Why Should Educators Use Data?

Written by Katie Sellstrom on July 28, 2016

Why-Use-Data

People often ask us, “How can I get more people to use data and educational technology tools?” It’s a fair question, as school districts are often bombarded with initiatives and, as a result, have traditionally slower rates of technology adoption.

However, instead of focusing on the goal of blanket adoption of a tool, a better starting point would be with the question, “Why?” Many schools are focused on getting the latest technology into their classrooms without first identifying the educational goal. Educators being asked to adopt a new tool need to stop and ask themselves, “What problem are we trying to solve? What questions can data and technology help us answer?”

In his book, Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology, Kentaro Toyama warns about the misguided belief in the “technology-as-savior” model for the classroom:

I call it technology’s “Law of Amplification”: Technology’s primary effect is to amplify human forces, so in education, technologies amplify whatever pedagogical capacity is already there […] amplification explains why large-scale roll-outs of educational technology rarely result in positive outcomes. In any representative set of schools, some are doing well and others poorly. Introducing computers may result in benefit for some (the ones highlighted in pilot studies), but it distracts the weaker schools from their core mission.

Many leaders are striving to be technology-centered schools, when in reality they should be pushing for technology-enabled schools centered around the needs of their community. Teams shouldn’t base their instruction around available technology, but rather zero in on how technology can augment the vision and core principles that should already be in place.

It’s important to keep the “why” in mind as you design professional learning around the rollout of data and educational technology tools to accomplish what you believe. As educators, figuring out the purpose behind using data and educational technology can help propel the initiative forward.

With this in mind, how can districts look to their “why” as they march ahead? Here are three basic tips to help guide you through the process of implementing a new data and technology initiative.

1. Map Out Your Goals

Simon Sinek, author of Start with Why, encourages organizations to identify the purpose (or the “why”) behind their mission or product. He argues that many companies fail because they didn’t figure out why their existence should mean something to the rest of society. They often get stuck in describing what their company or product does and how it works without a “why.” Similarly, school districts often invest in teaching users how to use a product rather than gaining buy-in and starting with why users should be using a product.

In translating this vision-casting for a new initiative around data and technology implementation, think about the larger mission and goals that the organization has for students:

  • What are your beliefs and aspirations for the students and communities you serve?
  • How could data and education technology tools support that vision and mission?
  • What other initiative are already in place that could be amplified by data and technology tools?
  • What would a successful implementation of the data and technology tools look like for a student, classroom, school, or the district?
  • How will you know the initiative is successful?

Being able to ask and answer these questions will allow your team to craft a well-defined vision and implementation plan. Hopefully, your focus will align with building a culture of success: collaboration among students and educators to identify needs, personalize pathways, and celebrate learning along the way.

Having a clear vision should make the rest of your short- and long-term decisions around a data and technology implementation that much easier.

2. Identify Your Essential Questions

Once there is a common goal, district teams should begin thinking about the essential questions that various roles will ask around data and technology usage.

Consider what the following roles would ask in relation to student and educator success:

  • Board Members
  • Superintendents
  • Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment Leaders
  • Principal
  • Teachers
  • Technology Leaders
  • Parents
  • Students

For instance, superintendents might be asking “Does our vision support a culture of using data?” while technology leaders are asking “Does our infrastructure support the use of web-based assessments and analysis tools?” (As a bonus, try to come up with resources to help the district team work with their staff on finding the information to their answers.)

This is an important step to process with your team. You won’t be able to successfully rally your team around technology if you haven’t first defined the needs around data usage.

3. Address Your Data-Specific Needs

In designing a professional learning sequence for a rollout of data and technology implementation, think about the questions or challenges your users will face throughout the year that could be answered or supported by the tools.

Use data to drive the learning and consider different methods of providing learning opportunities beyond a sit-and-get session at the beginning of the year. Here is a step-by-step process of how your implementation team could make a professional learning plan for the year:

  1. Brainstorm what information different stakeholders need to solve problems or questions and what time of year that data is available.
  2. List where the data currently resides and consider getting the data all in one place or common format for review.
  3. Who needs support and when? – Identify which roles might need support in getting their questions answered, what tools are the most effective for answering these questions, and how this information or learning can be communicated best throughout the year.
  4. What questions can data answer? – Based on the time of year, what questions or challenges could educators, administrators, or parents be facing?
    • In August, educators would likely want to know who their students are, their strengths and needs.
    • In September, educators and leaders may be interested in tools to measure student learning, track progress, and even resources to extend/remediate learning.
    • In October, parents and students would likely want to know about their progress, resources available to close learning gaps.

Some additional tips to help with the brainstorm:

  • Match your questions to times of year on your academic calendar
  • Consult your district’s assessment calendar and map out when you receive state assessment results, or data from other assessments (SBAC, PARCC, CELDT, ACCESS, SAT/PSAT/ACT, etc.)
  • Think about when benchmarks, mid-terms, or finals take place
  • Be aware of when grading periods end

The goal for this section is for teams to come up with a list of possible questions that could be answered with data (more specifically, by using technology platforms as a tool). Educators should match their data questions with the best tools they have available.

As you reflect throughout the process, hopefully the end result is that your colleagues are now making data-informed decisions. This will help you determine what tools you may need to purchase or implement to achieve your vision.

The ultimate goal for data is to empower educators to make decisions and problem-solve to improve student outcomes.


Illuminate Education is a provider of educational technology and services offering innovative data, assessment and student information solutions. Serving K-12 schools, our cloud-based software and services currently assist more than 1,600 school districts in promoting student achievement and success.

Ready to discover your one-stop shop for your district’s educational needs? Let’s talk.

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