The Data Story: Uncovering the Narrative to Our Children’s Future

Using Data to Help Students Succeed

By Iris Garner, National Research Consultant

In academia, buzzwords and acronyms are everywhere. Research, educational policy, politics, and media help shape the terminology and rhetoric. Some terms trend and others seem to fade away. The term or concept of “Data” has been trending since the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and continues to be highly referenced. Before NCLB, most teachers did not pursue student information in either a systematic or rigorous way. Instead of gathering and analyzing data to learn about their students, they would put together a general picture based on fragmented information obtained from student journals, student artwork, parent comments, teacher’s annotations, student observations, etc. In some cases, teachers did not forge any personal connections with students. Knowing and understanding their students was not considered essential; it was optional and even then, highly subjective.

Data Components and Value

How times have changed! Today, knowing your learner is vital and understanding the data story is paramount, beginning with the earliest learners. This information is the compass that provides direction that informs challenges and strengths of students, teachers, populations, programs, and systems.

Student, educator, and system are types of data that help us determine student achievement as well as teacher and school development effectiveness. Student data includes, but is not limited to, attendance, assessments (informal and formal), behavior, participation, observations, home language, and more. Some educator data includes student progress, parent engagement, professional development plan, classroom assessments, classroom management, and achievement towards learning goals. Core system data includes audit summaries, student achievement, operational modifications, financial management, stakeholder awareness, as well as student and teacher engagement. Administrators use system data collections to understand how to adjust systems in a manner that increases efficiency and effectiveness, allowing for sustainable teaching and learning. Regardless of the type or source of data, student achievement is part of the equation and the nucleus from which all decisions should be based. The standing question should always be what is best for the students?

While data seeks initially to inform, it also provides the pillar for education justice (a social justice movement which emphasizes the belief that all students can reach proficiency). Without easily accessible, reliable information, education justice is merely a concept and can’t be realized, especially when establishing the foundation in early learning or the college or career track in high school. School and district leaders cannot provide resources adequately without first fully understanding the depth of the challenge. Nor can they effectively chart the proper course of action without information that is comprehensive, clear, relevant, and accurate.


Understanding the Data

Obtaining the data is only part of the story; understanding the data and validating its authenticity are equally important.

Data literacy includes the ability to operationalize data in a learning environment, contributing to student achievement. Educators, administrators, publishers, and community partners need to understand the principles of using data to inform instruction and practices on an ongoing basis. Core elements like explanations with indicators, clear summaries, and easy accessibility are essential to create the storyline and plan of action. All stakeholders’ understanding, buy-in, and contributions influence student achievement in some way.

Core Stakeholders

Teachers may use quizzes and observations to understand student thought processes and create student-learning groups. Standardized test scores may be used to differentiate instruction. If data is not properly implemented and reviewed, it is useless. Teachers need ongoing support to understand how to collect, analyze, and reflect on data in order to provide quality personalized instruction to students. A better understanding of students can also create a pathway that will change the trajectory of that student’s learning; every piece of data helps to create a picture for the teacher. To maximize teaching and learning, we need to dig deeper than simply a superficial acquaintance with data.

Data informs what books students are likely to read, what assessment items are accessible, what lessons/content the student will likely engage with, what vocabulary is included in their personal inventory, what learning environmental characteristics interfere with their learning, what instructional structures are needed and so much more. To be truly effective in today’s learning environment, teachers should:

  • Understand what data is available and frequency of availability
  • Understand the data limitations
  • Participate in a professional learning community to create a list of best practices and collegiate sharing
  • Build a data-rich culture, promote exploration across all stakeholders
  • Utilize statistical tools that provide reliable data more readily

Students’ data literacy is fundamental; setting personal educational goals that are measurable and obtainable is contingent on understanding where the student is and the desired outcome. That information is incorporated in student achievement data. Learning gaps and gains are being assessed with the aid of pre-established metrics. Holding students accountable for not meeting certain metrics without providing them with a thorough overview of the skill(s), behavior(s), and assessment(s) criteria jeopardizes their rate of success as well as education justice.

Data Story: Now What?

Education policy sets forth rules and regulations that govern the operation of education systems. Policies are set forth only when a problem is identified as a prominent issue. Data literacy is an issue that effects all levels of education from primary to graduate school. Educators and advocates need to come together to move this issue onto the policy agenda. Data Quality Campaign (DQC) has defined some of the policy recommendations:

  • Measure What Matters - Be clear about what students must achieve and have the data to ensure that all students are on track to succeed
  • Make Data Use Possible - Provide teachers and leaders the flexibility, training, and support they need to answer their questions and take action
  • Be Transparent & Earn Trust - Ensure that every community understands how its schools and students are doing, why data is valuable, and how it is protected and used
  • Guarantee Access & Protect Privacy - Provide teachers and parents timely information on their students and make sure it is kept safe

These recommendations would bridge some of the immediate information gaps. Promoting policies for data literacy is a step towards getting the entire data story and ensuring education justice.


Telling the data story is not optional — it is required. Educators, parents, and advocates can promote educational justice by making their requests known and having conversations about the next steps. The main characters in the data stories are the students we serve. They all deserve the best available narrative, not fragments of a disjointed, subjective story where the main character is hopeless. We have the tools. Obtaining, understanding, and working the data moves the needle and writes a story of success for our learners.

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