Originally published October 25, 2009 at

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People have been writing to me lately about data notebooks.  Principals ask, “How do you implement them in a school?  How do you get teachers to buy in?”  Teachers ask, “What data should I be looking at, especially if my subject area isn’t tested?”  

No doubt, data notebooks are a sexy idea.  They have potential for getting data out of faculty meetings or the principal’s computer and into classrooms, the only place where deep down we know data can make a difference.  I spent years in North Carolina as a trainer and curriculum writer for the NC Teacher Academy getting teachers to start keeping data notebooks.  My conference sessions on the subject were always packed.  At the time, my ideas about data notebooks were inspired by Steve Edwards, a former school principal who contributed work to Alan Blankstein’s book, Failure Is Not an Option (2004).  In 2004, at a training for NC Teacher Academy trainers, Steve (now President and CEO of Edwards Educational Services, Inc.) talked a little about he used data notebooks with teachers.  In his system, teachers were given and/or assigned what to put in their notebooks.  From what he said I re-envisioned data notebooks as a learning tool for teachers to research the effects of instruction in their classrooms.  For me it was less about putting certain data in front of teachers’ noses, and more about empowering teachers to think critically about student outcomes and develop capacity for gauging and building student understanding.   When we revised NCTA’s data module in 2005 to develop “Using Data to Create Classroom Learning Communities,” the backbone of the weeklong course was having teachers build their own notebooks based on three dimensions: when the data are collected (daily, periodically, or annually), the types of data collected (based on Victoria Bernhardt’s four types of data: student learning, demographic, perception, and process), and the type of teacher thinking involved (based on National Board requirements: description, analysis, and reflection).  I created a Ms. Smith’s Sample Data Notebook based on my own classroom data for use as a model.

Ideally, the process of putting together a data notebook should force teachers to think critically about practice and allow them to make accurate and timely decisions and interventions.  What often happened, however, was that teachers got stuck on making pretty or correct notebooks and filling them up, not asking the questions that led to assessment design and data collection to inform instruction.  When it’s just about collecting for a notebook, valuable time is wasted, yet another useless paperwork requirement comes into being, and most tragically, teachers and whole schools get distracted.  When that happens, data notebooks can actually work to decrease student achievement.  

I left the NC Teacher Academy in 2007.  In my own work, I progressed from physical notebooks to digital notebooks at both the classroom and school levels, experimenting with the ways in which data can and should be shared among teachers, administrators, students, and parents.  I also focused on helping teachers uncover and ask important questions about their practice, students, and curriculum.  When teachers ask me what should go in their data notebooks, I say, “Whatever answers your questions.”  The questions must come first.

What I find, though, is that teachers don’t ask questions.  I don’t know if they used to, but they certainly aren’t now.  Teachers expect to be told what to do.  I believe we can thank a lot of the standardization policies we implemented and continue to implement today for this sheep-like mentality: pacing guides, teacher-proof textbooks, standardized assessment regimes, and all the mandates of a mechanistic bureaucracy.  In 1994, Kevin Harris wrote, “Within a larger process of adopting forms and processes of corporate managerialism, professionals such as teachers are being redefined as straight-out contract employees subject to direct management, and are becoming positioned in such a way that their expertise and professional knowledge is decreasingly called upon with regard to decision-making in areas central to the needs and requirements of those whom they teach and serve.  Teachers are having to leave decision-making in areas such as curriculum and educational goals and purposes to others and instead become efficient managers….”  We are reaping the natural effects of what Michael Apple (2004) calls the deprofessionalization of teachers.

Today’s emphasis on data can either reinforce deprofessionalization or make teachers the masters of their own classrooms (and, as masters, responsible for producing significant student learning).  Truthfully, I hope for even more and we need more these days.  I want teachers to become the masters of their schools, working through collaboration and inquiry to meet the needs of the many children they serve.  Data certainly play a role in that vision, but as servants to teacher inquiry, used to inform and empower instruction, not drive it.  So for now, forget data notebooks.  Think data and assessment literacy, which gives teachers a lens through which to view data, ask questions of it, and use it to improve practice. 


Apple, M. W.  (2004).  Ideology and curriculum (3rd ed.).  New York, NY:  RoutledgeFalmer.

Blankstein, A. M.  (2004).  Failure is not an option: six principles that guide student achievement in high-performing schools.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Harris, K.  (1994).  Teachers: Constructing the future.  London, England: The Falmer Press.