The use of data in education provides knowledge about the reality of teaching and allows planning actions

The use of data is key for management in any area. In education in general, and particularly in foreign language teaching this is no different. In both the public and private sectors, and within schools or educational systems, data analysis, such as students performance in assessments, presence in classes, and dropout, allows the leader to have access to a set of information and scenarios, which guides decision making and the adoption of actions and interventions towards improving the teaching and learning process.

At the governmental level, the data are relevant to guide public policies. The results of national exams, such as Prova Brasil (a large scale assessment of the Brazilian educational system composed of standardised exams and socio-economic questionnaires) and the Exame Nacional do Ensino Médio (National High School Exam, shortened as Enem), for example, indicate the regions that need more attention concerning funds, teacher training, and support for students.

“The triangulation of these [educational] data with socioeconomic indicators of unemployment and violence, for example, can also bring information for the establishment of social programmes that go beyond school and can contribute to improving the school performance of students in that community”, says Isabela Villas Boas, partner-director of Troika, educational project consultancy, in São Paulo (SP).

The analysis of educational data may not be so simple, but some initiatives make it easier to access and view this information. The QEdu platform, for example, compiles data from several official sources, such as Prova Brasil, the School Census, the Basic Education Development Index (Ideb) and Enem. The information can be accessed at the school, city, state and Brazil levels, allowing comparisons of indicators over time. Another example, in the governmental sphere, is the Open Data Portal of the Education Secretariat of the State of São Paulo, where it is possible to find information on educational indicators, schools and enrollments in the state education network.

The Folha de S. Paulo newspaper, in turn, provides the platform Choose the School, which compiles quality and infrastructure indicators for 135,000 public and private schools in the country. The offer of language teaching, and English specifically, is one of the criteria offered for the search for schools on the website.

Indicators in English teaching

English language data can also be used to better understand the scenario and seek improvements in the quality of language teaching. The British Council, one of the partner institutions of the Skills for Prosperity programme carried out by the British government in Brazil, has already published several studies based on data on the teaching of English in the country. The 2014 survey “Learning English in Brazil” sought to understand the most common scenario and practices in the Brazilian market, focusing on aspects related to work and employability, revealing that only 5.1% of Brazilians with 16 years or more claimed to have some knowledge of English.

The study “Public policies for English teaching“, from 2019, brought an overview and experiences of teaching the language in the state networks. The analyzed data provided information on how much the Brazilian states structured and consolidated the teaching of the English language, besides bringing examples of good practices that happen throughout Brazil.

Isabela, who was also an academic corporate manager at Casa Thomas Jefferson, a non-profit English school in Brasilia (DF), provides some examples of how data can assist in language teaching. “We can draw conclusions about the effectiveness of a particular teaching methodology, for example, with data on student performance after learning cycles. Data on the training and proficiency level of teachers, on the other hand, inform decisions about continuing education programs ”, she adds.

Use of different sources

An important factor when working with data, according to Isabela, is to contemplate different aspects of what you want to measure so that the interpretation is not biased. For example, in order to assess the effectiveness of teaching, one can cross-check the results of the students in exams with other information, such as attendance, socioeconomic level, and teacher performance.

In the case of the exchange of teaching materials in an English course, for example, it is possible to analyse the impact of this change on the results of the students, also considering data on the satisfaction of students and teachers with the old and new material. Another important piece of information would be the retention rate before and after the adoption of new material or some innovation in the course. “If we make changes and do not measure the results, we have no way of knowing whether they were effective or not,” says Isabela.

She says that international English scholarship programmes for disadvantaged students use performance indicators to assess the effectiveness of the initiative. There is also the monitoring of alumni to measure the impact of the program on the educational and professional lives of these students. “Only with these data, measuring the students’ learning gains and their impact on their lives, the funding agencies can make decisions about the continuity of the programmes, changes that need to be made and the effectiveness of the partners, among others”.

Data guiding actions

Another fundamental point, according to Isabela, is that just collecting data and transforming it into information is not enough. It is necessary to establish short, medium, and long-term goals, to implement improvements, and to follow a continuous process of monitoring these indicators.

This is what the Mato Grosso do Sul State Department of Education does, which is part of the Skills for Prosperity programme and integrates a network with 79 municipalities, 347 schools, 12 educational centres, and 94 extensions (which are parts of schools in farms, rural settlements or indigenous communities). Through a computerised system – the School Data Management System (SGDE) -, the secretariat has information by student, class, school, municipality, and region, contemplating the state as a whole. Among the data are students’ grades in all subjects, with a bi-monthly update, and attendance record in an online diary, both filled out directly by the teachers. 

“If there is a student with a low school attendance rate, a section of the secretariat responsible for the active search of that student and for knowing why he is not attending classes is immediately activated”, says Paulo Cezar Rodrigues dos Santos, Superintendent of Information and Technology of the secretariat.

Likewise, at the end of the semester, there is a map showing the performance of all students, of all classes, if each one is doing well or if there is a risk of failure in any course. “This facilitates the work of the school’s leader and pedagogical coordination in learning about the situation and making an intervention. And also for the education department, to plan a broader action, if necessary”, points out Paulo Cezar. 

He gives an example of what happened during the pandemic, in 2020. “In the beginning, we needed to know how the students of the network were adapting to the new scenario – if they were following the classes via technological resources, printed material, a hybrid model, or if they were not following the classes anyway. Through the system, teachers answered these questions, student by student, for all their classes. So, we had a very accurate indicator of the state network, which was fundamental to rethink many aspects of how to conduct education in this pandemic period.”

At the end of the year, says Paulo Cezar, it was necessary to know how many students were above or below the average and how many had not yet been evaluated, as they were not attending school units or carrying out activities remotely.

“These actions were essential for the success of the network. Incredibly, in a pandemic year, we had a lower failure rate than in previous years. This happened, largely because of the analysis of these data and the interventions that we promoted”, he highlights.

For him, working with data and indicators is fundamental for the advancement of education. “You need to know your network’s situation very clearly to solve problems. And there’s no way to do that if we don’t have data. But the analysis of the data must generate an action.”


How to start using data

Isabela Villas Boas shows a step by step and a practical example on how to start working with data in school management

Reflexion about the subject

The first point is to reflect on what you want. To do this, ask yourself: 

  • What indicators do I want to monitor?
  • What data will help me monitor each of these indicators?
  • How often will I monitor these indicators?
  • How will the data be collected?
  • How to transform this data into information?
  • What will I do with the result?

Team involvement

  • The ideal is to involve the entire pedagogical team in the elaboration of this management plan. The more collaborative this management is, the more involved everyone will be in obtaining better results.
  • It is also important to use various types of data and triangulate them so that the indicator can be analysed from different perspectives.

Practical example

  • Indicator: teaching results.
  • Data: grades of the students in school assessments, student performance in national assessments (if applicable), teacher performance (class observations), perceptions of results of students and parents.
  • Analysis: correlation between results of school assessments and results of national assessments; correlation between teacher performance and student results; the correlation of these data with results of a questionnaire applied to parents and students (it can be done over the internet, using digital tools).
  • Frequency: at the end of each semester.
  • Action plan to improve results: establish a goal and plan the intervention (through the continuous training of teachers, reformulation of the teaching proposal, and reformulation of assessment instruments, for example). Monitor the indicator, collecting and analysing the data again, and verify if the goal has been reached.
  • Attention: it is also important to go deeper into the analysis of the problem and make use of qualitative methods. For example, after the application of questionnaires for parents and students, it is possible to go deeper into some issues pointed out in the results through focus groups (group interviews).