Why an Initiative to Support Better Use of Data?

Education data are not limited to test scores. Behavioral, attendance, school climate, and even transportation data can be valuable to help teachers and school leaders improve teaching and learning. Experience, anecdotes, and impressions should be supplemented with hard evidence from which decisions can be made.

Whether at the state, district, school, or classroom levels, having the right data and using them appropriately can provide credible and informative insights into what is really happening to students, teachers, administrators, and other stakeholders. Data help to provide a roadmap toward action: from identifying a problem, to applying data to that problem, to finding an evidence-based solution.

Data for decision making has emerged as an increasingly important topic in education. For the past decade, policymakers have been emphasizing that educators—from the classroom to the federal level—should become evidence-driven and inform their practice by using and analyzing hard data.

In recent years, a philosophical shift has occurred in which educators are encouraged to use data for continuous improvement, not just for compliance and accountability purposes. Increasingly, data are used to inform instructional and administrative issues by educators. They are also used to address pressing education questions by policymakers, researchers, and other stakeholders.

Data for Decisions Initiative: Our Goals

The WestEd Data for Decisions Initiative (DDI) has several key goals which cross all of the programs and projects at WestEd.

  • Bring together the diverse wealth of projects and work that pertain to data use and serve as the central repository for such information
  • Provide information, resources, materials, documents, and research to education stakeholders and clients, as well as to collaborators, colleagues, and the practice, policy, and research communities
  • Serve as a “go-to” site for information about research and practice in data for decision making
  • Act as a mechanism for discussion and collaboration among the entire education community

Our Foci

The DDI has three foci:

  • Promote awareness around technical assistance and professional development
  • Organize and support collaboration and convenings
  • Disseminate new and important research in the field

Technical Assistance and Professional Development

There is a developmental continuum in terms of educators’ effective and appropriate use of data for decision making. Work to enhance educators’ data literacy should be conducted at both the pre-service and in-service levels, and indeed throughout each educator’s professional career.

Example: Promoting Data for Decision Making in Educator Preparation
WestEd believes that schools of education can play an important role in helping prepare current and future educators to use data. Through formal, stand-alone courses; the integration of data concepts into existing suites of courses; hybrid models; virtual course offerings; and continuing education, schools of education can provide invaluable preparation of teachers and administrators both at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

Recognizing this need, WestEd has been leveraging some of its research to reach out to teacher training institutions to help them integrate data use into their curricula. In collaboration with the Using Data Project at TERC, WestEd has been working with schools of education in the New York 2/Long Island Region of the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities as part of their Race to the Top emphasis to develop data-driven instruction in schools of education and their associated school districts.

WestEd has also been working with the Data Quality Campaign (DQC) to find levers of change across professional organizations to ensure that schools of education are prepared to and are helping to build human capacity among educators to use data. Outreach and dissemination activities include working with professional organizations such as:

This work is grounded in the foundational research conducted by WestEd and others.

Technical Assistance

The federally funded network of Regional Educational Laboratories (RELs) and Comprehensive Centers (CCs) are conduits to providing high-quality technical assistance to educators around how to use data to inform education practice. WestEd’s extensive presence among the RELs and CCs uniquely enables the organization to help educators in many states across the country to understand the importance of using data and how to use data at the administrative and instructional levels.

The CCs include data-based decision making as one of the seven focus areas. WestEd is the prime contractor in five CCs and a subcontractor in six, serving 31 states and the Pacific Islands. The CCs provide an opportunity for WestEd to provide quality technical assistance to states around data-based decision making and the application of data to address pressing education problems that include the CCs’ other priority areas. Specific examples include:

  • Identifying key metrics and knowing what data to collect for educator effectiveness measures
  • Troubleshooting and identifying issues related to the inclusion of graduation rates as a data element
  • Pinpointing steps that states can take to elevate the importance of data literacy within their states’ teacher preparation and development

WestEd also provides technical assistance to districts and schools around data use through many of its existing projects. For example, webinars, white papers, and speeches have been given by WestEd staff for the Data Quality Campaign around data literacy and building state capacity to use data.

WestEd has provided technical assistance to schools and districts through face-to-face and virtual “bridge events” sponsored by the RELs to help educators gain an understanding of data use. For example, two REL bridge events were conducted on building a culture of data use. Work at the WestEd Learning Innovations Program has created resources and guides for such technical assistance.

Other technical assistance has focused around the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) Practice Guide on data use and in developing the U.S. Department of Education’s Doing What Works website, which provides resources to educators based on this and other data use Practice Guides.

Professional Development

Staff members at WestEd, in collaboration with TERC’s Using Data Project, have helped to develop one of the most widespread models of professional development around data use. The Using Data Project provides educators with quality professional development to help them acquire data literacy skills. The focus for professional development is at the school and classroom levels, although recent work has also been conducted at the district and state levels.

