Research Finds Teachers’ Use of Data Both Promising and Worrisome

Julie Marsh

Dr. Julie Marsh

In her ongoing Spencer Foundation-funded research on data-driven decision making, USC Rossier Associate Professor Julie Marsh was surprised by teachers’ data use practices with students in some of the six middle schools she was studying.

The climate of accountability that has preoccupied every district, school, and teacher with student test scores was trickling down to the students themselves in the classroom.

“Teachers are using ‘data binders,’ ‘data walls,’ and ‘data talks’ with the kids, and almost a third of the examples we analyzed were performance- rather than mastery-focused, often putting kids in competition with one another,” Marsh said. “We were struck by how many teachers thought it was “motivational for their students to publicly examine data and see how they were achieving compared to other students or groups of students.”

According to Marsh, theory and research suggest that the practice of using data with students, which has become increasingly formalized in the schools she studied, can be beneficial when focused on individual improvement, a recognition of effort, and student agency (mastery orientation), but detrimental to some students when focused on status, performance relative to peers, and public sharing (performance orientation).

In some cases, teachers are engaging in such activities with their students unconsciously. Marsh cited an example of a teacher who said she was embarrassed and deflated when a principal posted all of the teachers’ class test scores on a wall in a faculty meeting. Yet the same teacher reported doing a similar thing with her own students’ scores in the classroom.

“A lot of teachers may start out with classroom practices promoting a mastery orientation – they use data to help an individual set goals and measure growth over time, but external pressures may be pushing them in the opposite direction, often sending mixed messages to students,” she said.

The findings were a byproduct of Marsh’s broader research study that seeks to better understand how teachers use data to inform their own instruction; how they move from raw data, to information, to knowledge, to action; and how they are supported in this process.

In today’s high-stakes accountability climate, every decision is expected to be backed by data. Teachers have an abundance of data at their fingertips – from state, interim, and classroom assessments, to student work – which can be used to improve what they teach and how, but many do not know how to use these data to improve their decisions and adjust their practice.

Marsh’s previous research had found a significant association between student achievement and reading coaches who spent time analyzing student data with teachers. Those findings piqued her interest in data-driven decision making, how teachers are supported in using data, and how it impacts student learning.

Her review of existing literature, recently published in Teachers College Record, found that data users often lack capacity to use data and want or lack support to help move from knowledge to action. The review also discovered only limited research on the activities that facilitate and build needed capacity for meaningful data use by teachers, which motivated her current study.

The Spencer Foundation supported research on three kinds of interventions: data coaches, literacy coaches, and data teams – to understand how they worked and their contributions to teacher knowledge and practice in middle school literacy instruction.

“Everyone you talk to will tell you they’re data driven, but I’ve found that translates very differently across settings,” Marsh said. “Most professional development for teachers focuses on the front end – how to interpret data. There is not as much in the back end – responding and acting on the data.

“If we’re going to expect teachers to use data, it’s best to find out how to support them to do so effectively.” 

This article was featured in the January, 2013 Issue of Rossier Reach