7 steps to empowered data coaching

Data is often drudgery for many educators. Much too often, student data is approached in a way that disempowers teachers—the primary influencers of student learning. In some cases, administrators or coaches analyze information and tell teachers what needs fixing. Teachers can feel like victims of the data in these situations. This method does not help them make the decisions that only they can make as the experts on both their students and their content.

Conversely, when teachers are supported to understand and analyze this information in a nonjudgmental way, meaningful actions and learning can occur that together enable them to feel confident (and even energized) by data discussions. This post will share seven steps for empowering teachers to analyze and use student data.

1. Broaden the definition of “data”

Oftentimes, when we hear the word “data,” we think about the percentiles and percentages of standardized test results. And it’s true; that is one form of data. However, educators in all roles would benefit from thinking about data in broader ways. “Data” can refer to a variety of things that provide evidence of learning: daily formative checks of learning, benchmark assessments, unit tests, performances, drawings, student writing, graphs, and more.

In a recent post, Erin Beard advocates for a shift to saying “learning evidence” instead of “data.” She elaborates: “This keeps my focus on what I’m looking for (evidence) and why (for learning). This word shift can help us return to the reason we probably became educators in the first place—to support learners and learning—and help us make sure our education data actions align with those reasons.”

Erin also shares that broadening our definition of data in this way empowers students as well, as they can begin documenting their own evidence of learning—which can assist teachers in making instructional decisions and help students understand themselves better as learners, resulting in a teacher–student learning partnership.

2. Categorize what type of learning evidence is being analyzed

In many schools, the most emphasized type of data analysis occurs with state or national assessments. These assessments are often summative. Their goal is to measure learning evidence that is no longer in progress—that is, what was learned in the end. These assessments are valuable to schools and educators because they can reflect on where students are learning most and where support or new approaches might be beneficial in the future.

It is far too easy to jump to conclusions about data before we have allowed ourselves to really see everything in front of us.

However, making a shift to analyzing formative assessment can empower both teachers and students during the learning process. Formative assessments, as Chase Nordengren explains, “exist to monitor progress in the moment and motivate students to continue learning. They provide the opportunity for teachers to adjust their instruction to meet the emergent needs of their students, and for students to understand the steps that lead toward mastering a skill.”

Formative assessments could come from multiple sources: growth-focused assessment tools, student writing or drawing, or video or audio of student discussions. They are formative if they are not graded, and students have opportunities to keep learning. Since opportunities to learn still exist after formative assessments, learning from them is often motivating for teachers and students.

3. Clarify what is being assessed

So often when data coaching goes wrong, there is a misunderstanding about what is being measured. This is problematic if teachers set instructional or curricular goals that do not align with what assessments reveal. In my experience, this situation happens more often than many of us anticipate.

I once coached a teacher who was using daily free writing as a strategy based on their assessment of benchmark data. Unfortunately, the strategy was not well aligned to what the assessment revealed. This happened because of a misconception about what the assessment measured. The teacher thought the assessment measured general writing quality—grammar and punctuation—but the assessment really measured students’ ability to draw conclusions from a text and provide examples that support those conclusions. In this situation, providing more access to content-rich nonfiction and strategies for analyzing it would be a more aligned starting point. In addition to that, having students write a clear claim and select supporting evidence would be another potential focus.

When we analyze learning evidence, it is important to take the time to make sure we understand exactly what is being measured and how. Many people skip this step, but without it, we can make faulty assumptions that undermine our efforts.

4. Make observations about the data without assigning “whys” too early

It is important to come to data analysis with a “noticing” mind. It is far too easy to jump to conclusions about data before we have allowed ourselves to really see everything in front of us. We can easily live in our own stories of how we perceive students are learning, and we can easily select information to justify those stories. What I am encouraging is looking at the information without bias to see if other stories reveal themselves.

To do this, I will often make a large T-chart with “Observations” as a title on the left. I will label the right column with “Inferences” (more on that soon). I will ask colleagues to share what they see. Are there surprises? Are there patterns? Are there questions they have? I will write down what they are noticing as they share.

Usually, someone will say they noticed something, and then they will say “because…” The word “because” is a sign of an inference. I will say, “I think that’s an inference. For now, we are only focused on observations. Hold on to that thought. Do we notice anything else?” Inferences are important next steps, but without a full observation of the information, we can shut down our discussion too early, missing valuable information. The process of noticing also moves us away from talking about what is “good” or “bad” about data to a focus on learning evidence, which is something useful and neutral.

5. Make inferences about the data

Once we have had an opportunity to fully explore the information we have, we can explore the “whys” of what we noticed. Having all the observations clear, educators can make inferences for each observation. When teachers make inferences, encourage them to explain more about the reasons behind the inferences. They can share other learning evidence, professional observations, experiences in the classrooms with students, and any other information that helps them understand the observations.

It is also acceptable not to have an inference. In that case, make note of questions. These questions can also inform the action steps teachers can take.

6. Focus on what is within one’s control or influence

Educators can so easily become frustrated with the lack of control or influence they have in certain areas. While accepting poor circumstances in our field is not okay—and we should advocate for the conditions students and teachers need—this conversation during a data discussion can lead people to throw their hands in the air and give up.

For example, teachers could have worked productively through the last five steps but then lose progress if the conversation turns to what students did not learn last year, which students have been most absent, or whether the state standards should be improved. Validating these concerns is important because they are real. However, these are areas where teachers have limited influence or control. Focusing on what cannot be influenced or controlled limits what can be done and leaves everyone feeling defeated.

Refocusing on areas of control or influence supports the development of a realistic and productive plan. Teachers can focus on where they have efficacy or can build efficacy in their work. In addition, simply asking the question, “Do we have influence or control in this area?” helps us make better decisions about next steps, while relieving some of the burden of what is not within the purview of the classroom teacher.

7. Determine next steps based on the information

Once teachers have worked through the prior six steps, they are ready to plan for the next steps. The following questions can support them in making decisions.

  • What are the goals we can set within _____ (a certain span of time)?
  • What actions are necessary to reach those goals?
  • Who on the team is responsible for each action?
  • How can we monitor our goals?

Teachers can return to these plans to monitor how well they are working and how their students are responding to them. In addition, teachers can share the plans with students, so they are also aware of the goals they are working toward, the learning paths for reaching them, and the learning evidence they can collect along the way.

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