Practicing the Art of the Data Chat

“Data chat” is one of those jargony education terms, like “PLC” and “differentiation,” that everyone thinks they understand (or thinks they are supposed to understand), so they nod and say, “Oh yes, we do that.” But I’m willing to bet if you ask ten principals or teachers to define the purpose and format of a data chat, you will get ten different answers.

For the purposes of this article, we consider the data chat a private conversation between an individual teacher and principal, but the ideas can be applied to a variety of formats and participants. 

In a best-case scenario, the teacher and leader will use the dedicated session to build a shared understanding of what conclusions can and cannot be drawn from the data at hand. They will offer hypotheses as to why the outcomes are as they are and test them using the evidence available. And ultimately, they will land on one or two clear actions they can each take in response to what they have learned.

However, we have witnessed how easy it is for these conversations to go off the rails, particularly when results are not what were hoped for.

Data chats are somewhat of an art form that require skill, not only in data analysis, but in human psychology, not to mention a solid understanding of what high quality instruction looks like in a given grade and subject.

It would not be wise to “wing it” with these crucial conversations. But we recognize leaders have precious few moments to thoroughly prepare. So below we offer a few recommendations for how to do this strategically.

First and foremost, decide which essential question teachers need to be able to ask and answer at the given time of year.

At the beginning of the year, the most important question to ask of the first diagnostic is whether it is reflective of student ability in the context of their academic histories. There hasn’t been enough time yet to reflect on the quality of instruction; rather we must help students set appropriately challenging goals and plan to help them meet those goals.

At the second and third diagnostics, the emphasis of the conversation should shift. In our opinion, the most important question for teachers then becomes whether core instruction is effective and for whom (i.e., which subgroups and individual students).

Regardless of the time of year, leaders must think about what data are necessary (and available) to answer the essential question. Prioritize a short list of visuals that are easy to read and offer context (e.g., multiple year trajectory, comparisons to other like students). Provide these to your teacher in advance of the conversation so you both have time to reflect on the same information.

We recommend that leaders come to the table with some hypotheses based on their review of the evidence, but to open the floor to the teacher first. After setting a clear purpose for the meeting, the principal might pull up the first key visual and ask the teacher “What overarching patterns do you notice?” followed by “Which groups of students seem to be responding to core instruction and which do not?”

Asking this broad question will be revelatory. Rightly so, teachers will have questions, complaints, misunderstandings, and fears that need to be acknowledged and addressed. They will also have ideas you hadn’t thought of yet, some that may serve to affirm or challenge your own hypotheses, and others that are simply distractions. To avoid going down unhelpful rabbit holes and instead work toward a defensible set of conclusions, the leader must commit to using the evidence available to test any theories or assertions made.

For example, a teacher might say “My growth rates are low because I have so many students with disabilities this year.” Fair enough; what data can we look at to test that hypothesis (e.g., can we look to see whether the growth rates of students with disabilities are in fact pulling down the class average)? And more importantly, what will we do with what we learn? How will it inform our instructional choices?

To guide this part of discussion effectively, leaders need to know the priority data sets and how to navigate and talk about them accurately. This takes practice, and it is much harder to do in the moment, particularly if the teacher is upset or defensive. The more muscle memory you have around the technical aspects of the data, the more present you can be for the human interaction around it.

Which leads to our second piece of advice: practice navigating and helping another person make sense of the data sets you have prioritized. It is one thing to look at a graph or chart and know what it means in your head and a very different thing to explain it out loud. Role play with another administrator who is familiar with the data as well as with a friend or colleague who isn’t. Ask them for feedback on your explanation and tone. This will help you become more aware of what you say that is unhelpful, to recognize misconceptions, and to redirect (gently, but confidently) when others draw inaccurate conclusions.

It can be easy to allow vague and unhelpful statements to float in the air unchallenged. As a non-example, if a data visual shows an overall negative trend in a particular classroom, the teacher might say “My students are doing awful.” This kind of judgmental statement is not only inaccurate but potentially harmful to the psyche of the teacher and the students by reinforcing negative expectations. The leader must be ready to help the teacher interpret the data more precisely.

For example, the principal might redirect as follows, “When I look at the data I see that, on average, students in this classroom are learning at a slower pace than their national peers. The students with disabilities are growing at a faster rate, while higher-achieving students are growing at a slower rate.” There is no judgment or emotion in this description of the data, but it is actionable. If the teacher knows which groups of students are least well-served by the current state of affairs, they will be better equipped to problem solve.

Finally, it’s important to show your teachers and yourself grace. After observing hundreds of data chats, it is fair to say no two are identical. It would be difficult for anyone to be ready for all contingencies. Make it your goal to guide the teacher through a humane confrontation with reality and land on a mutual commitment to act. The process may be messy, but if you’ve done these two things, count it as a win and keep going.

To learn how K12 Lift helps prepare school leaders for productive conversations with teachers about their student outcomes, click here to contact us.

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