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Studying Micro-Processes of School-Based Educators’ Use of Data in Cross-School Qualitative Research

This paper was presented at the American Education Research Association’s 2007 annual conference. While there is a great deal of enthusiasm for collection and use of student data by educators, little is known about how teachers and principals actually try to make sense of data and how they apply this knowledge to making instructional decisions. The findings are based on a multi-year research project involving case studies of ‘low-performing’ schools in order to gain a deeper understanding of how educators learn to use data. The authors describe some of the methodological and definitional challenges that arose during the course of the study. Specifically, the focus is on two challenges encountered. The first challenge is how to understand and describe the micro-activities in which instructional communities engage as they work to make sense of data and how various aspects of school capacity influence data use. The second challenge relates to linking educators’ examinations of student performance data to instructional decisions and finding examples of such decisions and connecting them to educators’ analysis of data. The authors discuss key methodological strategies that were developed in order to work within these challenges. The use of multiple methodological strategies has significant promise for developing much richer understandings not only of the role of data itself but also of the role that instructional communities and leaders play in helping their schools become learning organizations.