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With an abundance of test data about how students perform, educators now need to devise methods of analyzing that data to best customize the learning experience for individual schools, grades, classrooms and even students.

That’s why the University of Maryland University College (UMUC) Master of Arts in Teaching program brought together students, new teachers and education officials from across Maryland on Jan. 25 to talk about the latest ways of using data to inform instruction.

“Improving teaching and learning may sound simple, but it is profound,” said Virginia Pilato, vice dean in the UMUC Graduate School. Everyone from pre-K through the university-level must work together.

“We are focusing on what the data say to help us understand what goes on in the classroom so that we teach differently and teach well so that each student learns,” she said.  “We need to see how each student is doing.”

Teachers have to use data to inform instruction, said Tiara Booker-Dwyer, director for Leadership Development and School Improvement for the Maryland State Department of Education. Data drive instructional decisions. It drives student groupings. It sets realistic targets for student growth, she added.

But the amount of data available from the myriad of standardized tests can be overwhelming, Booker-Dwyer said.

“How do you know which data to use? How do you know if the data is valid? How do you know if it’s reliable?” she said.  “We really want to provide some professional learning experiences on what data [to] use and how do you use it.”

The state’s goal is to make sure teachers get data in a “friendly” form—not just as a collection of charts and graphs—and in a timely fashion, she said. If a student is tested in September but the data isn’t available to the teacher until the middle of the year, that data doesn’t do much good in improving learning.

Rhonda Hawkins, the systemic improvement specialist for the Prince George’s County Schools and a Harvard School of Education Data Wise coach, put the participants through their paces to learn how to organize teachers to make the best use of the data they receive.

Data Wise is a program developed at the Harvard Graduate School of Education to provide a system for teachers to use education data to improve teaching.  It recognizes that teachers are drowning in data and must find a way to harness it. While Data Wise has been piloted in several school systems, Prince George’s County is the first to use it district-wide.

“It’s not just about data,” Hawkins said.  “You have got to have intentional collaboration. You have got to work as a team. Administrators can’t tell you to do this.  They can give you the time and space. But this is about teachers having a conversation to reflect on improving teaching and learning.”

By relentlessly focusing on the data, one can begin to see patterns that will open the possibilities for action, she said.  Teachers will begin to shift from having opinions to having the facts. Then they can identify the barriers in the school routine that stop teachers from implementing teaching improvements.

Teachers must focus on what Hawkins called “The ACE Habits of Mind,” a shared commitment to action, assessment and adjustment, intentional collaboration, and a relentless focus on the evidence.

Then, she said, teachers can move up the “Ladder of Inference,” by starting with the information and experience they see, noticing the patterns, adding their own meaning to the patterns, developing beliefs based on those assumptions, and then acting to implement new teaching methods based on those beliefs.

But just being in the same room together does not mean that teachers are collaborating effectively, Hawkins said. They have to understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses before they can work together. They must be sufficiently comfortable with the data so that they know how to access and evaluate it.

“If I don’t have a clear understanding of assessments, then I can’t make decisions on changes based on the data,” she said.  “You have to have a shared vocabulary. Then you can begin to look at the data.”

Once teachers understand the data and see the patterns, they can begin to form the questions that need to be answered to find the common challenges to student understanding, Hawkins said.  What are the common misperceptions that students seem to have?  Where was the breakdown in understanding?

Teachers must assess each other’s teaching methods, she added. Being critical of each other’s deficiencies is difficult, but honesty is essential for improvement.

Only then will teachers be ready to act on the evidence and develop an action plan to make the changes critical for improving their students’ learning.  And once that plan is set, the teachers also must devise an evaluation plan to determine if it is working.

At the end of every school day, a teacher must ask, “Is this the best I could do for every single student?” Hawkins said.  “This plan gets us closer to that.”