Developing the Data Reflex

At the SJDLP we often discuss the concept of becoming data reflexive.  Too often, “data” is something done in bursts, on special days, when the consultant comes in, or when someone’s looking.  It might involve reviewing binders full of charts, making teachers fill out data protocols and hand them in to supervisors, and arguing about having too many or not enough tests.  When data is something that’s done in discrete chunks like this, it’s like p.d. that you go to for one day and then go back to your classroom and never use– without sustained interaction and reflection, it’s rarely, if ever, effective.

Data reflexivity by contrast represents the idea that, when making a decision, an educator reflexively turns to data in order to inform that decision.  Data isn’t an awkward appendage; it’s the source code, so to speak, of what’s happening in the life of a classroom, a school, and a district.  A programmer knows that when software isn’t working, go to the code and de-bug.  That’s a reflex– the same can be said for a teacher re-stating directions when a students says he doesn’t understand or a counselor closing the door and offering a tissue when a student comes in crying.  Those actions are reflexes, for the most part– as opposed to something formally learned (though we can certainly learn to hone our abilities in these areas).   In the same way, teachers that use data reflexively always think of what’s happening in class as an endless source of data to be taken, and can swiftly and fluently collect and analyze data and use it to inform what they do next.

Of course, data isn’t just numbers or performance on a test.  “Constantly collecting data” doesn’t mean over-testing, and it doesn’t mean becoming robotic about students’ lives.  We collect data all the time without being conscious of it– when we meet someone, we feel out their mood, their trustworthiness, their personality; all of these things are sources of data.  That’s important to remember since too often, “data” only means performance, and only on certain tests, at that.

Ultimately it’s the reflex to turn to data to inform fundamental questions like “What do my students already know,” “What things that I do resonate with my students most,” or “What do students of difference ethnic groups think of their school experience” that marks true data reflexivity.  Using data can be as much a behavior to shape as it is a concept to understand– our hope is that thinking about it as such can remove some of its mystery.

Why the SJDLP?

If you ask school leaders if data is important, you’ll get an almost-universal “yes.”  You’ll get vows to use data to drive decisions,  rosters of data teams, binders of graphs, analyses of standard-by-standard performance on benchmarks and assessments, demographics breakdowns and trends over time, and plenty of charts showing all kinds of trends moving up and down over time.

But you’re also likely to get a lot of anxiety, confusion, and simple fear about how to approach data, what to do so that data isn’t wasted, and what kind of truth the data will show us.   You’ll get a lot of barriers and resistance from teachers and leaders.

What you’ll probably get the least is anyone who says, “Yes, I’ve been trained on how to use data and I’m confident in putting it at the center of my practice!”

The SJDSP was formed so that no educator ever again feels like they are expected to lead or teach with data but lacks the skillset and mindset to do so effectively.   We are an organization for data leaders, whether you operate under a “data specialist” title or are a de facto data leader through your work as a superintendent, curriculum director, central office leader, supervisor, principal, assistant principal, coach, or teacher.  We provide a space for data leaders to network, learn from each other and from experts, share what they’re proud of, and pose problems of practice to a group will to brainstorm solutions.  We also come together to advocate for best practices in data– better data quality, more useful data reports, higher quality training in using data, and more.

At our first meeting, one of our members brought up the question, “How can we as data leaders best serve students in the classroom?”  This is the question that drives our work.  

We hope you’ll stay with us as we move forward with our mission.  We encourage all educators interested in data to connect with us and open a dialogue about what encourages, inspires, and challenges you in using data to improve outcomes for state departments of education, districts, schools, teachers, and students!