Specifically, the Using Data Project helps to build data cultures in schools and districts through the development of data coaches and data teams that can facilitate data use at the building level. Professional development is delivered either face-to-face or through an online version. DDI staff collaborated with TERC on the development of this model.

WestEd also produced a set of resources that appear on the Doing What Works website targeted to teachers, teacher educators, policymakers, researchers, and administrators.

Collaborations and Convenings

WestEd has been a leading coordinating organization in this field, bringing together experts in data-driven decision making to better understand issues around research on data use, data literacy, and preparing educators to use data.

To date, it has convened three major meetings of experts to explore issues around data for decision making:

  • A Spencer Foundation-funded meeting brought together stakeholders to discuss the leverage points for schools of education to begin training educators to become data literate. The outcome of the meeting was a research project to empirically study what courses schools of education offer around data use (funded by the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation). Download the white paper.
  • A Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation-funded meeting brought together experts to define what it means for educators to be data literate. This meeting produced a list of the skills and knowledge that comprise data literacy. It also produced ideas for additional convenings, research, and professional development. Download the white paper produced from this convening.
  • A Spencer Foundation-funded meeting brought together a select group of researchers to discuss what research is needed to stimulate progress in the field of data-driven decision making. The outcome was the creation of a networked community of collaborating researchers working to address issues in the field.

New convenings might include:

  • Bringing formative assessment professional development providers together with data use professional development providers to discuss gaps and overlaps. The formative assessment providers acknowledge that they do not stray beyond their specific assessments, and need to know more about data use processes.
  • Bringing formative assessment professional development providers together with data use professional development providers to discuss how the former group involves students in their processes. There is a growing need to help students become more data-driven. This was one of the recommendations in the IES Practice Guide, “Using Student Achievement Data to Support Instructional Decision Making” (Hamilton, Halverson, Jackson, Mandinach, Supovitz, & Wayman, 2009).
  • Continued collaborative meetings and work for the Spencer-supported research group.

Research in the Field

We distinguish between two types of research about data-driven decision making: foundational and applied research.

  • Foundational research pertains to research that focuses on the critical components of data for decision making, such as data systems, data teams, data coaches, creating a data culture, vision, and the need for leadership. It seeks to understand data for decision making and data use in education.
  • Applied research, in contrast, pertains to how data are used to address particular, pressing educational questions, issues, or topics.

Foundational Research

WestEd has been conducting foundational research to understand data for decision making and data use in education. This research focuses on a number of issues around data for decision making including:

  • Defining data literacy
  • Defining data-driven decision making
  • Articulating the skills and knowledge educators need to become data literate
  • Understanding how schools of education can improve educators’ capacity to use data
  • Explicating the roles of professional organizations, licensure and certification agencies, and state departments of education in stipulating the need for data literacy among educators
  • Ascertaining the contextual factors that facilitate or impede data use
  • Illuminating how data are currently used at the state, district, school, and classroom levels
  • Studying how blended learning environments promote effective data use

Future topics might include:

  • Determining how data use becomes enculturated throughout the education system, given the systemic nature of education
  • Investigating the impact of video or online training on educators’ data literacy
  • Exploring the impact of students becoming data-driven decision makers

Applied Research

The key to using data for decision making is for educators to use data to inform pressing education issues, questions, and problems; that is, the application of data-driven practices. Applied research has been WestEd’s emphasis for many years. Pressing issues that have been studied and have contributed to enhanced educator decision making include:

  • How using data from formative assessments can change teacher performance and student outcomes
  • What data and metrics are best to measure teacher effectiveness
  • What metrics are needed to determine how to successfully turn around struggling schools
  • Patterns of student mobility
  • Evaluation methods for teachers and principals
  • Course-taking patterns and their relations to college preparedness
  • Student achievement trends
  • Re-enrollment of dropouts
  • Retirement patterns of educators
  • Teacher demand issues
  • Demographic trends of English Language Learners

Future topics might include:

  • The impact of providing data dashboards to administrators to enhance the formative application of data for teacher evaluations
  • The impact of providing data dashboards to educators to improve graduation rates

DDI Tools, Resources, and Research

The DDI seeks to help education stakeholders—including educators, policymakers, and researchers—access solution-driven tools, resources, and research to inform their practice and develop a better understanding of how high-quality data use can successfully inform teaching and learning.

The DDI website provides:

  • Materials on data use for educators, policymakers, and researchers, including a glossary of terms and frequently asked questions, roadblocks and solutions for educators, and peer-reviewed research for research experts
  • An opportunity for colleagues to collaborate around a common theme
  • A repository of information and resources for educators, policymakers, and other stakeholder groups