Making Sense of the Data Madness

Guest post Ryan Rismiller

 

As I make plans for the upcoming school year, I review our school data. Though we’ve made considerable progress, the data says we’re not where we need to be. Despite our school team’s tireless efforts, we need to do more to narrow the achievement gap, raise graduation rates, improve math and English proficiency, and more. Frustrated, I ask myself, what more can we do to move the needle when it comes to our data? 

Advances in digital technology allow schools to gather large amounts of student data in record time. But despite these improvements in data collection and accessibility, schools still struggle with data. What data should we analyze to inform instruction and improve student achievement? First-time passage rates for Algebra 1 and freshman English? The exiting Lexile score for our third-graders? Post-graduation employment or education? Attendance rates?

Sometimes, data is maddening. Throughout my career as an educator and school leader, I continually ask myself this question: How can we make effective use of our school data?

Here are some lessons I’ve learned on how to deal with the data madness:

  • No magical data wand exists. Analyzing data is hard and will aggravate you. Though most of us have had some sort of statistics class in college, we are not data analysts by trade. Cut yourself some slack and know that the more you analyze data, the easier it gets. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Find another school leader you trust or read up on school data analysis. I recommend Victoria L. Bernhardt’s book Data, Data Everywhere: Bringing All the Data Together for Continuous School Improvement. 
  • The more eyes you have on data, the better. Get your entire staff involved in reviewing the numbers and analyzing trends. It builds their confidence in understanding and using the data as well as demonstrates the importance of using data to inform their instructional practices.
  • Make time for thorough data analysis. Nothing will frustrate you and your staff more than not having enough time to do an in-depth review. And since time is always a constraint in schools, it is your job as an administrator to fight for that time. This time cannot be a five-minute agenda item during a staff meeting either. It must be significant time allocated solely for the purposes of data analysis.
  • Develop a data analysis protocol. By implementing a data analysis protocol, you will help make the most of the time you allocate for data review. Consider using a template to bring structure to the way your school reviews data. Various ones exist, like this template from the Los Angeles United School District.
  • Remember that no single data point can accurately, consistently, and authoritatively predict student success. Take a more thoughtful approach to organizing data and be clear about what data tells us and what it does not. Different measures are appropriate for different objectives. The key to effectively using data is to clearly identify specific objectives and choose the data sets that best inform thoughtful analysis of the problem.

Before the bells start ringing to bring in the new school year, it’s time that we work through our personal learning networks to identify the most effective ways to utilize data in our schools. By working together, we can discover the best analysis practices and data points that will make a difference for our students, our teachers, and our communities.

What are your data analysis best practices? What data points have you found most helpful for improving your school? 

Ryan Rismiller is the assistant principal at Harding High School in Marion, OH. He is the 2017 Ohio Assistant Principal of the Year. 

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