Data Use, Technology, and Educational Leadership
Today I address the argument that schools need “more of the right data.” I include under this umbrella calls for better or more tailored reports, expanding data sources, or otherwise refining what gets collected and distributed. It’s not that these ideas are wrong. In fact, these are things that data use researchers have been saying for quite some time.
These are reasonable first steps, but stopping there is misleading. Making data “more useful” and then providing access to more of it misses out on a larger issue. By assuming that data are in and of themselves the stuff that drives changes to practice, we forget about the importance of teachers. Teachers take data and fit it into a host of other considerations related to craft. Those might include things like experience, values about teaching, knowledge about child development or applied psychology, curriculum knowledge, or a sense of commitment to other faculty. Not only do Wills and Sandholtz (2009) find some of these things at play in teacher decisions, they even note that anticipation of school vacation days may influence teachers’ instruction.
My research has found that even when districts provide access to data that teachers want and ask for (e.g., discipline data; short-cycle diagnostic tests; or the ability to scan and automatically score department common assessments), simply having access isn’t a great predictor of whether or not these data will be used. Instead, what really seems matter is what people understand about how and why data ought to be used. Is the district interim assessment something “we do because they make us?” Or is it something understood as beneficial to students and professionally rewarding? Is it just drill for an end-of-year test, or is it a chance to connect to others about interesting ways to better serve students? It’s not that teachers are resistant to having more information about their students, but rather that their schools and districts may be sending unintentional messages about which data are to be prioritized and why.
Thus, one part of the bigger picture invites us to consider things like shared vision, school culture, and the influence of leadership. An abundance of the most perfect data won’t mean a thing if we don’t recognize their potential, but all too often our thinking about data use stops at “more of the right data.” Although, shaping the how and why of data use in schools offers a big bang for the buck, it isn’t something that district leaders typically pay strong attention to. And while many campus leaders might do this, people who are good at addressing such social issues rarities. I’m a fan of stories about artifacts that make sense to us today, but that at were considered stupid when they were first introduced. These include the Xerox machine, post-it notes, and mouth wash.
I welcome any stories or insights about school leaders who are good at shaping how their faculties see the how and why of data use—I especially welcome accounts for how this might happen at the district level.