What a Data-Driven K12 Leader Prioritizes to Drive Change

Richard Carranza is Chief of Strategy and Global Development at IXL Learning where he helps identify how the company can make an even greater worldwide impact. Carranza previously served as Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, and as the superintendent of Houston Independent School District and San Francisco Unified School District. 

When done thoughtfully and strategically, data-driven school leadership can help you create meaningful change in the classroom, driven by facts and on-the-ground realities. A culture of data can guide curriculum and instruction, inform allocation of resources and budgets, lead to better professional development for teachers and staff, and ultimately help district leaders create a more equitable and inclusive school environment.

As districts go into summer break and planning season, how can K12 leaders use data to drive improvements during the next school year and beyond? What data should district administrators prioritize to help them proactively plan for the new school year? Finally, how should leaders leverage that data with their partners and stakeholders across the school community once they’ve gathered it?

Gather student performance data

Goal setting is a critical part of putting student performance data into action. When creating a data strategy for next year, ensure that the systems you use in classrooms and across the school support specific goals for your population. For instance, if your district goal is to improve reading proficiency among English language learners, make sure you can filter and select among your data to highlight sub-populations. Being able to drill down into the information you gathered helps differentiation in the classroom by making sure that individual students aren’t lost in the group.

Keep in mind that goals can go beyond academic achievement. “You can also develop goals for anything that is both measurable and important to the school community—student behavior, attendance, family engagement, and technology usage are just a few examples of potential data-informed goals.”

Make sure to focus on a manageable number of data points to keep teachers and administrators from being overwhelmed with data collection and analysis. “Discern which topics are fundamental to student success, such as the subjects required to graduate or topics included on the SATs, and consider the timeliness of different data sets.” Diversifying the data you collect across formative and summative assessments and teacher observations will ensure you still get a complete picture of student progress.

Get an accurate picture of your students, staff, and community

Demographic data is an important part of a data-driven school leadership approach. This includes data on student demographics, such as race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and English language proficiency, and staff demographics, such as race, ethnicity, and gender—plus teacher turnover rates and efficacy in reaching learning goals. Analyzing this data can help district leaders develop strategies to create a more equitable learning environment for all students and a more supportive environment for teachers.

Educator demographics can help uncover where teachers may need additional support or what classes or departments might benefit from the experience of more veteran teachers. Use these insights to inform decisions about professional development opportunities for next year.

In a similar vein, it’s important to take in data on student attendance rates and disciplinary incidents. Analyzing this data can help you identify trends and patterns that may impact student outcomes. It can also help district leaders develop interventions to support students who may be struggling with attendance or behavior issues.

Finally, as you build your data collection strategy, it’s important to hear from your entire school community — not just the voices always at the table. When developing surveys for example, identify ways to engage hard-to-reach populations such as families that lack reliable technology or internet service. Make sure to contextualize your school data within the larger community as well, by looking at local population demographics, employment rates, and crime statistics. Understanding the community your students and teachers come from can help you develop strategies to anticipate and address macro-level challenges in the year to come.

Review usage and cost-effectiveness data for your edtech tools

Effective use of data can impact your school budgets, helping you evaluate whether the products and services your district uses are helping students and teachers be more successful. Usage data provides information about how often and how effectively educators and students are using edtech platforms, for example, which can help you determine whether to continue with a product, invest extra resources in it—or if it’s time to look for an alternative. Usage data can also pinpoint where professional development could help educators and students use the product to its fullest potential.

Review the cost-effectiveness of your edtech by comparing the value it’s bringing to your district against the total cost of ownership, including licensing fees, support costs, and other expenses associated with implementing and maintaining the product. When considering a new edtech product for the coming year, vendors  should provide you with customer satisfaction data, such as surveys or feedback from other school districts.

Create a data action plan for the next school year

A data-driven school environment will succeed when it has enthusiastic support and buy-in from educators. Teachers are vital partners in gathering accurate, timely data about student achievement and goals and in implementing any changes suggested by that data. They can also provide important insight into the efficacy of products and systems and what changes can be implemented to maximize effectiveness.

Make sure to share findings from school- and district-wide data with your staff and teachers as well, so that they can leverage the insights as part of their own work. “Through purposeful discussions, administrators and educators can assess progress toward district goals and determine the best strategies for continued improvement—and they’ll have the data they need to support their decisions. This collaboration is vital for creating a supportive school culture of data-driven leadership.”

But teachers have a lot on their plates. Along with sharing data insights, provide them necessary support systems and training for administering assessments and implementing any new programs in the classroom. Your job is to make their teaching more effective, not more difficult.

One study showed that “only 17 percent [of teachers] had learned to use data during their preservice training, and 45 percent reported teaching themselves about data on the job.” That’s despite most teachers reporting in the same survey that effective data use helped them be better educators.

It can be difficult to put new routines or curricula into action, especially if there’s the potential for teachers to feel like their existing methodologies are being criticized. That’s why partnering with staff and having consistent open dialogues with them – backed up by data – is so important. Make sure to “celebrate successes, no matter how minor, and start small to build buy-in.

While buy-in from teachers is crucial, a data-driven leadership plan requires the support of your entire school community. As you plan for the next school year, communicate goals openly and honestly to staff, families, and students. Most importantly, explain how data will be used to create a learning environment that responds to the school community’s needs and gives students and teachers the support and resources they need.

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