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6 steps for using data to improve instruction

From laying the foundation to creating the right culture, here's how to make sense of data

Research suggests that when principals work directly with teachers in explaining how and why they should use data to improve their instructional practices, the effect on student achievement is more than twice as powerful as any other leadership dimension.

Clearly, K-12 leaders hold the keys to data-driven improvement. And if they want to lead this practice effectively in their schools, they need to understand how to use data as a leadership tool.
According to Datrow, Park, and Wohlstetter, there are six key strategies that performance-driven schools and districts should follow if they want to use data to produce significant achievement gains. Let’s explore them.

1. Lay the foundation.

Just as a house won’t last without a solid foundation, school and district leaders must invest significant time and resources in building a solid foundation to support data-driven decision making if they want this practice to endure.

Laying the foundation for using data to drive continuous improvement involves setting specific, measurable performance goals at all levels of the organization (district, school, grade level, classroom, and student). It also means developing and implementing a cohesive curriculum that is consistent across all schools and is vertically aligned from one grade level to the next.

Only when there is a coherent, system-wide curriculum in place can educators begin to collect, analyze, discuss, and act on data that are comparable from one school and classroom to another.

2. Create a culture of data use.

Establishing a culture of data-driven improvement is essential in holding staff accountable for this change. District-level leaders must set clearly defined norms for data use and model them in their own day-to-day practices. Principals, in turn, are responsible for reinforcing those expectations in their buildings.

When everyone knows what is expected of them, and using data to drive continuous improvement becomes ingrained in the district’s DNA, then real change can happen.

3. Invest in data management systems.

Teachers are typically awash in student data. The challenge lies in collecting timely information on student performance, organizing this information, and presenting it in a way that is comprehensible so that educators can use the data to inform instruction. A robust data management system is critical.

Ideally, such a system should be based on open standards. It should allow educators to collect and analyze student performance data from a variety of sources, and it should be flexible enough to grow with educators’ needs. It also should present information in a way that is easy for teachers to understand and act on.

4. Choose the right data.

Data from student assessments is important, but it’s not the only type of data that educators should rely on to improve their teaching. Performance-driven schools also use other kinds of information, such as classroom walkthrough data and other qualitative measures.

Timeliness is critical as well: Teachers can’t wait until end-of-unit exams to learn which students don’t understand important concepts. They should be continually collecting and analyzing information from formative assessments and other measures in order to adjust their teaching.

5. Build capacity.

Professional development (PD) is fundamental in using data to improve student outcomes. School and district leaders must invest in job-embedded PD that focuses on using data to improve instruction. They must provide support for teachers and model effective data use in staff meetings. They need to give educators ample time to collaborate around data use, building opportunities into teachers’ busy schedules to analyze and reflect on student data within department or grade-level teams. And they must bring together educators from different schools to share data and discuss improvement strategies.

6. Turn data into action.

School and district leaders need to develop tools and processes to help principals, teachers, and other staff members act on the data they collect. These resources should include data-analysis protocols as well as reports that monitor progress toward key goals. This type of feedback is vital for districts to engage in a cycle of continuous improvement.

The research is clear: Effective school leadership has a significant effect on student achievement. And one of the key dimensions of school leadership involves using student data to enhance instruction. When school leaders set clear goals, establish a culture of data use, and give teachers the tools and the training they need to inform their practice, success is sure to follow.

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