Tim Ackermann on Building a Data Culture in Classrooms

Tools collecting education data are part of every education system today. Many schools, however, struggle with turning that data into meaningful insights for teachers and students.

Tim Ackermann has a vision to change that. Since beginning his career as a high school teacher, he has amassed more than 30 years of experience in education. Today, Tim serves as assistant superintendent at the Hamilton County Educational Service Center (ESC), providing support services to schools and districts in Southwest Ohio.

We recently sat down with Tim to chat about his experiences leveraging data throughout his career and how he envisions the future of data in the classroom.

Over the past three decades, you’ve worked as a teacher, principal, and superintendent. How have these experiences shaped the way you think about data in the classroom?

Tim: When I started teaching, we didn’t do much beyond collecting grades or attendance data. As technology progressed and became more influential in the classroom, data became more available, but educators weren’t sure how to fit that into a system, and we didn’t yet have a culture of being data-informed.The idea of being “data-driven” emerged and put an emphasis on data in the pedagogy, but there was too much focus on the data itself — or using data to judge what’s happening in the school districts and classrooms — rather than incorporating it into a system that ultimately helps students and teachers. As a field, we’re still struggling with creating a culture of understanding how data can help and not penalize.

When you scale back and look at the big picture, what is your hope for how we use data to impact students and teachers in the classroom going forward?

Tim: I would love for teachers to log in every morning and have a dashboard that helps them understand how students are learning and which students may be struggling without having to evaluate all of the data. As much as we can, we need to let teachers teach rather than spend their time translating data. We need to help them understand what the data says so they can use it to change their lesson plans or the mode of the modality of what they’re doing in the classroom.

And I know we’re not quite there yet, but I think a piece that’s going to become very important is how artificial intelligence can support this process and help them understand the data isn’t there to say, “You’re doing poorly as a teacher,” but to say, “This is where your students are struggling and here’s how can we help them.”

I’m a firm believer that you have to develop a culture of understanding and learning together before you can make something meaningful. One way to build culture that we found to be very effective is to learn together. So, instead of just telling teachers that data is important, you learn about why data is important and how it can be helpful, and encourage everyone to ask questions until you get to the point where people truly understand

When you think of data being used for student and classroom outcomes, what would you consider success? What does it look like?

Tim: Success is teachers being able to look at data in a non-threatening way and use it to understand who needs support. But I also think of everything as a safety net. We’re big proponents of multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS), and data is foundational to that.

MTSS has an educational component, a social-emotional health component, and a behavior component. If we can create safety nets so we’re not losing kids and so we can help them succeed in the classroom, then that’s a win. And if we can continue to help students in their core program be successful, they won’t need the more tiered interventions that they may eventually need if they can’t understand the core program.

What would you say to other education service agencies as they look at offering data services to their districts?

Tim: Someone has to offer data services to districts, and if districts could see the power of data services, I think a lot more would be doing this.

One way we’re working to bring this to the state level in Ohio is by including our information technology centers, or ITCs, that host most of the systems in the state. So, if they can host our warehouse and the ESCs are providing that service, we hope the state will see the power it can have — not only to save money but to help students in the classroom.

What keeps you motivated on the journey with Ed-Fi with data interoperability in education?

Tim: Data interoperability has become a passion of ours in a very short period of time. We knew what it was before we knew the term. We had people collecting data from various sources, manually putting it into spreadsheets, and trying to use it to tell a story. But it takes a lot of human capital to get the data into a useful format, and then you still have to constantly go back and update it, which takes a lot of time, and manual data entry can lead to errors.

The question became, “How do we get all this data into one place so it can talk to each other?” And no one knew the answer. Then we discovered Ed-Fi, and it was like, “Wow, this could definitely be our solution to getting all the data into one place and being able to visualize it for teachers.”

Data interoperability will help cut down on errors, create more transparency, and help public education become more efficient and effective in how we work with our students.

Tim Ackermann is currently Assistant Superintendent at Hamilton County ESC in Cincinnati, Ohio. Previously, Tim has served as superintendent of Kings Local School District, assistant superintendent of Milford Exempted Village School District, and a principal at Reading City Schools. Connect with Tim on LinkedIn!

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