Smart Data Use Can Improve Schools, University of Texas at Austin Study Shows

A research team in The University of Texas at Austin's College of Education may have found a workable way to translate school districts' data into improved teaching and learningand it could be as basic as evaluating what data they want to use before buying computing equipment to deliver them.

Dr. Jeff Wayman, an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Administration, along with graduate students Vincent Cho and Mary T. Johnston, recently conducted a comprehensive data-use evaluation of a Wyoming school district. The process as well as the results could serve as a model for others who aim to be "data-informed districts."

"Several issues can thwart a data-rich school district that wants to use its wealth of data in an efficient, meaningful way," says Wayman. "First, teachers, principals and other school staff may not be adequately trained in how to access the data and transform the numbers and information into better practices. That problem is exacerbated by the fact that, although the body of research on best practices and processes is growing, there's still much that's not understood.

"Second, the computer systems used by a school district may not be integrated or user-friendly - they may not be able to 'talk' to one another and share information, and there may be inaccuracies in the actual data itself. Third, and perhaps most important, is that many districts first buy a computer system and then ask, 'What will this system let us do?' rather than asking, 'What do we want a system to do for us?' before they purchase the system."

The University of Texas at Austin team was able to study Natrona County School District's (NCSD) school culture, types of data that were used at all levels by all staff, ways data were used, structures and supports for using data and the technology used for accessing the data. The team worked with a very broad definition of data, one that went well beyond student achievement test scores and included valuable sources such as teachers' reported observations and student demographic information.

Although the evaluation was conducted at one school district in Wyoming, Wayman is optimistic that many of his team's recommendations are transferable, or scalable, to most any school district that wants to improve data use practices.

Like many schools, NCSD faces a dropout problemabout 32 percent of its students leave school before graduationand would like to use student data to craft more effective interventions. Like many teachers, some NCSD instructors report that they can't directly access student data as they need it, and often are not sure how to use it once they do have it.

After evaluating facilitators and roadblocks to effective data use, the research team gave NCSD a detailed, 20-page summary and set of recommendations. The team suggested:

  • the district establish a clear vision for teaching, learning and data use;
  • the district obtain an integrated computer system that will aid data use;
  • accurate student demographic data and learning outcomes be readily available to interested individuals outside the district and that education be provided in what the data mean;
  • district staff receive substantial training in data use, with the goal of reaching a point where they are able to translate data into better practices.

NCSD already has begun implementation of Wayman's recommendations, and his survey findings received an enthusiastic reception when he recently presented them in a keynote address to leaders of the five largest school districts in New York.

Read more about the NCSD project.