tool in checking a bad habit I have of jumping to (often negative) conclusions about my own performance. You cannot make good decisions with incomplete data. Complete data enables growth.

How Can I Get Better From This?

Speaking of growth, teaching as a practice is all about getting better. Or that’s what I’ve gathered. In my mind, I’ve never quite felt like it was something to be mastered, so I’ve always assumed this to be true. Like an athlete, the profession seems to be all about conditioning and pushing boundaries, but with the knowledge that some higher level of performance is still attainable.

As I mentioned earlier, it was not so long ago that I would pick up my students’ assessments, plug their scores into my “mastery tracker”, and see which students were doing well versus those who were “struggling”. Why were some students chronically scoring low on assessments? How was it that some students did really well in one unit but not another? Virtually all of my questions were student-focused because I was always taught to take the data and see what needed to be retaught. It was all about student performance.

Just a couple of years into my career it became clear that data was not going away, and that if I began diving deeper and asking better questions, I could learn more than just how students did on a standard or an exam. For one reason or another, I eventually began flipping the question about how students did on their exams to How did I do as a teacher? This was a game changer for my practice.

Rather than react to poor student performance, I started to anticipate it and proactively change my practice in the classroom. Granted, this is probably a question that most teachers ask themselves, especially once they’ve been practicing for a couple of years, but it was critical to my success that I pivoted away from looking at student data purely for the sake of knowing how students were doing.

Critical review of my own practice meant that I could take student data and ask better questions. Were my questions and activities aligned to my objectives and standards? Was I infusing my lessons with joy? Were students producing quality work? By asking questions about me rather than the students, I could begin to actually move the needle of changes that would enable the kind of growth I was aiming for in my classroom. The old model would have led me to review assessment data with students and merely inform them of something they probably already knew: they were not doing as well as they could. Changing the question to ask ‘How can I get better?’ meant that I was able to really dig into my actions and change outcomes for students in my class.

Pausing to inquire about my own practice often led to asking questions about me instead of the students because questions about their performance often led to the same disheartening realization that they were struggling mightily. If I wasn’t careful I was going to be buried by my guilt of always trying to be better but never quite pushing the results I knew we needed. Once again I had to consult the data, and this time I had to invert the question and look for something so elusive that many just could not see it.

Where Are The Victories?

A former principal and friend once described teaching as the hardest work on the planet.  I latched onto that and, like most things in the profession, I happily stole the phrase and use it regularly. Everyone will likely interpret that phrase differently, and maybe there are a few people who would even disagree, but for the most part I think it’s pretty well documented just how taxing a career in education can be. Even in my short time as a teacher, I met folks from a variety of school settings, with a variety of students, and a variety of problems. Nearly all of them have their positive aspects, but none of them have disagreed with this assessment of their work.

On a more personal level, I have taught exclusively in low-income cities over my career. In fact, I have worked in some of the academically lowest-performing cities in the country. I love the profession, but when you head into work each day to face the challenges of language barriers, low reading levels, a panoply of lagging skills, and a host of outside issues that are very much outside the control of a school – let alone a single teacher – we have to start talking about that spiral again. Burnout is definitely a reality when you consider the kinds of gaps teachers often have to close. That vicious circle of not feeling effective and useful in the profession is perhaps even more devastating.

Teaching can be a dark place if you let it. To continue in the profession it was pretty clear early on that I would need to develop strategies to find the great (however small) in what could be extended periods of disappointing results. Turns out that building strong relationships with students is one solid way to do this. Another, less obvious to me when I was only looking at test data, is to look through the data for bright spots. I looked for the stepping stones, the baby steps, the little victories that one by one reassured me that my success was possible, just maybe not on the timetable that I or my students wanted it.

Assessment data can be especially nasty when it comes to this question. Sometimes students continuously score lower than we would expect or want. The beauty of looking at data and asking the other two questions I almost always started with is that I would find some peace of mind in knowing that I was not simply leaving the learning to fate and hoping that a student would somehow “get it” if I kept at it long enough. Still, after trying this method or that one, and seeing students still churning out a poor performance, it was only a matter of time before I took something like that to heart.

