Harvard Educational Review
  1. Data Literacy for Educators

    Making It Count in Teacher Preparation and Practice

    Ellen B. Mandinach and Edith S. Gummer

    New York: Teachers College Press, 2016. 176 pp. $34.95 (paper).

    In Data Literacy for Educators: Making It Count in Teacher Preparation and Practice, Ellen B. Mandinach and Edith S. Gummer detail a conceptual framework they refer to as Data Literacy for Teachers (DLFT) and describe how schools of teacher education, among other K–12 US education stakeholders, can support teachers’ development of data literacy skills, the skills and habits of mind teachers need to responsibly use student data.

    In the first half of the book, Mandinach and Gummer explain what DLFT entails and argue that it has been increasingly important for all teachers to master as policy mandates (e.g., accountability policies like ESSA) have generated a plethora of data on students. In chapter 1, the authors draw on the research base on teachers’ data use to develop an overall definition of DLFT, writing, “Data literacy for teaching is the ability to transform information into actionable instructional knowledge and practices” (p. 14). They go on to argue that DLFT draws on multiple sources of teacher knowledge, including knowledge of assessments, standards, how students learn, curriculum, and pedagogical content (i.e., specialized knowledge of instruction, students, and content needed to teach a particular subject) as well as discipline-specific knowledge. In this manner, the DLFT construct goes beyond simple knowledge of data to attend to how teachers use data in concert with their knowledge of teaching in order to shape classroom practice. In this sense, DLFT is a dynamic process of action rather than an inert knowledge base.

    In the second chapter, Mandinach and Gummer give the policy context for how DLFT, in their view, came to be a core component of teaching. They argue that while the origins of DLFT trace back to high-stakes accountability and testing initiated by the federal government under George W. Bush, policy makers' views on appropriate data use have evolved over time—as has the messaging from the US Department of Education. Rather than solely a means of compliance, data are now largely seen by policy makers, school leader, and teachers as a key tool to inform continuous improvement efforts, in addition to being used in research, accountability measures, and policy evaluations. Such a view on data use is reflected in teaching standards, licensure requirements, and exams, all of which articulate the need for teachers to use data to inform their instructional choices. Yet, at the same time, because data have historically been tied to negative consequences for teachers and schools through accountability policies (e.g., publicly labeling schools as failing, closing schools, firing teachers, etc.), the authors argue, a culture of fear of data among teachers and educators remains and, more concerning, has served to conflate data literacy and assessment literacy across the field.

    Mandinach and Gummer persistently call attention to the pervasive conflation of data literacy and assessment literacy among teachers, policy makers, school leaders, and teacher educators. They define assessment literacy as knowledge to develop, select, and analyze assessments. While this is foundational knowledge to support DLFT, it is a distinct construct for two reasons: DLFT (1) encompasses data sources that go beyond assessment data and (2) centers on how to use data more than simply how to construct and interpret assessments. The authors repeatedly assert that data used by teachers must come from a variety of sources, including attitudinal, motivational, behavioral, and health indicators, rather than from student performance data alone. One of the goals of this book is to disabuse readers of the notion that data literacy is synonymous with assessment literacy so that a wide range of stakeholders can begin to improve the data literacy of the teaching workforce.

    Chapter 3 presents the totality of the conceptual framework for DLFT, detailing the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that comprise it. The authors ground the construct in a five-stage data inquiry cycle: (1) identifying problems, (2) understanding data, (3) drawing information from data, (4) determining a decision/action step, and (5) evaluating outcomes. In this manner they illustrate how DLFT is an iterative process of making meaning out of data and then translating that meaning to instructional action. Within each stage of the cycle, they explain the knowledge and skills that teachers require. For example, to use data, a teacher must understand the psychometric and statistical properties of data (knowledge); to glean information from data, a teacher must understand how to detect patterns and test assumptions (skills). The DLFT construct draws on a diverse set of types of teacher knowledge. For example, in order to transform information from data into instructional action, teachers must possess both curricular and discipline-specific knowledge as well as pedagogical content knowledge of how students learn particular subject matter. Indeed, the detailed diagrams highlighting the various skills and knowledge bases involved in DLFT cannot fit on one page, and the diagram reflects the “hot mess we have with data use in education” (p. 55).

