How Should Data Be Used in 21st Century Classroom?

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How should data be used in the 21st century classroom? This is the million-dollar question (or, to be more precise, the multi-billion-dollar question) that faces educators today. Bill Gates has demonstrated that data-driven philanthropy can help mobilize limited resources to solve persistent human problems. Modern data technologies, for example, have helped alleviate some of the human suffering caused by infectious diseases and famine in Africa (Goldstein, 2013, para. 3).

In the case of America’s education system, I see a lot of potential to for data to help, because schools are highly complex systems with complex sets of interacting variables. I was trained as a biologist, and the complexity of our education system is akin to that of the biological world. Because there are so many species in so many habitats on our planet, it took several decades just for scientists to make enough sense of the flood of available data to develop a coherent theory–natural selection–in order to explain it all. A critical breakthrough occurred when early biologists developed a standardized system of classifying species, so that they could at least agree on what to call each species, and how to place groups of species into categories by using measurable data that could give insights into their evolutionary relationships.

I see a parallel development in American education today. Our students come from a fantastic diversity of cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds with widely different learning styles and abilities, and they are taught in a dizzying variety of school settings. Meaningful reform and improvement cannot occur until educators to come to consensus on which curriculum standards to adopt, and how student learning of those standards should be measured. The widespread adoption of the Common Core standards has been a huge step forward in this regard, but in a perfect world, student learning needs to be assessed consistently as well, so that apples-to-apples comparisons may be made. I hope that the Smarter Balanced assessments (SBAC) will provide some much-needed clarity in how we measure student learning. The test questions on this assessment do a good job of testing levels of understanding that weren’t easily measured by traditional multiple-choice test items by employing technologically enhanced question types (Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, n.d.). However, one of the tricky things about the Smarter Balanced tests is figuring out how individual test questions relate to the standards and the claims, which are the big-picture learning goals upon which the State bases its student and school reports.

Trying to solve the puzzle of standards mapping on the SBAC; what’s more, many of the standards can be mapped to more than one claim. As a teacher, I want to be able to harness the best data analysis programs to give me practical advice about how to modify my instruction to best meet the needs of each of my students. I don’t want to try to learn all of the intricacies of the data analysis, because that would take valuable time that I would much rather spend crafting good lessons and working with my students. If I were in charge of a school campus or District, I would want to try to use a carefully vetted consulting firm, such as Learning Forward, to analyze the wealth of available data. As Eric Brooks described in his video clip, the best insights for school leaders come from the skilled analysis of multiple sources of data, including non-testing data like attitude surveys (Learning Forward, 2012). Such data analysis might help teachers not only adjust their curricula and assignments, but also their methods and attitudes in ways that would enhance student learning.

Teachers, administrators, and parents might feel uneasy about trusting a hidden computer algorithm to inform their practice, as well they should (Modern School, 2013). The motives of for-profit data analysis companies must always be monitored, because schools have a sacred responsibility to protect the safety and privacy of their students. What’s more, we have to be assured that data analysis algorithms are culturally sensitive, so that we don’t make educational decisions based on data that were produced by culturally biased tests. But the potential benefits of using data to inform decision making in schools cannot be overstated. If computers can help us successfully land rovers on Mars or immunize thousands of children in Africa, perhaps they can help us better teach our students too.


Goldstein, D. (2013, January 31). Can big data save American schools? Bill Gates is betting yes. The Atlantic. Retrieved from

Modern School. (2013, March 12). Is Bill Gates data mining your children? [Web log comment]. Retrieved from

Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. (n.d.) Smarter assessments. Retrieved from

Learning Forward. (2012, April 6). Data standard [Video file]. Retrieved from


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