New Year’s Resolutions: 10 Tips for Instilling a Data-Driven Culture

This new year, resolve to make data-driven decisions a school touchpoint. With a few simple steps, teachers will embrace a data-driven culture and find practical ways to put it to use in their own practices.

Topics: Early Career Principals

About those New Year’s resolutions? Don’t worry. Maybe you’re not off to the roaring start you imagined, but new habits need time to take hold, and small steps have real staying power.

While the New Year is still fresh, it’s time to renew your pledge—surely you made one—to instill a data-driven culture in your school. As research shows, the effort pays off not only in making good decisions and addressing school needs but also in inspiring staff to action. Within vibrant, data-driven cultures, teachers collaborate to use available information for school improvement, and they see the benefit and practicality of using data in their own practices.

Easier said than done, of course, but these 10 tips offer the small steps that help teachers embrace data for improving instructional practice and respecting schoolwide improvement efforts through analytics.

  1. Take two: Zero in on the two uses of data that yield maximum impact in improving instructional efforts: targeting certain students for intervention, and modifying classroom practices.
  2. Home in on the essentials: Avoid overwhelming your already overstretched teachers with reams of numbers. Serve data in cocktail glasses, not firehoses.
  3. Flip “done to the school” to “done by and for the school”: Harness data for reflective and systematic decision making at an organizational level. Emphasize long-term improvements and problem solving by giving everyone a say.
  4. Teach the “why”: Tackling problems without uncovering their origins is like painting the wall to hide the stain from a leaky roof. When teachers know the purpose behind an objective, data-driven culture, they will see their hard work blossom into measurable results.
  5. Structure your “data chats”: Successful data chats—regular sit-downs with key team leaders and teachers to review data and strategize—must be structured for productivity. Predetermine the areas for discussion, such as identifying students in the lowest quartile and further breaking them down in subgroups. Let teachers know in advance that you will expect them to share best practices or come with questions about their instructional challenges.
  6. Be a performance manager: In business, performance management creates and measures goals, objectives, and milestones, guiding employees toward their highest abilities. Data creates objective platforms for shared conversations and agreements. In school settings, research has shown that performance management can improve student outcomes.
  7. Tweak: Lead your school teams in assessing data with such constancy that it becomes a mindset, and daily and weekly adjustments feel comfortable. Teachers feel empowered when they have access to data on their students that’s timely. As one study found, when teachers feel confident in using data and in the professional development that taught them how, they are more likely to use performance data to “communicate with parents, track student performance, identify skill gaps, and control instructional pacing.”
  8. Harness enthusiasm: Find champions to liaise with their colleagues—staff members who love data, are good communicators, and know content areas.
  9. Raise the bar: Data will reveal which classrooms are performing better, but avoid “shaming” the lower-performing teachers, which can undermine the quest for a data-driven culture. Instead, make it clear that data is not for punitive use, and frame the discussions in protocols. Guide the high-performing team members in sharing their impactful resources and teaching methods, and target supports to help others elevate their practices.
  10. Get coaching: More than three-quarters of principals want more professional development in using data for continuous school improvement. Whatever you find from your state, district, or NAESP, look for programs that build your capacity to use data to identify the needs of the school, teachers, and individual students and create strategies that deliver high-quality teaching and learning.