PROOF POINTS: Researchers blast data analysis for teachers to help students

Writing for the Hechinger Report, Jill Barshay surveyed the difficulties in providing data to teachers and expecting instructional improvement. Excerpts of the piece appear below: 

Teachers are spending a lot of time talking about student data. In a 2016 survey by Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research, 94 percent of middle school math teachers said they analyzed student performance on tests in the prior year, and 15 percent said they spent over 40 hours on this kind of data analysis. In high poverty schools, where student test scores are often low and there is pressure from state and local governments to raise them, data analysis can dominate weekly or monthly meetings among teachers.

Has all that time teachers spent studying data helped students learn? The emerging answer from education researchers is no. That conclusion is like dropping a bomb on a big part of what happens at schools today.

“Studying student data seems to not at all improve student outcomes in most of the evaluations I’ve seen,” said Heather Hill, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, at a February 2022  presentation of the Research Partnership for Professional Learning.

Hill reviewed 23 student outcomes from 10 different data programs used in schools and found that the majority showed no benefits for students. Only two were positive for students and in one study, students were worse off.

Why doesn’t data analysis work? Researchers explain that while data is helpful in pinpointing students’ weaknesses, mistakes and gaps, it doesn’t tell teachers what to do about them. Most commonly, teachers review or re-teach the topic the way they did the first time or they give a student a worksheet for more practice drills. Teachers need to change their approach to address student misunderstandings, Hill said.

The upside is that the data analysis bandwagon has prompted many schools to allocate more time for teachers to meet. And researchers believe this collaboration, apart from the solitary work of classroom teaching, is valuable for teachers in improving their craft. The most effective use of teachers’ time together is not clear and Hill said she and her colleagues at Research Partnership for Professional Learning are studying that now.

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