Part 10 of GSE’s “What We Believe” Series:

drilldownData-driven decision making, in schools, is an approach to leadership that values decisions that can be backed up with verifiable data. The success of the data-driven approach is reliant upon the quality of the data gathered and the effectiveness of its analysis and interpretation.


Where to Begin with Data?

We always start with a big picture. The big picture however, needs to be defined clearly. At a whole of school level what does the data tell us? At a whole of class level what is data telling us? At the student level, across all subjects, skills and abilities, what do we see? It is important that we know exactly what we are looking for and how we will use the information. If we are looking for increased achievement what does that represent? Just academics? Achieving potential? Holistic development? Rushing in to find data that ends up being misleading or not useful is a big mistake.


Drilling Down on Data

Once you’ve reviewed the overall data, it’s time to drill down to smaller groups and even individuals or separate  items you are trying to understand. 

A common mistake we see in education is the comparison, year by year, of students without understanding the different variables or influences within the school or groups. I remember a school that year after year was demonstrating considerable improvement in literacy. One year the data showed a drastic decline in literacy levels and leadership was ready to make wholesale changes in an attempt to address what they perceived was a strategy that was no longer working. What they had not considered was that there had been a considerable increase in transient students. The turn over of students (students in and students out) can mean that you are not comparing the same groups or cohorts of students. In this case it is important to track the individuals. 

It is also important to measure what we refer to as “distance travelled.” Large numbers of high achieving “A” students tells us something but may tell us very little about the impact teachers have had on moving students from a “C” to a “B.” Surely education and teaching is best measured by our affect on learning improvement. It has been said before that sometimes smart kids do well “in spite of the teacher.” Let’s make sure we understand what we are measuring. Statistically we know that higher socioeconomic groups perform better academically. What about “average” students? Surely teachers impact on them tells us how great a teacher, or school really is.


What is Data?

Our position challenges a traditional belief about what data is as well as what data is most important. While numbers and percentages are very concrete and make things measurable we also care a lot about information that is less able to convert into tables. Opinion really matters. Climate, tone, culture are all valuable yardsticks or symptoms that indicate quality. Be cautious about “loud minorities’ i.e. the individuals or small groups who infer they are representing the majority but in fact they are just in a position to influence more or they are more extrovert in nature.

We also value third person opinions. Indirect questions about people’s perceptions often tell us a lot. If a school’s mission is a focus on Literacy, STEM, community service, etc., then there is a good chance people on the street know this. At times we have even completed what we call “street surveys” i.e., asking random people within neighbourhoods what they know, believe or perceive to be true about a school or business.


Drawing Conclusions from Data

We need to be cautious about drawing concrete conclusions until we have analysed and considered all the possibilities. In practice of course we will, but these positions must remain in draft and ready to be discarded as new information and insights come to life. We have to be careful about confirmation bias i.e. Looking for more data to confirm our preferred position. We should be open to an encourage out of the box and alternative ideas. Quite often our first impression may be the opposite to our final determination. 


Systems Approach to Data

There are ways to strategically collect data and align practice though using a systems approach. 

On one occasion we wanted to:

(a) Make sure literacy was a key focus across all subjects, and

(b) We wanted to monitor literacy practice.

These are just some of the things we standardised and implemented:

  • Curriculum Planning templates
  • Lesson Planning templates
  • Agenda and minute taking templates for subject area meetings (saved and shared for review)
  • Templates for lesson observations (Peer and supervisor)
  • Literacy Tags used on purchase orders and financial recording systems

All of the above “systems” encourage people to focus on the key priority but they also allow tracking through the documentation that quickly highlights the priority. e.g., If a Math department is focussed on literacy development then it will be clearly evident in all of the above places.

datdecision infographic v2

What to do with Data?

So, now you have volumes of data and maybe even a few conclusions you have drawn from it. What do you do now? Remember, your focus needs to be on improving organisational performance. The data needs to inform new and improved practice. While leadership may be in control of the process, it is the teachers who ultimately must understand and operationalise the new directions. 

If a school determines that students have a weakness in a key area, eg. critical thinking, then steps need to be taken to increase that skill set. 

Provide professional development: As William Glasser says, “People make the best decisions they can with the information and skills they have available at the time.” Teachers don’t readily aim to do a poor job. Most teachers are incredibly passionate and committed to improving student outcomes. Improve the skills of teachers and increase the number of strategies they have at hand to deploy. Go further than just providing the training though. Most often money is wasted on training because there is no system of follow up. Guided and support follow up must happen after the training.

Remove the barriers: Find out why it is not a priority or why current strategies are not having the effect you aim for. We strongly believe that one of the key roles of leaders should be to remove obstacles and distractions. Run the school well; make things smooth. Help teachers have a clear and uninterrupted path. If the school is disorganised, staff are arguing about work conditions or the workplace is unbalanced staff cannot work achieve their potential.

Prioritise the matter in a very focussed way: Make it a key focus of all conversations, track and review progress. Make it the top of meetings, newsletters, conversations, celebrations, displays and announcements. Something becomes a priority because it literally is the priority of a school.

“At the end of the day, everything we do must inform instructional and operational decisions and increase performance. That is our core business.”

Greg Parry, CEO

Provide resources: This may be helpful but be cautious. Inanimate objects alone do not improve outcomes. This should never be the first reaction. It is an important component but let’s not allow this to be an excuse or unsurmountable barrier to moving some steps forward. 

What is a Culture of Supported Accountability

Building a culture that uses data to leverage change as well as maximise effective decision making and performance is important. Top-down approaches may work short term but it is essential that staff have buy in and that they value the process. If data is used to discipline staff rather than help develop them, you are very likely to build a toxic and unsupportive culture. We have seen example of both. Peer coaching can be very effective but it is tough to develop. If teachers commit to observing, reviewing and giving each other professional feedback it can accelerate improvement however if such information is used in ways that staff feel vulnerable and threatened they will not participate in authentic ways.


“On one occasion we implemented a peer coaching program whereby teachers volunteered to observe each other in class, then share feedback and ideas for improvement. We created a rule however that this information and feedback could not be shared with administration or outside the trusted group. Only by doing this could we ensure the purpose of the program, to help teachers with self improvement, could be maintained. Our goal was to improve the quality of teaching overall, not gather data to judge performance. This was achieved through meaningful discussion, observation, planning and then supported practice, by trusted peers.”

Greg Parry, CEO

Everyone in their right mind wants to succeed. What limits us however are a mixtures of skills and abilities as well as knowing what to focus on. A lot of energy in the wrong place will get us know where. Leaders must make informed decisions and data, in all its forms, is the key to making sure we do that well. Let’s create a culture of safe and supportive accountability where data is not considered the enemy but a helpful friend in moving ourselves forward.

CEO and Education Expert Greg Parry

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Internationally renowned for his expertise in education leadership, Greg Parry’s vast experience includes leadership of projects for edu-cation institutions throughout Australia, the Middle East, the United States, India, Indonesia, Malaysia and China. Recognised for his numerous contributions in the education arena, Greg has received the Ministers Award for Excellence in School Leadership based on improvements in school performance and a range of successful principal training and leadership development programs, as well as the School of Excellence Award for Industry/School Partnerships and the School of Excellence Award for Technology Innovation. His company GSE (Global Services in Education) has been recognised as having the Best Global Brand in International Education in 2015 and 2016.

Considered one of the premier experts in his profession, Greg has trained teachers and principals throughout the world in areas such as critical thinking, language development and leadership. His expertise in school start up projects, leadership and curriculum development, has made him a sought after authority in these disciplines.

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