Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Teachers Know Best: Making Data Work for Teachers and Students

June 03, 2015

Walk into Aaron Kaswell’s math class at MS 88 Peter Rouget School in Brooklyn, NY, and you’ll see groups of students engaged in discussion and collaboration, while others participate in individual activities and online lessons. Kaswell and his colleagues use New Classroom’s School of One, a blended learning approach that uses daily assessments to customize the next day’s instruction.

Personalized learning approaches like School of One allow teachers to analyze each student’s strengths and weaknesses and tailor instruction to respond to individual needs. For Kaswell, the technology helps him teach more effectively: “Without School of One, I could never do individualized exit tickets for even 30 students in a class or group 300 students effectively each day based on their needs.”

Good teachers have always worked to create personalized pathways for students that engage them in their learning. Today, technology makes it easier to create customized learning experiences. According to a new survey, virtually all teachers—93 percent—now use some sort of digital tool to guide instruction. From digital gradebooks to online assessments and learning platforms, these tools help teachers meet students where they are.

 Virtually all teachers—93 percent—now use some sort of digital tool to guide instruction.Teachers Know Best report

At the same time, teachers face challenges integrating digital instructional tools into their classrooms and using the information effectively. We surveyed more than 4,600 classroom teachers about how they use digital tools and student data to tailor instruction. The results are detailed in Teachers Know Best: Making Data Work for Teachers and Students, as well as on a new website that allows technology developers to explore the survey findings.

The goal of Teachers Know Best is to bring the perspectives of teachers to product developers who are creating digital tools for the classroom. By listening to teachers and identifying existing gaps in the market, we can help product developers create new digital instructional tools—or improve existing ones—to better meet the needs of teachers and students.

We learned that more than two thirds of teachers—67 percent—are not fully satisfied with the effectiveness of the data and the tools they have access to on a regular basis.

Teachers cited a variety of factors that limit their ability to track student progress and tailor instruction. Too often, the data they receive from digital instructional tools must be manipulated manually or combined with another data set to give a true picture of the performance of a student or class. Sometimes the data and analysis arrive too slowly to impact the teaching and learning process. Or the data aren’t granular enough to diagnose learning challenges.

But the biggest challenge teachers face is time. Teachers say they are spending so much time assembling, assessing, and analyzing data that they have little time to actually alter instruction—which is the end goal of data and the tools that provide it.

Improving the way digital tools integrate data from multiple sources and work together are top priorities. Teachers identified nine specific needs for the three phases of data-driven instruction: assessing data, analyzing data, and adjusting instruction based on the data. Developers that address these key needs will help teachers recapture time now spent compiling and analyzing data from multiple sources and use it instead to plan and deliver instruction shaped by data insights.

At the Gates Foundation, we are investing in projects that aim to close the market gaps identified by teachers. Through the Literacy Courseware Challenge, we recently awarded 29 grants totaling more than $5 million to spur development of digital tools supporting literacy instruction. These tools support students in grades 4 through 8 in mastering literacy skills for writing, writing to read, and writing to learn.

To expand the use of learning products that work for students and connect developers with educators, we’ve also invested in education technology collaboratives in three cities. These collaboratives help educators find products, learn how to use them, and understand what works for each student. They provide opportunities for entrepreneurs to deeply engage with teachers and to refine products based on their feedback. And they help districts quickly scale what works.

Technology can strengthen that bond between students and teachers, especially when it enables learning that is personalized to students’ individual needs, skills, and interests. But to be effective, we need to listen closely to the needs of teachers and engage them in the design of technology—because teachers are the experts on what works in the classroom. 

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