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Should You Cancel Teacher Data Team Meetings? You Might Be Surprised

Adam Geller
September 16, 2021

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Insights is a SmartBrief Education Originals column that features perspectives from noted experts and leaders in education on hot-button issues affecting schools and districts. All contributors are selected by the SmartBrief Education editorial team.

A familiar happening: Teachers come together, pull out last week’s assessment, and talk about the student data to determine gaps in knowledge to plan adjustments to instruction.

But are these data discussions actually leading to tangible outcomes for students? 

According to Heather Hill, a researcher and professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education, the answer is no. In a review of 10 studies -- each of which examined the impact of whole-team data discussion -- Hill found that two had positive impacts, one had a negative impact, and the rest had zero impact. 

“Across 10 different programs which tried to see this theory in action, there were zero [showing] impacts of getting teachers to really be productive, understand what kids don’t know, and change their instruction,” said Hill, in an interview with Edthena. “That convinced me we’re doing something wrong in schools.” 

Yes, still look at assessment data. But not in groups.

So should educators fully eliminate the practice of reviewing student data? Definitely not. 

Just throw out the group discussion of such data.

Hill herself was clear that teachers should still review data to identify areas of strength and areas of need across students and classes. And for administrators, across the grades and entire school.

So then, the question is, why are group data discussions not making an impact?

“There’s a tendency in some social settings for people with good intentions to say, ‘Someone didn’t do great on the interim assessment last week, but he was having a bad week and that resulted in the performance he produced on the assessment,’” said Hill. “That may be true, but it doesn’t signal to the collective that anything has to change in terms of the teaching that’s going on.”

She also noted comprehensive and coherent solutions, the types needed to help students make real gains, are not covered in data meetings. Group conversations often drift toward the category of limited-impact, point-solutions like a particular worksheet or activity to try out with students, for example.  

“Teachers are under a lot of time pressure, so a lot of quick fixes happen,” said Hill.

How to use teacher meeting time strategically

In addition to teachers not getting high-impact instructional advice from these data-centric meetings, Hill noted another issue: they are using up teachers’ valuable time. 

“It’s time to really rethink this practice [of data team meetings] and rethink the time teachers spend on it because there’s an opportunity cost,” said Hill. “Teachers could be doing other things that may be more productive in terms of helping them meet their kids’ needs.”

If the motivation exists to build collective efficacy through strengthening teachers’ shared professional vision, then support teachers to talk about the definition of high-quality teaching by seeing the actual teaching.

What if teachers were guided in self-reflection by watching a video of their teaching? And what if they were talking about what teaching looks like in each other’s classrooms? And what if they received personalized feedback on actual attempts to implement practices with students?

All of these ideas are backed by strong academic research about what helps teachers make and sustain the changes within their classrooms that support student learning.

I’ll admit what we’re all feeling: The suggestion to cancel data meetings challenges our thinking on what works based on what we thought we knew from past experience.

But, if the last year-plus has taught us anything, educators should be ready to get rid of the “that’s the way we’ve always done it” and focus, instead, on what can actually make a difference for students.

Adam Geller is the author of “Evidence of Practice: Playbook for Video-Powered Professional Learning” and founder of Edthena, a teacher video observation that streamlines feedback to teachers. Heather Hill, Ph.D. is a researcher at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and co-author of the Ed Week column Weighing the Research: What Works, What Doesn’t. Get more insights from Heather Hill at  www.pltogether.org and Edthena’s blog.

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