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FINE Newsletter, Volume V, Issue 2
Issue Topic: Changing the Conversation: Sharing Education Data With Families


In this Commentary, Harvard Family Research Project’s Christine Patton explores how the conversations that people are having about education data have changed, and she outlines key components of effective data-sharing practices.


Conversations are popping up everywhere about how teachers and schools should use student education data to help parents become informed and active supporters of their child’s education. “Data” was a trending topic of conversation at the 2013 SXSWedu conference. And local and national newspapers are contributing to the dialogue with headlines such as, “Parents Who Understand School Data Can Act on It,” “Make School Data Helpful to All,” and “Better Info Puts Schooling in the Hands of Parents.” From discussions we have had with staff members from a variety of education settings serving children and families, we at HFRP know that conversations about data are also happening in schools and early childhood education organizations.

Sharing data is not a new endeavor in the field of education, nor are discussions about the topic; however, how educators think about and share education data has changed considerably. This has resulted in very different kinds of conversations among educators, other school staff, and families. Discussions about education data used to focus mainly on monitoring and accountability and were centered on evaluating student and program/school progress. Now, however, educators and others are looking at student data as rich and inclusive sets of information that can be used to regularly connect parents and teachers as active partners in children’s success. To help create these data-driven partnerships, educators are positioning data in ways that make them accessible, readily understood, and actionable for parents.1

In a conversation we had with members of the staff from a nonprofit in Arizona that serves young children and families through education, literacy, and health and development programs, they reflected on the general change in thinking about the use of data:

A lot of the child and family data that we collect are for compliance purposes. And we understand that those data serve an important function. But how can we take the data that we’re supposed to collect and share it among our staff and with our families? We’re confident that when we make data sharing a priority, we’ll be giving families an opportunity to see where their children have strengths and where they have some needs. Parents will then be able to work with staff to develop specific goals for their children in those areas.

The shift from collecting and sharing education data for compliance purposes to doing so in the interest of fostering meaningful program–family partnerships has additional, wide-ranging benefits. For instance, a charitable organization in New York that serves families and young children through educational and advocacy services told us that giving more data-collection and data-sharing responsibilities to family workers—staff who provide in-home and other services to families of children participating in an early childhood program—improved program–parent collaborations as well as the work of the staff and the organization overall. Most importantly, parents who received data from family workers were able to frame goals and generate strategies that addressed their own and their child’s needs. Additionally, armed with data, family workers were able to collaborate with other staff working with the families, and together, they were able to aggregate information across programs and tailor programming to match families’ needs. Establishing effective data-sharing practices in early childhood programs has the additional benefit of helping to build a strong foundation for families’ ability to access, understand, and act on data about their child’s learning and growth as the child moves through the elementary, middle, and high school years.


These examples from the field highlight a number of important components of sharing education data with families, and there are several others that are worth noting. The term “data” is often used in somewhat impersonal, numbers-focused, evaluative ways, and the idea of reporting or sharing such data often conjures up images of uncomfortable, stressful interactions in which a judgment of some sort is handed down. However, the main purpose of sharing education data is to benefit children, and therefore, children and their families need to be kept in mind at all times during the process. Data sharing should be seen as a vital means by which teachers can work with families to assess a child’s needs and strengths and create individualized learning strategies. Education data, after all, represent actual children—their behaviors, their interests and strengths, their needs, and the areas in which they struggle. The data also represent opportunities to help children do their best work as well as opportunities to capitalize on the dreams that parents have for them. It is crucial to remember that, because data sharing is directly tied to a child’s well-being, everyone involved with accessing and sharing education data has a responsibility—a moral obligation, in fact—to handle the data appropriately and guard against misuse. Education data sometimes contain sensitive information about a child’s family situation, learning difficulties, or other special needs. Those who have access to these data need to take utmost care to ensure that student—and family—privacy is protected, particularly when data are being placed in online data systems and when they are being exchanged between early childhood programs and schools, and schools and out-of-school-time programs. (For more information about data sharing in the out-of-school-time arena, see the series of tip sheets from the Wallace Foundation.)

