Skip to main content

The Path of Data Wisdom

The Data Wise Project unveils a new portfolio of resources.

Data Wise portal
Like all valuable tools, Data Wise emerged in response to a critical need. In the early 2000s, educators were facing a deluge of data generated by tests required by the No Child Left Behind Act. Test results revealed striking gaps in student knowledge and skills, leading to great pressure to improve the quality of instruction. But there was no roadmap for achieving the increases in student learning that everyone was seeking.

“The presumption was that data from high-stakes assessments would be just what teachers needed to ‘up their game’ and teach better,” says Lecturer Kathryn Boudett, director of the Data Wise Project. “In reality, though, the system often seemed to set schools up to take the low road of improving test scores, not to encourage them to look deeply at the learning and teaching happening in classrooms.”

To support educators taking the higher road, the Harvard Graduate School of Education established the Data Wise Project. Its goal is to bridge the gap between information and action, providing a clear process for using data to improve teaching and learning. 

“To understand Data Wise, you have to understand that it arose out of researchers and practitioners coming together to figure out how to solve a very real problem in the field,” says Boudett. “In a world where educational achievement was becoming a stronger and stronger predictor of economic security, high-stakes test results helped us see the need to educate our students better. But they don’t show us how. Data Wise provides a strategy for going beyond tests and building a collaborative culture that is grounded in evidence.”

For 10 years, Data Wise has helped educators apply that strategy through books, a DVD, and professional education programs. Today, the project’s tools and resources are evolving, yet the ultimate goal of school improvement remains at its core.

Charting a Course for Improvement

Data Wise developed from work Professor Richard Murnane began in 2001 with the Boston Public Schools (BPS) to develop a system for making assessment results easily accessible to teachers and principals. Recognizing the need to provide support to BPS educators in using the system, Murnane created a course bringing practitioners and HGSE graduate students together. Murnane also convened a group of school administrators and HGSE faculty and graduate students, including Boudett and Lecturer Elizabeth City, Ed.M.’04, Ed.D.’07, to examine what schools that use data effectively actually do and how HGSE could make that knowledge useful to others.

Over two years, the group worked to develop a model that captured how schools use data effectively. They created the Data Wise Improvement Process, a cycle of eight specific, manageable steps designed to help school leaders organize the work of school improvement. As a way to bring the group’s efforts to educators beyond Boston, a book, Data Wise: A Step-by-Step Guide to Using Assessment Results to Improve Teaching and Learning, was published in 2005 by Harvard Education Press.

The steps guide teams through three phases — prepare, inquire, and act — and outline the key tasks involved in building the skills necessary for looking at data, identifying a problem of practice, developing an action plan, and assessing to what extent it succeeds in improving student learning. Acknowledging the need for continual refinement, the cycle begins again in the inquiry phase as the team’s work evolves. Data Wise stresses examining a wide range of data sources, with a particular emphasis on looking at student work and observing teaching practice.

Conceived as a way of working rather than a program to implement, Data Wise is designed to facilitate collaborative work that leads to action and to cultivate lasting change in a school or system’s culture. Early response from the field was enthusiastic. “The feedback we kept getting [from practitioners] was, ‘Yes, these are the things we would need to do if we wanted to get serious about educating all students well. This process makes sense,’” says Boudett.

Data Wise in Print

The first Data Wise book was developed through an intensely collaborative process with HGSE faculty and graduate students, practitioners, and editors.

“One of the Harvard Education Press’ founding goals has been to ‘translate’ education research on behalf of education practitioners — school and district leaders, teachers, administrators,” says Douglas Clayton, the director of the Harvard Education Publishing Group. “In terms of both its content and process, Data Wise really hit that sweet spot. It’s a uniquely successful book that comes out of the academy but that has benefited school practitioners greatly.”

“It closed the circle between information and action so schools could do real work,” says editor Caroline Chauncey. “It filled a huge need. People wanted more.”

Additional resources allowed practitioners to learn from others going through the same challenges on the course to improvement: Data Wise in Action (2007) chronicled the ups and downs of eight different schools following the Data Wise process, and Key Elements of Observing Practice (2014), a DVD and facilitator’s guide, was created to overcome one of the biggest cultural barriers to school improvement: learning to observe instruction.

Boudett and City’s Meeting Wise: Making the Most of Collaborative Time for Educators (2014), the latest publication to emerge from the project, recognizes the importance of meetings as the place where much of the real work of school improvements happens. While it developed as a natural progression from the Data Wise process, the relevance of Meeting Wise extends well beyond using data. Arguing that meetings are a critical opportunity for adult and organizational learning, the book offers field-tested tips and tools for improving the quality of meetings across the education sector.  

