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ISTELive 23: Using Student Data to Improve Equity for K-12

Sam Callahan, a third grade teacher and data consultant, says schools can use self-assessments and better systems of organizing and analyzing data to help teachers address racial disparities.

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In 2013, 10 percent of the 700 students in Sioux Center Community Schools in Iowa were Hispanic. A decade later, the district has grown to 1,700 students, and nearly half of them are Hispanic.

This trend is mirrored in other rural districts in the Midwest, as well as much larger school systems in urban and suburban areas throughout the nation. And yet, too many educators haven’t changed their teaching methods to keep up with demographic shifts, a third grade teacher and data consultant told an audience of his peers on Wednesday at the International Society for Technology in Education's ISTELive 2023 event in Philadelphia.

“If we continue to teach the same way, it’s not going to work,” said Sam Callahan, leading a presentation about using data to address racial disparities in schools. He's a teacher at Sioux Center schools and owner of Callahan Data Consulting.

Callahan said establishing a basic system for data collection and analysis is easy — there are plenty of inexpensive or free tools to aid in that process, including Google Looker Studio. The difficult part, he noted, is changing the mindset of how that data is used for lesson planning and getting everyone in the school community to buy into it. Ultimately, the goal is to have something in place where teachers can spend only five minutes looking at data and 40 minutes or more on a lesson plan that is more inclusive.

“Use those action plans to help our students grow,” Callahan said.

In most states, schools are required to collect data based on demographics, test scores and other academic measurements, extracurricular activity participation, and feedback from staff, students and parents. There might be some reporting mandates, but that doesn’t mean schools must use it to better serve their students, Callahan explained. For example, the data might indicate that few Hispanic students are participating in sports, but it’s up to school personnel to find out why. It could be because those students are required to take care of their younger siblings after school while their parents work, or maybe they have to work a part-time job themselves to help their family cover rent.

Likewise, data can identify student academic performance patterns by race, but it’s up to local educators to inquire if there are issues like poverty and hunger contributing to the problem and figure out classroom solutions, Callahan said.

He suggested that schools or districts use a self-assessment, assigning themselves a score between 1 and 5 for the following four questions:

  • What data do we have?
  • Where do we store it?
  • When do we use it?
  • How do we use it?
In his consulting business, Callahan said he finds that most schools score between 2 and 3 on most questions but quickly identify ways to improve their scores. He advised against “rogue teachers using rogue data” — while educators might have good intentions, each school needs a standardized system where everyone uses the same tools and goes to the same person, such as an IT professional or a technology administrator, for help.

When educators develop complete answers to the “how do we use it” question, that's when improvement begins, Callahan explained. This could be something as simple as providing more background for a history or language arts lesson to accommodate children who are still learning English. Or it could involve breaking students into different reading groups and spending more time with the kids who are behind.

Callahan said allowing students to see and use a data analytics tool themselves can also make a huge difference. He illustrated this point with an example of a Hispanic child in his third grade class last year. The child saw his own scores on Google Looker and asked to retake a math test. Callahan then pointed to a chart that indicated the student, though he was behind in reading and had to attend summer school to start catching up, showed more than one grade level of improvement in just two months. So when that student took the next test, Callahan could tell by the look on his face, he said, “that he just wanted to rock the thing.”

“You’ve got to remember who you [teachers] are here for,” Callahan said. “You don’t want to use data as a gotcha, but sometimes you have to.”
Aaron Gifford has several years of professional writing experience, primarily with daily newspapers and specialty publications in upstate New York. He attended the University at Buffalo and is based in Cazenovia, NY.