Pursuing data with children and families in mind allows us to broaden the traditionally held view of data:  

  • Data sharing can help promote connections among and between people, ideas, and other data points. Data sharing represents an opportunity to create thoughtful and meaningful relationships between parents and teachers. Through presenting parents with results of their child’s classroom activities, tests, and other assessment measures, teachers can help families understand the child’s strengths and needs and can work with the family to identify expanded learning opportunities in their communities to help the child be successful. Additionally, when opening up about the kinds of activities that a child is involved in at home and in other out-of-school-time settings, for example, parents can reveal the hopes, aspirations, and goals they have for that child. Likewise, in noting a child’s special attributes, skills, and behaviors in the classroom, teachers can show that they’re aware of the child’s needs. This mutual goal setting can help forge trusting relationships between parents and teachers. 
  • Data sharing, like data collection, corresponds to a developmental continuum. Educators and other school staff directly involved with the care of children need to understand the meaning behind assessment data collected at different times in a child’s life and be able to effectively communicate that meaning to families. Doing so responsibly and accurately requires an understanding of child development and age and grade-level expectations: Should he be speaking in grammatically correct sentences now? Should she be able to use similes and metaphors yet? Just as educators have a responsibility to know their state’s content standards and the grade-level expectations in the areas in which they teach, they also have a responsibility to place education data in a developmental context to help parents make sense of how their child is playing, behaving, moving, speaking, learning, and thinking.  
  • Data sharing should be an ongoing process; it is not a discrete activity. Sharing data in an ongoing partnership with families brings about constant opportunities to improve a child’s learning at home, in the classroom, and in after school activities. While events such as parent–teacher conferences and curriculum nights offer great opportunities for parents and teachers to talk about student progress, school staff should identify additional communication channels that are most convenient and appropriate for each family. In that way, each family can receive frequent updates on their child’s progress and understand how to act on the data they receive to better support their child’s learning.


We explored “Using Student Data to Engage Families” in our October 2010 issue of the FINE Newsletter. In the current issue, we dig deeper into the use of data-sharing systems and look at additional approaches to responsible and effective sharing of information to ensure student success. 

One new important insight into data sharing is that the student data that are shared with families in elementary schools need to go beyond test scores, quarterly grades, and attendance records to encompass a broader picture of students’ mastery of 21st-century skills like problem solving, creativity, adaptability, and collaborative work. A new HFRP resource featured in this issue, Tips for Administrators, Teachers, and Families: How to Share Data Effectively, is designed to help school administrators, teachers, and families do just that by offering each of these groups tips to help move beyond traditional measurements of student progress. Another new insight that we explore in this issue points to a concern related to a lack of training and guidance for parents and teachers in the use of online data-sharing systems, or “parent portals.” The number of schools using online data-sharing systems, such as ParentLink and Infinite Campus, has tripled in the last few years.2 While the proliferation of these portals in recent years has helped many parents gain easier and more ongoing access to their child’s school performance data, families often do not know how to use these systems in meaningful ways to understand what the data truly say about their child’s learning or how they can act on the data to support their child’s progress. We noted an example of this concern on one mother’s recent Facebook posting. As a status update on her time line, she wrote that, initially, she hadn’t been sure if she would attend the parent–teacher conferences at her children’s school because she used the school’s parent portal, Infinite Campus, and didn’t think it was necessary to go to conferences as well. She had decided to attend them after all, and a day after the parent–teacher conferences, she wrote an epilogue to her post, saying that she had felt very proud when she left the conferences and that she had loved hearing about all of the amazing things her kids’ teachers told her about their work in the classroom. As this one example illustrates, parents and teachers may benefit from more training and guidance on the benefits of engaging with a number of different data-sharing forums (e.g., parent portals, informal conversations with teachers, report cards, and parent–teacher conferences). Getting real-time information from a portal can help parents track their child’s grades; however, understanding the context behind those scores in a one-on-one conversation with teachers can help parents work with teachers to address their child’s specific learning needs and strengths.

As you read the articles in this issue, we encourage you to:

  • Think about how you currently share data with parents. Do you find ways to cultivate ongoing conversations with parents about student performance? Do you include enough interpersonal, face-to-face time with parents to help contextualize the data that they see online or on written reports?
  • Reflect on how you help parents access, and use, the student data they see on parent portals. Are your efforts focused merely on helping them create accounts and learning how to log into the system, or do you go beyond these access issues to show parents how to understand the data they see and act on these to better support their child’s learning?

 Answering these questions can help you and the families in your care learn from and participate in the changing conversation about data sharing.

1 Weiss, H. B., Lopez, M. E., & Stark, D. R. (2011). Breaking new ground: Data systems transform family engagement in education. Retrieved from

 2 Shellenbarger, S. (2012, October 2). When curious parents see math grades in real time. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from


This resource is part of the April 2013 FINE Newsletter. The FINE Newsletter shares the newest and best family involvement research and resources from Harvard Family Research Project and other field leaders. To access the archive of past issues, please visit

© 2016 Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College
Published by Harvard Family Research Project