This guest blog post is written by Julio Alicea, who serves the Rhode Island communities of Providence, Pawtucket, and Central Falls as a social studies teacher and advisor at Blackstone Academy Charter School. When he is not working with high school students, he splits his time between teaching at Roger Williams University and volunteering with the Ten Men Program at the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence. He is a Teach Plus Rhode Island Teaching Policy Fellow and holds degrees from Swarthmore College and Brown University.

The first time I heard about data-informed teaching, I was in college discussing its merits around a seminar table. In that moment, I hadn’t even begun my student teaching and had no grounded experience in education. As an aspiring teacher concerned with maintaining deep relationships with my future students in the face of increased standardization, I dismissed the idea outright. Looking back, I falsely equated “data-informed instruction” with “impersonal instruction.” Having taught and used data for several years now, I readily admit my mistake.

Importantly, many teachers and administrators around the country share the same or similar fears I had about data. I write this post with them in mind. On a philosophical spectrum, ranging from a reactionary abhorrence of data on one end to a fanatic allegiance to it on the other end, I stand cautiously in the middle. Data is neither the antidote to the achievement gap nor a substitute for effective teaching. It is, however, an important tool for teachers looking to refine their craft and improve student growth outcomes along the way.

Early in my career, I found myself clinging to the reactionary end of the spectrum. I had attended a few workshops about different online assessment tools as well as optional school-wide meetings led by teachers associated with blended learning initiatives. In these settings, I grew more disinterested in data-informed teaching as it appeared to have attracted mainly one personality type—that of the highly motivated math teacher who had an unwavering love of numbers. This growing disillusion with data, however, would only make my work more difficult as I struggled to efficiently collect and analyze data for my state-required student learning objectives. Keeping track of writing progress for nearly 100 students in a Microsoft Word document proved tedious and time-consuming. I would spend countless hours on old-fashioned data entry, leaving myself little time or energy to properly make sense of the data or incorporate it into my lesson planning. Thus, what was meant to be a meaningful professional development exercise felt more like needless paperwork that got in the way of my professional duties.

In the past few years, I have moved steadily toward the middle of the spectrum. This movement was thanks in part to my fiancée, a math teacher, who, upon glancing at my Word document, was left speechless by the achingly antiquated system. Feeling sorry for the countless hours the system had robbed of me, she began to show me the wonders of free online tools like Google Sheets and Google Forms. In minutes, I had spreadsheets set aside for each class that automatically determined areas in which students achieved proficiency. For my student learning objective, I focused on a school-wide form of argumentative writing. By inputting simple instructions, Google Sheets was able to keep track of whether or not students met a standard, based on the grade received on each element. Sheets also totaled the points, shaving valuable seconds off the grading of each assignment, which over the course of a school year would amount to many accumulated hours. As my time freed up, I was able to develop more targeted writing lessons and workshops as well as a user-friendly feedback system for my students. The latter has been especially helpful because it allows me to share the data with my students in real-time and in doing so, provide more individualized coaching about their writing both during and after school.

As I grew more comfortable with tools for gathering and analyzing student data, I moved on to using Google Forms as an assessment tool. And once my school moved to a one-to-one ratio with students and Chromebooks, I transferred all of my tests online. Now my World History students take rigorous map quizzes on their Chromebooks that are capable of displaying rich visual aids while also providing instant feedback about their responses. In my Economics classes, my students can now complete math assessments on their devices, with Forms capable of recognizing several correct forms of answers and then providing instant feedback to them as well. In addition to these student-centered aspects of Forms, it also provides immediate class achievement data sortable by question and respondent. These innovations have empowered me as an educator to assess more often and more efficiently. With the more granular data available, I have also been able to think more critically about test design and have had a quicker turnaround for re-teaching troublesome skills or content knowledge.

I wish to encourage educators of all content areas and degrees of expertise to consider slowly introducing data into their daily instruction. Start small with a manageable project in one class and build your data-informed pedagogy from there. Contrary to what I once believed, data, and the technology to support it, are crucial aspects for cultivating personalized and growth-oriented relationships with students.

Written by Julio Alicea - Follow on Twitter @JulioAAlicea