Considering how quickly technology has developed in recent years, many of today’s teachers were likely also in the classroom when the overhead projector and cable were cutting edge. Even just a few years ago, computers were nice to have, but not necessities for the job. Today, however, technology seems to dictate everything, from how we teach, to how we talk to parents — and perhaps more importantly, what we talk to them about.
Though the impact of parent engagement has been recognized for many years, recent research has pointed to the positive effect of frequent parent-teacher communication around student performance. And as concerning reports surface, like a 2017 study from Learning Heroes that showed a striking majority of parents believe their children are performing at higher levels than they actually are, prominent voices in the field including the Alliance for Excellent Education and the Data Quality Campaign are rallying behind the idea of transparency and sharing student data. As high school administrator Rachel Castner explained, “Grades tell a very limited story. When it comes to communicating student progress, we should go right to the data with parents if we want to make a difference.”
But deep data-based conversations and transparency have only recently become a realistic undertaking for schools with the advent of new technologies and software solutions that offer advanced analytics and reporting. We are also just now beginning to understand the implications of these systems and how they can support productive school-home connections around quantitative data.
Given that a recent Speak Up Research Project study revealed that effectively communicating information to parents is still a concern that literally keeps school administrators up at night, it is critical that educators work towards data sharing thoughtfully and are armed with the right tools.
Here are three steps that educators must follow in order to effectively shift communication with parents toward transparency and what to look for in data solutions:
1. Understand the whole student.
Just as grades offer a narrow view of student achievement, isolated data points don’t tell us — or parents — much of anything. Educators must look at student data holistically and aggregate information, including academic, behavior, attendance, social and emotional data, in order to be able to understand and communicate student needs in meaningful ways. As Marty Shudak, Director of Assessment and Accountability for the Council Bluffs Community School District shared in a recent webinar, educators in his district have started analyzing different data sources together to compare students with themselves — not a curve or arbitrary standard. This has helped teachers not only make more targeted instructional decisions, but also talk about student needs with families more effectively.
Using the term “data mining” to describe the process of identifying and aggregating student data sources, an issue brief from the US Department of Education explained that emerging technologies are now available, making it possible for educators to analyze the whole student. Look for a solution designed to integrate your district’s disparate data systems, as well as one that offers advanced data manipulation and visualization tools.
2. Demystify the data.
Perhaps one of the reasons report cards were created — and continue to be a primary method for communicating student achievement — is that data can be confusing. We have more data than ever before in schools; and while more is better when seeking to understand the whole student, it becomes more complicated (not to mention cumbersome) to analyze and understand.
According to an briefing paper from SEDL, data must be presented clearly and as simply as possible, with thought given to the terminology used and an emphasis on easy-to-read graphs. Depending upon the resources available to educators, however, this can be extremely difficult. Districts should look for and invest in systems that generate intuitive graphic and tabular reports, as well as robust student profiles, that help educators and parents alike make meaning of data.
3. Develop data-based action plans.
In my previous role providing professional development to teachers, we adopted the simple axiom, “Data is only as good as what you do with it.” And given that research indicates parental support and involvement in learning has a tremendous impact on student outcomes, we should aim to go beyond communicating data to parents and collaborate with them around it. Today, technology has given teachers new ways to connect data to instruction and share plans. Districts should therefore consider platforms that empower teachers and parents to make data-based decisions and work together to support students in reaching goals. Look specifically for systems that have integrated early warning indicators, notifications, and secure messaging systems (ideally with bidirectional translation) to keep teachers and parents on the same page when it comes to student performance and support plans.
As research and practice continue to highlight the importance of sharing data with parents, districts must focus on finding ways to make it happen. Fortunately, developments in education technology have given way to robust data warehouses and analytics systems that have the power to transform parent teacher communications and make the difference in student outcomes.