Data-driven decision making in K-12 schools
"Information is the key to holding schools accountable for improved performance every year among every student group. Data is our best management tool. I often say that what gets measured, gets done. If we know the contours of the problem, and who is affected, we can put forward a solution. Teachers can adjust lesson plans. Administrators can evaluate curricula. Data can inform decision-making. Thanks to No Child Left Behind, we're no longer flying blind." - Margaret Spellings, U. S. Secretary of Education
The need for better decision making in our nation's schools has grown in tandem with the rise in standards-based reform and performance accountability systems. "After years of exhorting and cajoling schools to improve, policymakers have decided to get tough" (National Education Association, Teaching and Learning Team, July 2000). Under the requirements of the No Child Left Behind legislation, school districts are required to test students, collect performance data and use that data to identify strengths and weaknesses in their educational system. Schools that do not demonstrate adequate yearly progress (AYP) will be identified as needing improvement and subject to immediate interventions. Most often educators talk about the punitive uses of data to improve instruction. Since the passage of No Child Left Behind legislation, Washington state's educators have consistently heard that poor scores on state or national tests equal failure, and persistent failure equals intervention. Few educators or educational leaders seem to be able to articulate how they might use data in a more positive or effective way to improve teaching and learning. The use of data in education remains an elusive concept and skill, yet the path to using data in making decisions is not out of reach or difficult to implement.
Realizing data's potential, or not
Understanding and using data about school and student performance are critical to improving schools, yet schools have rarely used data in decision-making. "For too long, many school leaders have made decisions about instructional leadership with 'intuition' and 'shooting from the hip.' All too often, school leaders do not include data collection and data analysis in the decision-making process" (Creighton, Schools and data, 2001). Without analyzing and discussing data, schools are unlikely to identify and solve the problems that need attention, identify appropriate interventions to solve those problems, or know how they are progressing toward achievement of their goals (Killion and Bellamy, Journal of Staff Development, Winter 2000). Without using data to guide them to a target, school leaders make decisions based on speculation. These speculative decisions may lead to "random acts of improvement" (Bernhardt, Data analysis for comprehensive schoolwide improvement, 1998). They may also make the wrong decisions and their students' performance may suffer.
"Data also allows us to solidly ground our policies in the very best and latest scientific information."
Data-driven decision making can assist schools in gathering data to help them determine if they are meeting their purpose and goals. Defined by the National Education Association, data-driven decision making is "using data that are gathered on a regular basis (and additional information, as needed) to inform planning, decision making, and reporting activities." School leaders should not only understand the meaning of standardized tests and other formal assessments, but they must also help their school implement multiple measures of student performance and more importantly, create a culture in their schools around the use of these data. In today's high stakes environment, school leaders cannot afford to make mistakes that impact the education of our children. Educators can no longer wait months or years to decide on a course of action or find out whether a new instructional strategy is working. To borrow from business and industry, school leaders need to develop "just-in-time" approaches by using data to help them make critical decisions affecting student learning and achievement. School leaders must also interpret and communicate the meaning of data to constituents-students, teachers, board members, and parents-making decisions fact-based and credible.
Too much data, too little training
Schools routinely gather great amounts of data, and in fact, they generally gather more data than they can use. But they often fail to use all, or the potential, of that data (Wallace, From vision to practice: The art of educational leadership, 1996). In many cases, current data about educational inputs, such as the qualifications of teachers and the rigor of curricula, are lacking, and in most states, data about educational outcomes continue to be vague, confusing, and not clearly linked to student learning (Cox, ibid.). Not only do educators and policymakers lack quality, accessible data, they also tend to have difficulty understanding, analyzing and using the data that presently exist (e.g., large-scale standardized test scores) (Bernhardt, ibid.). This shouldn't be surprising since educators-teachers and school leaders-have had little training in data analysis, lack the tools and support to begin, and perhaps, most important, function in a system where decisions are historically based on intuition, philosophy, and retrospect (Cromey, van der Ploeg, and Masini, North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, Oak Brook, IL, December 2000). Creighton proposes that perhaps one of the major reasons why data are little used in our schools originates in the administrator preparation programs. Though there are a few bright spots at some universities, he contends that for the most part there is no attempt to increase aspiring administrators' understanding of data analysis or the use of that analysis to improve teaching and learning (Creighton, ibid.).
Limited district support
In Washington state, from a small sample of school leaders from various districts, it appears that the use of and readiness to implement data-driven decision making in practice reflects the national situation. "Cultures" around the use of data in school buildings or districts are difficult to identify. Innovative uses of data-driven decision making were often identified as isolated incidents of an individual school leader or lone teacher. Although there is some indication of systemic use and support of data in districts, the actual use and support of data could be easily misleading. For example, in some large school districts, principals often noted that it is the district office staff members who provide the interpretation of student and school data, without the input from school staff. Additionally, principals do not receive data on their computers, but rather receive data reports that are printed at the district office. This is often the case because of the district's lack of online databases, which would enable principals to analyze data flexibly and in real-time. It also tends to limit what data principals have to work with and their ability to make timely decisions. In smaller school districts, data analysis is left to the school principal without district support.
Administrator preparation programs
Administrator preparation programs report that their curricula do not adequately address data-driven decision making. On this topic, their programs are often limited by faculty expertise (adjunct faculty who are often practitioners from the field), lack of updated and reality-based materials, and lack of assistance from the state education office. Students in these programs gain a significant portion of their education through internships with school principals in the field. Thus, a student's experiences with data-driven decision making may be determined by the internship placement. Kathy Kimball, Director of the UW Danforth Program, estimates that only about 25% of school leaders implement some form of data-driven decision making in their work. Bob McMullen, Director of High School Programs of the Association of Washington School Principals (AWSP), and former principal of Kamiakin High School in the Kennewick School District, believes that this estimate may in fact be high. "Schools and districts are awash with data but have done a poor job using them in an effective manner to help students achieve. For many principals, the mere mention of data makes their eyes roll and has them headed in the opposite direction," says McMullen.
Case for data-driven decision making
School leaders need tools and resources that can help them see better and that provide meaningful information quickly and reliably for themselves and to their teachers. Many school leaders' strong desire to better understand the data is matched by frustration at the lack of training opportunities in this area. When educators can draw inferences from data, they cannot only see the need for change, but can identify the direction of change needed, pinpoint the students needing intervention, and identify approaches offering promising solutions to help students succeed. The use of multiple, and sometimes creative, sources of data enables school leaders to make mid-course corrections and continuous improvement toward academic success by their students.
"Integrated, interoperable data systems are the key to better allocation of resources, greater management efficiency, and online assessments of student performance that empower educators to truly transform teaching and personalize instruction."
The effective use of data must play a major role in the development of school improvement plans and in the decisions that educators are required to make on a daily basis (Creighton, ibid.). The use of data can be a powerful and positive educational tool. School that engage in data-driven decision making have the information that not only measures students' progress in meeting standards, but also enables them to: assess current and future needs of students, parents, staff and the community; determine if goals are being met; ensure that students are not falling through the cracks; improve instruction; identify the root causes of problems; and, engage in continuous school improvement and many other ways to improve student achievement.
This site provides a number of resources to help school leaders and teachers get started on the path to using data in teaching and learning. These resources are intended to help school leaders or teachers get a jump start on thinking about the value of data, how data can be used in various situations, and how to implement a data driven decision making process. The resources include presentations, links to other sites, and materials created by practitioners.