This is where other data becomes so critical. It’s also why the emergence of tools to collect data on behavior and social-emotional status is so cool. In my heart I know that I’m going to push on, even if my kids continually perform below expectations. Given the opportunity to see that this same low-performing student is happy they have a safe place to go each day because I can look at data from a daily status check is definitely a small victory. Sometimes it was enough to know that a student had totally rocked out their behavior for a week even if they did not quite nail their quiz on the causes of the Civil War.

Short of having data to discover and dig into these little wins, the progress that our students make almost daily might go unnoticed. Not only can we not engage students when we do not know about these things, but we also cannot use data selfishly to keep our teacher engines running at full power. Yes, data is almost exclusively the tool of growth and development, but it doesn’t have to be. Moreover, I learned that it is possible to harness that drive to learn and grow, look at that data, and deepen my ability to see the bright spots even when they might seemingly be buried in a sea of failure. Our students, and thus we as teachers, are succeeding every day.  We just have to ask the right questions of our data to see it.

How are my students doing today?

Almost everything I asked of my data as a teacher was related in some way to assessments. Then, over time, as I changed schools and behavior tools became more in vogue, that became a factor, but certainly the prevailing notion was almost always to use data to determine how a student is performing. Are they failing? Why? And then I might cycle back to those questions about my practice and ask what I can do better.

As teachers we seem to be fixated on how students are performing – not necessarily how they are doing, and what impact that might have on the former. I don’t want to say that folks (including myself) haven’t made this connection, because that certainly has happened. However, in the rush to get data I think the tendency has been to ultimately ask how the student is performing in a class. The data hopefully provides the why, or the explanation behind whatever grade a student has earned. We know there might be other things looming in the background – things outside of our control that only a personal relationship with a student would reveal – but we really do not have a solid way of interpreting that – assuming we even uncover it.

That is why this question is so critical. That is also why it is so absolutely important to find a way to collect this kind of data. I learned that if I could get some insight into every student’s disposition coming into school each morning, I was able to proactively address them, and it often had a terrific impact on their day. Simply knowing if a student slept poorly, did not eat breakfast, or had a fight with their sibling could allow me to course-correct that student for the entire day. It had the bonus effect of building a relationship through trust. Data like this, like how a student feels in the morning or if they had breakfast, made it possible for me to be way more proactive with my students.

Short of having a personal conversation with scholars, this kind of data is not often readily tabulated and available. Once we found a solid way to collect it, it made the discussion around student performance much different. It helped me shed light on test scores and otherwise start to fill in gaps in my understanding about a student simply because I asked a different question and looked for different data. Maybe I jumped into teaching at just the right time, or maybe it was just a result of asking the right questions, but by the time I had solidified in my head that I would remain in education, I had come full circle and finally found a way to make data something other than what I should reteach. Data has become a springboard to student relationships and the starting point for real conversations about getting better. Not just for me, but for my students as well.

img src: Data Journalism Handbook


In my years of teaching I probably asked a bunch more questions about my data. I was not always the best about seeking out new data sources, but when you put something in front of me I was going to pick it apart as best I could. I did that by asking questions, and the ones I have listed here are the ones that stuck out the most. These questions certainly shaped how I used and reviewed data. Now I try to use these questions with the teachers I coach – especially the question that helps to locate those little victories scattered throughout this terribly difficult work.

One thing I want to stress in my journey and in asking these questions is that it was almost all in service of ensuring that our students themselves not become data. In the drive to get data and ask these important questions, it is easy for students to become the numbers, graphs, and spreadsheets we look at so intently for their benefit. Students provide us with data, but they are not the data themselves.

Asking myself these questions helped me ensure that I could get the most out of the data I had, but also that I never lost sight of the difference between students providing data and being data. Our quest cannot be test scores if we truly want to leverage the data we have to get better and drive true, lasting results. Getting away from the one-dimensional question of student performance is critical to education, the teaching profession, and the way we use data.  Improving the way we collect data and offering new tools to collect that data which would otherwise remain lost to us will continue to open doors. Continuing to ask questions that force the humanization of data will only help us teach better and be increasingly proactive in a profession that demands so much each and every day.

In the end, no matter what questions you ask or what data you look at, we always need to ask ourselves, Is this what is best for the kids? My hope is that increasingly we will be able to use data and other means to say Yes.

As a complement this post, take a closer look at
Questions Administrators Should Be Asking of Their Data.


Joe Ten Brook

Asst. Principal at Austin Achieve Public Schools

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