Data in Education

School Leaders Must be Part of the Transformation

04/06/2015  |  By Aimee Rogstad Guidera
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In Ponca City, Oklahoma, Superintendent Dr. David Pennington uses publicly reported information—like state report cards on school results and progress—to make good decisions for students. He knows timely, tailored, relevant data are critical to having a more complete and richer picture of student achievement, teacher quality, and what is working, and not, inside his district’s schools. Pennington and other administrators often encounter compliance-focused information anda lack of the necessary conditions to support publicly reported education data’s use in the service of student learning and system performance. Pennington says he “welcomes the chance to address these obstacles in any way possible,” and he can.

Leaders of schools and systems are in a unique position to be part of the transformation of the use of data in education—from compliance to using it to inform decision-making and improve student achievement.They must work in partnership with states to make sure public information is meeting the needs of their communities. And they must create the conditions and culture necessary for everyone to use that information.

Distill What Information People Need and Demand It

Education data are powerful tools for informing stakeholder decisions, but they won’t be used if they are not presented in actionable formats tailored to specific stakeholder needs.All states are responsible for publicly reporting education information. Manyare now prioritizing access and display—making sure data are made available in easily accessible, comprehensible formats that facilitate understanding and use by stakeholders to answer their important education questions. Illinois gathered nearly 60 focus groups and crafted a strategic communications plan to ensure that its new state report card answered the questions that matter to the public. The District of Columbia, Illinois, and Wisconsin made their information easier to find and understand by listening to feedback about how different users navigated and interacted with their website.States can’t fully meet people’s informational needs without involving people who are on the front lines doing work.

School and district leaders can demand better data by playing an active role in state efforts to create helpful public reports. And they should not only commit to using that data, but alsoshare that aggregate information with the public. Everyday, school and district leaders are in the trenches, talking face-to-face with parents, teachers and the community. Who better to understand and advocate for these groups’ unique informational needs? They have the power and credibility of voice to be data champions, to represent their community and advocate for their needs, making sure that the data collected and used is providing value in the classroom for teachers and at the kitchen table for families. When informational needs are met, it will give parents and families the information to renew their trust and faith in school systems and to become true advocates for their children.One of the most important questions parents have according to research from Great Schools is about what happens to the graduates of their child’s school—do students go on to college? Do they need remediation?  Are they successful? School and system leaders need to make sure the state provides the answers to those questions (a task which every state can now accomplish) and that the district presents that information in a timely, easy to understand manner.

Build Capacity to Use Data Locally

Even when publicly reported education data meets people’s needs, just having thedata in itself is not enough. When teachers and parents don’t find value in the data or trust that they are safe, then they won’t use them, and they certainly won’t trust decisions based on them.Through their leadership, administrators must focus on the people-side of the data equationand lead the changes necessary to support a culture that supports data use and protection.

School leaders need to constantly reinforce the power of data to their communities and help everyone who has a stake in education understand the “what’s in it for me” aspect of quality, timely information. Schools in New York are nurturinga culture of datawith help from the New York State Education Department. The state department’s Engage NY website provides detailed resources and tools for school and district leadersto communicate about data.

In a letter to the parents and citizens of Pender County, North Carolina, Superintendent Dr. Terri Cobb wrote,“I encourage you to review the report card to learn about school and district performance …Our principals are the best resources for school-specific projects and programs currently underway and they can answer questions about information contained in their school’s report card.” Superintendents and school leaders have to be data advocates on their own turf. But this communications effort is not a one-time deal; to build a culture that values data, there needs to be constant communication provided about the power of data to inform decisions, fuel continuous improvement and get results.

This culture change is dependent on providing teachers the support, training, and conditions they need to beable to use dataeffectively to personalize learning for every child in their class. Administrators need to prioritizeteacher data literacy so educators can continuously, effectively, and ethically access, interpret, act on, and communicate many types of data to improve students’ success.This also entails changing how school schedules are structured to allow teachers the time and space to analyze, discuss and act on the data in the service of helping students learn. Equally important, administrators must ensure that data collected in their own school or district are accurate, trustworthy, and safeguarded, because no one can effectively use data if they don’t trust it or if it’s inaccurate.

Empowered with the right data, the right culture, and the right conditions, teachers, parents, and school leaders will make better decisions in support of student learning. A culture of compliance is not an easy thing to change, and leadership at the school and district level is critical to the effort to use data to improve student achievement. When superintendents and school principals lead the charge for improved quality, access to, and use of data, great things happen for kids.

Aimee Rogstad Guidera is president and CEO of theData Quality Campaign (DQC0), a nonprofit, nonpartisan, national advocacy organization committed to realizing an education system in which all stakeholders—from parents to policy makers—are empowered with high-quality data from the early childhood, K–12, postsecondary and workforce systems. To achieve this vision, DQC supports policymakers and other key leaders to promote effective data use to ensure students graduate from high school prepared for success in college and the workplace. Most importantly, Guidera is the mom of two school-aged daughters. She believes that parents, students and teachers need to be equally strong legs of the stool of academic success.
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