    Mandinach and Gummer go beyond the skills and knowledge teachers need to master DLFT and instead describe the beliefs and habits of mind that may support or inhibit teachers’ attempts at using data to inform instruction. As they explain in chapter 4, DLFT demands that teachers believe that all students can learn, value data as a source of information, and value thinking critically about their own practice. While they acknowledge that many teachers have low levels of confidence when it comes to data use, they fall short of describing how schools might close this confidence gap and foster among teachers the important noncognitive aspects of DLFT highlighted in the text.

    The second half of the book makes a case for how teachers could be supported in mastering DLFT, focusing on the role schools of education (teacher preparation programs in particular), as opposed to schools or districts, must play in developing approaches to teaching DLFT. In chapter 5, the authors report on four case studies of teacher preparation programs’ treatments of DLFT. Through these cases, they illustrate the various ways DLFT is taught: some programs have stand-alone data courses, others integrate data literacy across the academic program, and still others embrace data literacy as their mechanism for organizational improvement by analyzing their own student data to determine how best to adjust their program. Because proficient data use among teachers requires “integration with content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge” (p. 78), Mandinach and Gummer argue that an integrated approach, as opposed to stand-alone courses, is the best model for cultivating DLFT. However, they do not paint an optimistic picture, noting, among many challenges, that teacher preparation programs already suffer from persistently bloated curricula, that schools of higher education lack incentives to change practice, and that many professors of higher education do not feel confident in their own ability to practice DLFT. Further compounding these challenges, the authors report in chapter 7 results from a survey of schools of education which indicates that what many report as data literacy is really assessment literacy, suggesting that schools of education also fall prey to conflating the two constructs. Despite these challenges, they maintain that development of DLFT must begin before teachers enter the classroom, since inservice professional development for teachers focused on DLFT has not been effective thus far.

    In the concluding chapter, Mandinach and Gummer present their vision of how teacher preparation programs might cultivate DLFT and appeal to a wide array of policy-making organizations in supporting this work. They provide several illustrative vignettes of teachers using data literacy in practice and of attempts by schools of education to cultivate data literacy. Yet, this is where the book does not go far enough. The majority of the teacher vignettes focus on one teacher using data in isolation from colleagues, rather than showing how teams of teachers may engage in the iterative cycle outlined in the DLFT framework. In this way, the stories fail to illustrate how teachers draw on and use the various forms of knowledge necessary to engage in data inquiry cycles. Nor do the stories illustrate the complexity of the work involved and the stages in the cycle where teachers tend to go awry. Furthermore, the models for teacher preparation are oversimplified and do not dive sufficiently deeply into the difficulty of this work for teacher education. While Mandinach and Gummer acknowledge that the field of teacher education does not yet have a developmental trajectory for teachers as they engage in DLFT, it would have been thought-provoking if the authors had explored more extensively the impact of this gap in the literature on the field of education. This leads readers to wonder: What does it mean to teach data literacy to novices with only emergent knowledge of students and teaching? Are novices able to draw on sufficient content knowledge and pedagogical skills in order to effectively use data to inform instruction? Questions such as these are at the frontier of working with teachers around data, and yet the authors do not address them with any depth. They appeal to an array of stakeholders to do more to support DLFT through policy rather than deeply examining the intricate process of teacher learning and implementation.

    The real contribution of Data Literacy for Educators to research on data literacy is the complex DLFT framework Mandinach and Gummer lay out early in the book. This framework is nothing short of a feat. Complex and comprehensive, it successfully communicates the cyclical nature of DLFT, unpacks the myriad of skills demanded by DLFT, and articulates the kinds of teacher knowledge and beliefs that DLFT draws on. Such a framework will likely have broad appeal for researchers, teacher educators, and policy makers. Researchers might use the framework to guide inquiry into what we don’t yet know—What is the developmental trajectory of data use? Where in the cycle do teacher teams struggle? What are the skills and knowledge that a teacher must master to productively engage in DLFT at various stages? How does teacher knowledge change and grow as a result of DLFT? Teacher educators may also use the framework to design programs, both preservice and in-service, to develop DLFT, since it offers explicit guidance about what teachers need to understand in order to engage in this work productively. Similarly, policy makers can align initiatives, standards, and funding to support programs serving to strengthen DLFT. Finally, what might be Mandinach and Gummer’s greatest contribution to the field as a whole is their dogged attempt to distinguish data literacy from assessment literacy—such a clarification will help all stakeholders realize the enormous potential for data use to improve teaching and learning.



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Book Notes

Data Literacy for Educators
Ellen B. Mandinach and Edith S. Gummer

Transforming the Academy
Edited by Sarah Willie-LeBreton