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Public Advocacy: Data Messages

Talking about student data with teachers and parents

Daniel Kaufman

In my last column, i offered some sample messages and tips for talking with parents, teachers, and others about the new, often precipitously lower, student test results tied to higher standards that have just been released in many states. This month, I want to address a closely related communications issue: how to talk generally with those same audiences about the uses and misuses of student data.

Teachers, schools, and districts have long gathered, analyzed, and used data to inform instruction and provide students with targeted services—whether through formal methods such as tests and quizzes, IEPs, and collecting attendance, behavioral, and demographic data, or through more informal techniques such as parent conferences and classroom observations.

Yet, with the increased focus on standardized testing, high-stakes accountability, and in-class and online technology, much more quantitative data is being amassed today than was done just five or 10 years ago.

In theory, this wealth of data can be tremendously helpful to teachers, parents and caregivers, and school and district leaders for tracking the progress of students, and then pursuing the right interventions to boost learning and close achievement gaps.

Understandably, however, it also has led to concerns across the country about rising workload and collecting data for data’s sake from already time-strapped teachers. Also, parents and privacy advocates worry about potential data breaches associated with new education technology and the risks of outside companies sharing personally identifiable student information.

How can school board members and administrators proactively minimize these concerns and ensure that everyone at the school and district level is using and protecting student data effectively?

One way to help your district avoid a popular backlash against data collection and use is to develop comprehensive and sensible data use and privacy policies, share them with teachers, staff, parents and the public, and update them regularly.

At the same time, make sure to examine thoughtfully and critically how many different forms of data are being collected at every grade level through testing and other avenues, and how truly useful they are.

Smart and transparent communications also can play a critical role. It starts with crafting messages about data for key audiences such as teachers and parents. Distilling recent research conducted in this area, the following are some examples of message points and arguments that tend to resonate with these audiences—and others that fall flat.

Teachers: They generally are very open to messages about data, as most of them are already using data constructively in many ways to enhance instruction. But they tend to be conflicted about the value of data vs. the burden it places on them. And they are turned off by any hint of data being used punitively against them or their students, by having to attend meetings to discuss data that are not directly relevant to their work, and by receiving results from standardized assessments months after the tests are taken, when it’s too late to do anything with them.

With this in mind, some data statements appropriate for teachers include:

  • Data can be a useful tool to determine whether students are making good progress and getting the help they need, provided teachers are given adequate time for planning and training and timely information on their students to use that data effectively.
  • Data are about much more than test scores and numbers. Teachers can gather helpful information about students from a variety of formal and informal sources.
  • Technology is not a panacea, but it can make data collection and analysis easier by helping teachers spend less time scoring tests and making sense of data—and more time focusing on instruction.
  • The responsibility to protect student data and information should be taken seriously. All of us—the district, educators, parents, and students—have an important role to play in protecting sensitive information.

Parents: They are more removed from how student data are used by teachers, schools, and districts, and their primary interest is in their own child’s achievement and growth. Communicate with parents straightforwardly, using specific examples of the types of data used to evaluate students’ progress, and tying in how you use this data to address issues they care about, such as class size and resource distribution. On one hand, the vast majority of parents crave more information about their child and respect teachers’ role as professionals in collecting and analyzing data to meet students’ needs. On the other hand, some parents fear that their child’s data will be compromised.

Some statements about data that consequently work for parents include:

  • All parents want their children to be successful in school and life. But many parents don’t have access to timely and quality information to help them understand the implications of the courses their children take, and how they will affect their future ability to succeed in college and careers.
  • This information allows us to work with each parent to determine student needs more quickly and more deeply and to focus teaching strategies accordingly.
  • We collect data including test scores, grades, attendance, demographics, information on special needs, graduation and remediation rates, and disciplinary actions. This data is used to determine eligibility for services and to personalize lesson plans for learning, leading to higher student achievement.
  • Information on an individual student’s grades, coursework, behavior, attendance, or scores on teacher-made assessments is not shared with anyone beyond the school, parents, and caregivers.
  • Student data is carefully safeguarded through school and district policies and procedures, as well as federal and state privacy laws that are specifically designed to protect student data.

As I’ve said before in this space, having the right messengers communicating about data is just as important as the messages themselves. For teachers, that means wherever possible relying on other teachers to talk directly with their colleagues about the value of using data, the ways they use data effectively, and where appropriate, the district’s data use and privacy policies and protocols. One idea is to develop a cadre of teachers who can play the role of “ambassador” to their colleagues at new teacher orientations and trainings, and to provide testimonials about the value of data for your publications.

In the case of parents, teachers can be the most effective messengers on how data is being used for the benefit of students in the classroom and school because the vast majority of parents trust and respect their on-the-ground opinions the most when it comes to the growth and welfare of their children.

A caveat, though: When it comes to information about data privacy and security, parents and caregivers generally don’t want to hear from teachers—instead, they prefer hearing directly from the most credible authorities on that issue, which include school board members and administrators.

Making these often-complex uses and issues around data understandable to teachers can be a challenge, and that much more so for parents and other external stakeholders. For free videos, infographics, and other excellent resources that you can show and share, visit the nonprofit Data Quality Campaign’s website at www.dataqualitycampaign.org. (Full disclosure: DQC has been an occasional client of my company for several years.)


Daniel Kaufman (dan.kaufman@finnpartners.com) is a senior partner at Widmeyer Communications, a Finn Partners company. He served on the Prince George’s County, Maryland, school board from 2013 to 2015. 
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