In the drive to instill a DEI outlook in school culture, principals need to lasso another letter: R for “reflection.”
As research reveals and veteran principals know, raw data that’s left to roam without intensive reflection is simply a wandering herd of numbers. Infusing inquiry and discourse into the process helps capture the circumstances and challenges embedded in the story of each student. The resulting insights open the gate to thoughtfully differentiated instruction and targeted resources.
“With clear expectations around the performance of marginalized students, principals can harness data in the pursuit of those expectations,” says The Wallace Foundation’s 2021 meta-analysis, “How Principals Affect Students and Schools: A Systematic Synthesis of Two Decades of Research.”
Current research says that parsing data using broadly defined, inclusive subgroups makes way for a more sophisticated approach. Principals are creating opportunities for marginalized students by overlaying data analysis with a social justice orientation.
As principals face calls to close achievement gaps, they are disaggregating data further with groupings such as language learning, disability, and race and ethnicity. Such disaggregation builds capacities to differentiate instruction by discrete skills within academic content areas.
Practices that cultivate effective data-driven leadership for equity include:
- A full suite of skills. Effective equity-centered school leaders infuse race into data-informed leadership, says “Undermining Racism and a Whiteness Ideology,” by George Theoharis and Marcelle Haddix. They also do their own emotional and intellectual work surrounding issues of race, talk and learn about race with their staffs, and connect with families of color.
- An equity core. Successful principals establish improvement cultures driven by a philosophy of social justice and democratic ideals, according to “Leadership for School Success,” a research paper by Encarnación Garza Jr., Stephen L. Jacobson, Lawrie Drysdale, David Gurr, and Betty Merchant. Principals pursuing racial equity have discovered that data becomes much more meaningful when infused with demographics, including students’ race.
- Staff engagement. Investments in data-based practice to engage staff in focused, structured, and continuous inquiry about learning improvement challenges can lead to purposeful new action to address equity, according to “How Leaders Invest Staffing Resources for Learning Improvement,” a 2009 report commissioned by The Wallace Foundation and published by the Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy at the University of Washington.
Data is a tree with many branches, but it’s also a rabbit hole that can distract from school goals.
Data sets that home in on equity include:
- Discipline and behavioral referrals. Overlaying disciplinary data with race data can reveal telling discrepancies, but reflection is critical to true comprehension. Ongoing personal reflection can steer teachers away from “blaming” students for disciplinary troubles. Discussions to uncover the structural causes of disciplinary problems require leadership facilitation.
- Special education. Overlaying race data can reveal the inequitable application of “pullout” programs, e.g., imbalances in how many students of color receive special education assignments or placements in less inclusive settings.
- Attendance. Elements of physical, emotional, and family needs can all contribute to lagging attendance. Data can reveal telling details such as neighborhood, historical trends, health, special education status, and parents’ age, as well as data on older siblings’ effect on the school day. Results can inform communications tailored to varying audiences.
- Teacher performance. Data can reveal inequities deriving from teacher performance. One principal cited in the “Undermining Racism” study uncovered data that one of his teachers was failing the most African American students of any teacher in the district.
How to Focus on Equity
It’s one thing to say that you must view data through an equity lens, but it’s another to instill that among teachers. Here’s how:
- Be consistent and persistent. Effective leaders weave race into discussions and initiatives regularly, which keeps issues of marginalization in the foreground and alerts teachers that they must work with data daily to advance equity efforts.
- Guide toward understanding. Veteran principals ask teachers questions that prompt reflection on the equity-related issues behind learning struggles. Asking teachers to highlight students who concern them can help them see patterns.
- Prepare. An effective principal often knows the answers but uses questions to encourage teachers to reach their own conclusions. Knowing the answers means reviewing the data for equity revelations before each professional learning community meeting.
- Show vulnerability. Principals don’t always have to know the answers. Let teachers know when their insights give you food for thought.
- Cross over. Use data to keep students on the school’s radar for interventions and instructional differentiation across all areas of concern. For example, a student who is no longer sending up red flags for attendance might still be on the list of language learners who are falling short academically.
- Make it visual. Make your own infographics or charts to present inequities in pictorial form.
- Cheer the wins. Celebrating successes helps encourage buy-in. At one school district, teachers saw the impact of long-term SEL efforts in numbers showing a sizable decline in disciplinary issues, says Prioritizing Racial Equity Within Social and Emotional Learning in Tacoma, a new e-book from RAND Corporation commissioned by The Wallace Foundation.
“Effective principals apply an equity lens to all their efforts, including virtual learning,” according to “Principal Leadership in a Virtual Environment,” a report from Digital Promise and commissioned by The Wallace Foundation. As principals navigate the waters of virtual learning, researchers offer guidance on setting sail toward equity:
- Scrutinize the technology. Platforms often promise personalization, but principals should ask pointed questions to tease out their capabilities for meeting the needs of specific students.
- Promote transparent communication. Share data and information with the school community to show progress toward an equitable environment and equitable learning for all students. Solicit actionable feedback from all parents.
- Think like a human. Data dashboards can alert teachers to student difficulties down to the individual homework problem, helping teachers of virtual classrooms compensate for limitations on observational capabilities. However, algorithmic recommendations should be reviewed, because some are created using biased data sets.
Numbers tell stories, and mindfully examining students’ stories opens insights into their lives, their families, and their communities. Through data, principals can lead their schools on journeys that infuse learning for all students with equity and social justice.