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Data-Informed Practice: It’s Not Just About Test Scores (Part 3: Computer Data Systems)

As I mentioned in Part 1 of this blog series, data use is often disjoint and removed from practice.  I believe that’s often because of a focus on test scores.  In this series, I’m examining supports that can help recast data more broadly and make it more useful to practice.  How do we do that?  In Part 2, I described how building common understandings can support this approach.  Today, we’ll talk about computer data systems. 

Data systems are everywhere; almost every school and district in the U. S. has some sort of system that helps store and access student data.  Unfortunately, I think schools and districts have really missed the mark on how data systems are conceived and implemented.  Data systems are usually implemented by focusing on the data system itself, rather than the work that the system is to support.  What we see is that systems are rolled out, educators are taught how to use various features, then everybody sits back and watches as the system changes the way educators practice their craft.

That’s great…except for the part that it doesn’t work.  See, people hold the agency for changing practice, not technology.  The above might work well if all you want to do is focus on test scores – that kind of system use is fairly predictable and the system isn’t used that often.  But if you want to conceive of data use like I’ve forwarded in this blog series, you’ll need to focus on people: what they see as useful in the system and how they work it into their practice. 

Focusing on people means understanding that there will be many perspectives – many “right answers” – on how to use the system to support practice.  Educators come at education from a lot of different perspectives (see Part 2 on common understandings), so they’re going to use the system in different ways.  That’s a good thing.  Consequently, supporting data system use is about supporting and shaping these understandings to help educators do their work. 

In the big picture, this means that data system use is an extended period of social adjustment (that’s Vincent Cho’s phrase, not mine – I love it and I say it every chance I get).  Implementing a system doesn’t stop at rollout.  In fact, it starts at rollout and continues as educators think through how they’ll use the system, why they’ll use the system…and whether they’ll use the system.  To be honest with you, I’m not sure data system implementation is ever “done.” 

In fairness, I don’t know how schools and districts could have avoided focusing only on the system.  That approach is ubiquitous and most research on data systems – including my own – has focused on the system rather than how people use it.  But that’s changing – in fact, Vincent Cho and I have two articles coming out this year on implementing data systems using this approach, and we’re working on a third.

I don’t see much hope in the “old” way of approaching data systems, but I’m pretty excited about the approach described here.  I’m confident it can help change the focus of data use from test scores to supporting everyday work and practice. 

Next up is Part 4 in the series, discussing data-related professional learning.  Thanks for reading.

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