“You don’t have to be doing Data Wise to learn from it,” says Chauncey.

Data Wise in Practice

To share what they were learning from seeing the triumphs and challenges schools encountered as they enacted Data Wise, the project team created a professional education program, the Data Wise summer institute, in 2006. Offering crucial support to schools working through the process, the institute was oversubscribed in its very first year. More than 100 people from around the country and the world continue to seek out this intensive training experience on the HGSE campus each year.

Data Wise
After hearing about the Data Wise institute from a colleague, Deirdra Aikens, principal of Leasure Elementary School in Newark, Delaware, began exploring how it could benefit her team. In June 2011, Aikens arrived at the Ed School with her assistant principal, team leaders from four grade levels, and an instructional coach. “It was so eye-opening,” says Aikens. “It named so many intangibles that we had been struggling with, and it helped us create a plan.”

Upon returning home, Aikens’ team introduced the process to their colleagues and launched Data Wise at Leasure. “When we got back to school, it really changed our perception of the work,” she says. “So many teachers feel like when students don’t achieve, it’s their fault. But then we realized there is a process for improvement, and the energy changed. It was like, ‘What are we going to do? When are we going to do it? When can we get started?’”

Leasure is currently attaining its highest standardized test scores in nine years and seeing tremendous growth in special education students’ proficiency. “Our students are learning more, and our teachers are teaching differently,” says Aikens. “It has become the way we do business. We are now chronic problem solvers.”       

Tools for Today

As the education landscape has evolved, so too has Data Wise. This spring, the project is rolling out an updated portfolio of resources, informed by years of learning from the field, that will extend its impact farther than ever before. 

In May, Introduction to Data Wise, a free online course, will be offered through HarvardX. It is designed as a self-paced course that can be taken individually or in groups, informally or as a professional development opportunity. Boudett says the MOOC (massive open online course) format allows educators to quickly understand what the process is and how they might apply it in their settings. “It’s raising awareness of what the gold standard of looking at student data would involve. We hope that getting that message out there will help build a powerful consensus around what it takes to really use data wisely,” says Boudett.

Aikens was only too happy to help spread that message, inviting Data Wise and HarvardX into meetings and classrooms at Leasure to shoot video for the MOOC. For her team, it was a gratifying experience to model the process for other educators. “It brought all of the hard work to life,” says Aikens. “When we saw the videos, we thought, ‘Wow! Look how much we have learned.”

After taking the free online introduction, educators ready to take the next step of launching the Data Wise Process can explore a suite of professional education programs:

  • The on-campus Data Wise Leadership Institute allows teams to work outside of their day-to-day environment and its distractions as they practice the steps using case study data.
  • The online version of the Data Wise Leadership Institute supports teams in working with their own data and developing all of the materials that they will need to launch Data Wise in their schools.
  • After completing one of the above, educators can enroll in Data Wise in Action, an intensive, job-embedded online course where teams work through all eight steps of the Data Wise Improvement Process with virtual coaching.

Each program is an experience designed by the core Data Wise team and offers support, either in person or live online, as teams prepare to launch and work through the process.

Always Asking What’s Next

For a decade, Data Wise has sought new ways to best serve practitioners. “We’ve operated as a kind of entrepreneurial enterprise,” says Boudett. “We’re always asking, ‘what’s the next thing we can create that will help people do this very hard work well?’”

Data Wise has continually tested and refined its portfolio to determine what is most helpful now, in what Boudett calls a fundamentally different education landscape. There is more assessment data available than ever. It is more common for teams to have dedicated time for collaborative planning, yet increased turnover among principals and teachers presents a challenge to team-based work. New technology has also broken down the barriers to evaluating practice; observing one another’s classroom is now as easy as setting up a smart phone on a tripod.

As they have adapted to changing needs, the Data Wise team has upended expectations for online learning. The HarvardX MOOC, by releasing the entire course at once, offers uncommon flexibility for busy educators and a quick way to orient new staff to the Data Wise framework. The online Data Wise Leadership Institute, on the other hand, ensures that teams dedicate the intensive collaborative time that Data Wise’s cultural shift requires; Boudett describes it as a retreat in a box with live virtual support. “We’re giving people the architecture they need to have really effective conversations,” she says. “There’s something here that transcends the content of Data Wise; we are breaking the mold of what online education can be.”

No matter the vehicle, the Data Wise team remains focused on the ultimate goal of improving teaching and learning. Elevating the work of educators, like using data, is a process that requires commitment, collaboration, and constant reevaluation. Boudett knows her team is up to the task. “What better place than the Harvard Graduate School of Education to have this experiment in online learning and in bringing the improvement process to people at scale?” she says.


The latest research, perspectives, and highlights from the Harvard Graduate School of Education

Related Articles