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What it Really Means to be a Data-Driven District - And How to Make it Happen

A simple internet search for “data-driven instruction” yields nearly four million hits. Clearly, the concept is neither new nor novel.

Yet still, research continues to show that educators’ ability to actually use data to guide instructional decisions is lacking. How can that be?

While sifting through those search results, I realized something: Just about every article focuses on why data-based instruction is important, but not a single one I’ve found has addressed whatthat really means and how to make it happen in real classrooms with real students.

It’s time to push the conversation to the next level and help educators do something with their data.

Data-driven doesn’t just happen

As esteemed engineer and author William Edwards Deming put it, “Without data, you’re just another person with an opinion.”

Fortunately, we live in a world and work in a field that is rich in data. From assessments to demographics to behavior to attendance, we collect more information than ever before. But of course, that data is only as good as what is done with it.

To that end, being “data-driven” is not just a characteristic that some districts naturally have and others don’t. It’s a system that must be deliberately set into motion and carefully sustained.

After years of observing districts and working with educators across the country, here’s what I know it takes to be a truly data-driven district.

1. Access to the right data, at the right time.
This may seem obvious, but according to the 2017 policy review from the Data Quality Campaign, data is not currently as accessible–or usable–for educators as it needs to be in order for it to actually spur student achievement.

In many districts, data exists primarily in static reports that become outdated and inaccurate almost immediately. What’s worse is that the data that districts do have is rarely shared because it’s relevant for only one group, like district-level administrators, for example.

To be data-driven, all stakeholders, from support staff to superintendents, must have the tools they need to access the right data, at the right time, in the right format. That means we have to look beyond basic dashboards for role-based, customizable reports that enable educators to visualize and make sense of the data that matters most to them.

2. The ability to have “whole student” data in one place.
The amount of data available to districts is not, and really never has been, the issue. The problem is that it is all stuck in disparate systems. In recent years, student information systems have helped to pull together some key data points, like attendance, course grades, and demographics. But even still, those systems tell us only part of a student’s story and don’t provide the level of analytics and type of reporting needed to actually generate meaningful insights–let alone take action.

Data-driven districts do it differently. They find a way to pull all available data out of single silos to see the whole student and acquire systems that empower them to go beyond static spreadsheets and make meaning of the data. What’s more, they ensure these systems fit into educators’ daily workflows, as opposed to being an additional, disconnected task.

3. Creation of a data culture.
Once systems are in place for their educators to access data and generate comprehensive, dynamic reports, it’s critical that districts focus on cultivating a clear vision that everyone shares. According to Carl Anderson, author of Creating a Data-Driven Culture, that means making a collective commitment to using data-driven decision-making processes.

Likewise, data-driven decision-making can’t happen in isolation. Analyzing data should be a concerted effort in which educators at all levels can collaborate to make meaning and take action.

One district’s story

A few months ago, my team shared a story about how McKinney Independent School District in Texas is leveraging IO Insights to track student achievement at critical transition points. Since implementation, the district has been able to break down barriers and put data directly into the hands of administrators and teachers.

The district developed a data monitoring matrix that brings data to life in a Virtual Data Wall. Now, educators and administrators throughout the district can use data to personalize learning and achieve district goals. According to Principals Deborah Sanchez and Jimmy Bowser, the tool has given teachers access to the data they need and has instilled a collective responsibility for student achievement across the district.

Technology has provided an answer to many of our biggest challenges in education already, so it’s no surprise that systems such as IO Insights have started making a difference when it comes to data. I’m encouraged by successes like McKinney’s and am excited to keep pushing the conversation past simply why data-driven instruction is important so that we can actually make it happen.

Originally published March 19, 2018 in eSchool News: https://www.eschoolnews.com/2018/03/19/really-means-data-driven-district-make-happen/