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Driven By Data:
Teaching in the
Age of Accountability


Voice of Experience

Educator Brenda Dyck reflects on how collecting data has become an essential part of teaching. But data collection often can become such an obsession that it actually gets in the way of student learning. This week, Dyck reflects on her interest in data and her realization that sometimes more data is really not helpful at all. Included: Eight questions to help determine if data gathering will be worth the effort.


Fighting data asphyxiation is difficult but possible.
-- William Van Winkle

This week Im neck-deep in data analysis. I am sorting through the results from a beginning-of-the-year math assessment. For me, this isnt a comfortable place to be, because I am not a statistician. I even wonder if I will know what to do with the information once I get it!

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Since I am an educator in the Age of Accountability, I resign myself to gathering and analyzing everything from classroom behavior to achievement test results and homework completion. But as I wade through the rows and rows of numbers in front of me, I speculate whether the time Im spending will justify the time Im not spending creating new and engaging curriculum, developing meaningful relationships with my students, providing meaningful feedback on assignments, or even applying new learning applications.

Once I finish the lengthy process of gathering, plotting, and looking for meaning in the data, a question lingers: How will I convert this information into intelligence?


I realize how easy it is to drown in an excess of information and analysis, so Ive sought out a number of online tools that have empowered me to investigate and evaluate student learning and classroom issues in a quick, uncomplicated manner. I use

  • test-creation Web sites such as Quia and online survey sites like Zoomerang to help me streamline the data collection process. Those tools help me to analyze the results and turn them into easy-to-read graphs.
  • the free graphing tool on the National Center for Education Statistics Web page for kids. That tool provides easy-to-use templates for communicating information visually.
  • graphic organizers to help me identify key issues, set targets, and create a plan for implementing the results of the data.


In the information age, there can be too much exposure and too much information and too much sort of quasi-informationTheres a danger that too much stuff cramming in on peoples minds is just as bad for them as too little in terms of the ability to understand, to comprehend."
-- Bill Clinton

When it comes to data analysis, I have to resist buying into the old adage that more is better. Before I yield to yet another data collection activity, my experience this fall collecting data related to the start-of-the-year math assessment reminds me that I need to employ a number of screening questions to determine if the effort will be worth it:

  • What is the purpose of collecting this data? What question am I seeking to answer?
  • How will this data help me improve instruction?
  • What information will help me answer these questions?
  • What is the most time-efficient way of collecting and analyzing this information?
  • Who needs to participate?
  • What is a reasonable amount of time to devote to gathering and analyzing?
  • What teaching/personal activities/responsibilities will I have to put on hold in order to explore this question?
  • Do I have the time and resources available to me to apply the outcomes of this study?

I have to remember that its always more enjoyable to start another study than to use the data I already have, and those questions will help me determine whether new data is really needed. Those questions will help me to create some parameters so my priorities stay in balance -- so data collection and analysis dont happen at the expense of essential one-on-one time with my students.


Brenda Dyck is a sessional instructor at the University of Alberta, in Edmonton, Alberta (Canada). In addition to teaching preservice teachers, Brenda is the moderator of MiddleTalk, a listserve sponsored by the National Middle School Association (NMSA). Her "HotLinks" column is a regular feature in NMSA's magazine, Middle Ground. Brenda also is a teacher-editor for MidLink magazine.