Data Use, Technology, and Educational Leadership
I just re-read Concoran, Fuhrman, and Belcher’s PDK article called “The District Role in Instructional Improvement.” Here’s the PDF. It’s a nice a little piece, though the title is a little misleading. It’s sort of a laundry list of the things that can go right and wrong when central offices try to lead change, and the “improvements” get a little washed out. Overall, it’s worth reading if you’re interested in leading or studying district-wide change. I’m reminded that it’s easy to take central office people and their work for granted.
A common thread running throughout this article is that people often made changes to school policies and practices despite the data. Evidence that certain decisions were wrong seem to have been purposefully ignored. “Evidence” might be found to justify a reform after a decision has already been made. Priorities that people claim to have held got neglected or set aside in favor of “whims, fads, opportunism, and ideology.” These things sound bad, but they aren’t endemic to central offices. In fact, Pfeffer and Sutton provide an elegant review of “knowing-doing gaps” in other organizations. Instead of wondering why central offices have trouble leading change, it’s probably better to wonder why smart people can often do stupid things.
This is where bad haircuts come in.
I’ll admit that I tend to get my share. In fact, I got a lousy one last week. While visiting family out of state, I couldn’t go to my local barber, but recalled that I’d once gone to a place called “Snappy Cuts” (pseudonym for a national haircutting joint) and been happy with the result. This time most of my head got cut without the stylist even looking in my direction. My instructions were ignored. I got home full of regret, and the first thing my wife said was, “Well, I could have told you that it would be bad. You say that every time you go there.”
And she was right — if I was to count the ratio of good to bad Snappy Cuts, I’d have known to stay home. I got the same lousy haircut I nearly always do. She was also right that all I had to do was talk to her. As it turns out, I wasn’t just ignoring evidence. I was listening to the wrong data: those few instances of good results; my rare pocket of free time; and this being the only place in the neighborhood I could “recognize.” But my wife had her eye on the data I really needed.
Lesson 1: Talk and listen to your spouse more.
Lesson 2: We get better decisions with the “right data,” but it’s hard to tell if data are right or wrong unless you bring many voices to the table. Multiple or alternative forms of data need to be fair game as well.
Bonus Lesson: If you’re running a central office and want to increase “evidence use” (whether from consultants or your own data), make sure you’re actually prepared to hear the news. I know of numerous districts who seek out external advice but then fail to act on the information, because they lacked procedures and momentum for change.