Educators as Physicians: Using Data to Diagnose and Treat Learning Deficiencies in the Classroom

“Educators and health physicians perform similar functions,” Vance Randall believes. “Just as physicians will run multiple tests and check your temperature, your blood pressure, etc. to target where exactly something is wrong, teachers can use data to help pinpoint where precisely their students are struggling.”

Last fall Randall learned about what Mike Larsen, principal of Rees Elementary School, his faculty, and partners from the BYU Positive Behavior Support Initiative had been doing with data-based decision making to improve student outcomes.

Larsen and his faculty partnered with the BYU Positive Behavior Support Initiative on school improvement over six years ago. For the past two years, as part of this ongoing partnership, McKay School faculty members, Pam Hallam, Gary Wall, Paul Caldarella, and Lynnette Christensen worked closely with Rees Elementary to systematically build upon and expand the school’s data-based decision making processes already being used by grade level teams to improve both academic and behavioral outcomes for students. Randall decided to take a closer look, hoping to create a powerful platform for using data-based decision making in principal preparation programs.

“I met with Mike to see what goes on in elementary schools and what the students’ needs imply so that I could use that information to help modify what we do here at the university,” Randall said.

Randall and Larsen developed a presentation on four ideas or “tools” needed for successful treatment in the public school system. They presented these four tools at a recent National Center for Education Statistics Conference in Arizona:












    Organization. This first tool focuses on creating a culture of collaboration and problem solving, as well as building capacity in people to accomplish this. Students, teachers, principals, and parents are all part of a larger educational social ecosystem. Classrooms and schools need to develop ways and opportunities in which people can work together to identify root causes of problems and select the right intervention to solve problems affecting poor student performance.



    Technology. Technological tools help teachers and principals gain easy, quick access to relevant, timely data. Randall explains that one of the biggest challenges in data-based decision making is developing the kind of software that will provide feedback quickly enough. “Technology isn’t quite where it needs to be in order to meet those needs,” Randall said. “We are continuing to push for software that gives the data now—not next week, not next month, and certainly not at the end of the year.”



    Analysis. Once principals and teachers have access to timely and relevant data, they need to be able to make meaning out of it, otherwise the data are useless. “We make meaning of data. Principals and teachers haven’t been prepared as much as they would like to be in order to make sufficient meaning out of data.” Randall explains that principals and teachers must be trained to do two things with data before they go into the schools: (1) transform data into information and (2) identify problems and their root causes.



    Response to intervention. After identifying problems and their root causes, principals and teachers should be able to select the proper response or solution to the problem. Responses to the data may include changes in presentation, curriculum, activities, etc. in order to solve a particular student or entire class learning problem.


Knowledge can improve the quality of decisions, and, if knowledge is based on relevant, sufficient, timely, and accessible data, it can greatly improve the quality of decisions. “This is the kind of knowledge educators need to improve instructional practice, boost student achievement, and inform education policy,” Randall said.

12 July 2010