The essential ingredients for a data-driven culture have little to do with data itself, experts say. The real shift occurs when everyone in the educational community starts to change what they talk about and how they respond to conversational outcomes.
“That’s what exemplifies higher-performing schools that have transformed their entire culture: District leaders, school leaders, teachers and students are all working around the common goal of improving learning outcomes for students based on the data they have available,” says Mariana Aguilar, the research manager at GoGuardian, a software solution that helps schools filter, manage and monitor devices and content.
In practice, data-driven education can be challenging — but it’s worth the effort, say educators who have done it.
In California, the Saugus Union School District is in the third year of a professional learning community initiative focused on data-driven instruction. The PLC, implemented at SUSD’s 15 sites, includes a new curriculum and assessment structure. But what really moves the needle, according to three SUSD principals, are the insights that emerge when educators gather to discuss that data.
“The conversations are completely different,” says Mary Mann, principal of SUSD’s Cedarcreek Elementary School. “They’re less about the latest place to go on a field trip or what culminating project we’re going to do and more about ‘My students learned this, and I know it because the data shows it.’”
These insights, in turn, support data-driven education that can boost retention and graduation rates.
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Why It’s Important to Base Educational Decisions on Student Data
Without analyzing student data, it’s all too easy to base decisions on opinion, assumption or anecdotal evidence, Aguilar says.
“The biggest miss for schools is not being able to make data-informed decisions that can optimize how funds are spent, how students receive resources and how teachers are being given resources,” she says. “What happens a lot of times, then, is you go with the loudest voice in the room.”
SUSD’s goal is to answer four questions: What do we want students to learn? How do we know if they’re learning? What do we do if they’re not learning? What do we do when they’ve mastered the material?
Data ensures that insights are accurate and actionable, says Jennifer Bell-Ellwanger, the president of the Data Quality Campaign, a nonprofit advocating for data policy and use. “It really helps teachers personalize learning and pathways,” she says.
That, in turn, empowers teachers to be more agile in their instruction and to increase students’ ownership of their work. For administrators, data in schools can improve ROI on technology investments and highlight best practices.
At BASIS Charter Schools, for example, an extensive set of assessment tools helps to guide iterative adjustments to curricula, says Peter Bezanson, CEO of BASIS Educational Ventures. In one case, data showed that the students of a particular biology teacher consistently outperformed their peers, so BASIS designated her the biology mentor for all the schools.
“We said, ‘You’re going to push out your syllabus to everyone, and you’re in charge of the degree to which they can alter the syllabus,’” Bezanson says. “All of that comes directly from the data, not the personality of the teacher.”
How K–12 School Districts Can Create a Data-Driven Culture
Frank conversations and transparency about results are necessary to data-driven instruction, but they can be uncomfortable, educators say.
“A key part of being a data-driven culture is you have to be able to stomach the idea that you’re not as good as you think you are or as other people think you are,” Bezanson says.
At SUSD, that’s one reason the principals emphasize trust and a shared vision among colleagues. “It’s not a ‘gotcha,’” Mann says. “We all need to succeed together.”
She recommends that leaders celebrate successes, no matter how minor, and start small to build buy-in.
“When teachers see how students are learning, design interventions based on the data and see the growth, that’s what hooks them,” says Carin Fractor, principal of SUSD’s Bridgeport Elementary School. “That’s when the excitement comes.”
At SUSD, assessments and analysis happen throughout the school year. “We don’t spend a lot of time looking at end-of-year data,” Fractor says. “That’s an autopsy. The data that is the closest and the most recent is what we want to spend our time analyzing.”
Finally, data-driven education must be a priority, says Michelle Velikorodnyy, principal of SUSD’s Charles Helmers Elementary School, even if that means other projects take a back seat.
“It has to be very intentional,” she says. “Otherwise, it won’t happen.”
READ MORE: Learn how school leaders can make informed decisions with data.
The Right Tools for Data-Driven Decision-Making in K–12 Education
Data literacy is also essential, yet it’s an area where many teachers struggle, according to research from the Data Quality Campaign.
Its 2019 poll of teachers found that only 17 percent had learned to use data during their preservice training, and 45 percent reported teaching themselves about data on the job. Even so, the majority of teachers (86 percent) said data was important to their effectiveness.
Automated tools can shorten the learning curve and create more time for analyzing student data. “It is nice to have a data management system so you’re not bogged down in collating and disaggregating data by hand,” Mann says.
One such tool, Lightspeed Systems’ Relay platform, gives schools a dashboard view into the use of digital content — applications, software and online resources — and supports filtering, management and monitoring. It also helps districts identify the most effective resources, particularly as they seek to address dropout and graduation rates.
“The insight you get from software that’s telling you who is using what can help you make better professional development decisions around that curriculum,” says Lightspeed President and CEO Brian Thomas. “That drives better adoption of those tools, so you can bridge that gap between who is successful and who isn’t.”