Background: Data-driven decision making continues to be a common feature of educational reform agendas across the globe. In many U.S. schools, the teacher team meeting is a key setting in which data use is intended to take place, with the aim of planning instruction to address students’ needs. However, most prior research has not examined how the use of data shapes teachers’ dialogue about their students’ ability and achievement.
Purpose: This study examines how teachers talk about student ability and achievement in the era of data-driven decision making and how their talk is shaped by the use of data within teams, their school contexts, and broader accountability systems.
Research Design: The study draws on interview and observational data gathered from teacher teams in four elementary schools. In each of these schools, teachers were expected to use data to inform instructional differentiation. Data collection efforts involved regular visits to each school over the course of one year to interview teachers and conduct observations of teacher team meetings. In the process of analysis, interview transcripts and field notes were coded, and themes were extracted within and across codes.
Findings: Across schools, teachers used common labels (e.g., “low,” “middle,” “GATE”) to describe students of different achievement levels and the programs they were involved in. The use of labels and student categories was relational and comparative and influenced by the accountability and policy contexts in which teachers worked. At the same time, regular meetings in which teachers jointly examined data on student learning provided a space for teachers to examine students’ strengths and weaknesses on a variety of measures and talk in terms of student growth. Teachers questioned whether assessment data provided an accurate picture of student achievement and acknowledged the role of student effort, behavior, and family circumstances as important factors that were not easily measured. These discussions opened up deeper inquiry into the factors that supported or hindered student learning. The implementation of the Common Core State Standards also led some teachers to question prior categorizations of student ability.
Conclusions/Recommendations: The findings from this study suggest that educational reforms and policies regarding data use influence educators’ conceptions of student achievement and ability. On the one hand, accountability policies can narrow the dialogue about students. On the other hand, educational reforms and policies could also lead to new ways of thinking about student learning and to an examination of a broader range of data, and provide opportunities for professional learning.