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TEACHERS KNOW BEST: New Teacher Survey Identifies Challenges Teachers Face When Using Digital Instructional Tools

"We want to provide actionable information that ed-tech entrepreneurs and investors can use to create instructional tools that help accelerate learning," said Phillips.

060315ScreenshotBNinety-three percent of K–12 public school teachers regularly use digital tools to guide instruction, but two-thirds of them say that they are not fully satisfied with the effectiveness of the data or the tools for working with the data, according to a new report from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Released at a June 3 event cohosted by the Alliance for Excellent Education and the Gates Foundation, the report, Teachers Know Best: Making Data Work for Teachers and Students, presents the findings from a survey of more than 4,600 teachers about the challenges they face when using digital instructional tools and provides recommendations about how to support teachers to effectively use data to personalize instruction.

“The goal of Teachers Know Best is to bring the perspectives of teachers to product developers who are creating digital tools for the classroom,” said Vicki Phillips, Director of Education, College Ready at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “We want to move from anecdotes about what teachers want and need to data. And we want to provide actionable information that ed-tech entrepreneurs and investors can use to create instructional tools that help accelerate learning.”

According to the report, teachers overwhelmingly value data as a tool, with 78 percent saying that data can “help validate where their students are and where they can go.” Additionally, nearly 70 percent of teachers surveyed said that tailoring instruction to meet the needs of individual students is required to improve student achievement.

At the same time, however, teachers noted several challenges that limit their ability to track student progress and tailor instruction. They believe that current digital tools to collect, analyze, and use data are often overwhelming, with large amounts of data from disparate sources that are incompatible with each other and difficult to aggregate. They also believe that they do not receive data in enough time to modify instruction in meaningful ways.

“The challenge, then, is maximizing the limited time teachers have by making the process of collecting data, analyzing them, and putting them to use more efficient,” the report notes. “Creating digital tools that better meet teachers’ needs could help personalize learning for students by empowering them to identify where students are in their understanding and tailor instruction to their skills, needs, and interests.”

The challenge of not enough time was a frequent issue raised by panelists at the June 3 release event, with Phillips saying that “finding ways to streamline data analysis and save teachers time is one of the biggest contributions that digital tools can make.”

Nicole Cerra, cofounder, director of curriculum and instruction, and teacher of English and design at Design Tech High School in California, agreed with Phillips. “Teachers need more time to work together and look at the data and make decisions about how to respond,” she said. “If you aren’t given that time within your school day, it doesn’t happen.” To that point, Cerra suggested a need for more fluidity from the creator to the classroom to ensure tools are as effective as possible.

Teachers Know Best finds that teachers want tools that support the “three key phases of data-driven instruction”—accessing data, analyzing data, and pivoting instruction based on the data. The report offers several recommendations for how product developers, teachers, school leaders, and funders can better address teachers’ needs.

For product developers, the report suggests that data tools be designed to be compatible with each other so that teachers can “focus on teaching instead of time-consuming data management and aggregation.” It also calls for tools that do not “just report what has happened, but also use current and historical performance data to anticipate student learning trajectories and personalize instruction based on each student’s performance.”

The report recommends that school and district leaders restructure learning environments so that teachers “have access to rich data every day” and recognize that the depth of data-driven instruction is “dependent on the availability of high-quality tools that keep teachers from being overburdened with administrative tasks.”

“Good teachers have always sought to know their students, identify the most effective learning strategies, and decide how to engage the student to create the maximum learning environment,” said Alliance for Excellent Education President Bob Wise. “I appreciate this report because through the teachers’ voice, I hear firsthand how data transforms a classroom. Suddenly the esoteric discussions about ‘big data’ are eclipsed by the importance of ‘small data,’—the effective application by one teacher of one student’s data to transform an individual learning experience.”

Archived video from the June 3 release event is available at

More information on Teachers Know Best: Making Data Work for Teachers and Students is available at


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