Three Lessons From a Former Educator to Make Data-Driven Instruction (More) Simple

I began each school year as a teacher and eventually instructional leader with goals posted on the walls and highlighted in yellow on team documents. “+5% increase in English Language Arts proficiency.” “Growth percentile at 65 or higher.” But by November, I invariably felt overwhelmed. I’d often ask myself: “How exactly are my students doing? And what in the world should I do tomorrow?”

A reading teacher I know uses this data tracker to share growth on academic standards with her classes

Fortunately, for instructional leaders wrestling with how to spend precious time and achieve their goals, there is an approach that can help. If there’s one practice I could go back and infuse into my early days as an educator, it’s data-driven instruction (DDI). DDI, which describes using data to analyze student learning and determine next steps for teaching, helps instructional leaders prioritize teacher development while keeping the spotlight on student growth.

As a former teacher at KIPP* and director of curriculum and instruction at DSST Public Schools, I know that DDI is one of the most impactful systems a school can establish. And it doesn’t need to be complicated. 

My time as a summer fellow at Bellwether has led me to three clear lessons about DDI:

DDI doesn’t exclusively mean numbers.

Looking at student work can be a profoundly productive process for teachers and coaches. Grab a pile of papers from class, and see what students were actually doing. What steps did they take or not take? What does this tell you about how they were thinking? The simple act of discussing how a student solved a math problem or responded to a writing prompt can help a teacher know what to do to help students grow. What’s more, engaging in this discussion as a department team can lead to greater collaboration and alignment between different grade levels. 

DDI is not just for advanced teachers.

If there’s one thing I could go back and do differently when I started as an instructional coach, it’s to incorporate data into coaching meetings for all teachers, from first-years to 10-year veterans. For a new teacher, gathering data can look like quickly sorting students’ daily mastery checks into three piles: “mastered,” “close but not quite,” and “not yet mastered.” Instead of these exit tickets ending up in the recycling bin (as mine often did), this efficient move can shed light on students’ progress and identify skills that require additional practice.

School leaders don’t have to hold the data all on their own.

By graphing results, tracking scores, and reflecting on their own progress, students of all ages can co-own data. A simple bar graph or sticker chart where students record their scores over time can do the trick. Then, through a quick phone call, conference, or note home, ask students to share their data with their families. This process helps increase students’ sense of ownership over their learning and invest them in their growth. 

Instructional leaders do not have to reserve data conversations for hours-long meetings and occasional interim assessments. By making data-driven instruction part of your daily work and sharing it with teachers to guide instructional practices, you can help propel your school and students to meet their goals.

Rebecca Hinkle is a summer fellow with Bellwether’s Strategic Advising team.

*KIPP is a former client of Bellwether. See a list of all our clients here.