Data-driven improvement in education

Building a 'smart' framework for change
By: | March 3, 2016

Leadership is never more critical than when creating and sustaining a data-centric learning culture, as Lane Mills advises in a white paper on how districts can access and integrate data to make informed, proactive decisions.

A smart “what-why-how” framework can illuminate the mission of a new culture: What is a data-driven culture? Why is there a need for a data-driven culture? How do data-driven cultures look, sound and act? At the center, we should always look to initiatives that drive high achievement for educators and students alike.

Following are some additional considerations that are fundamental to creating a transformative environment that drives excellence.

Building ongoing capacity

Many educators today don’t have the knowledge or experience to understand the design, administration and interpretation of qualitative and quantitative data assessments. To improve instruction, it’s necessary to focus on ongoing professional development and coaching, with the explicit purpose of raising the awareness, understanding and application of assessments and their data.

This ongoing capacity-building creates the confidence of staff to continually and consistently learn. Building capacity relies on the effective use of data and the ongoing monitoring, measuring, and analysis of school and system initiatives.

Assessment and data literacies

This includes skill, knowledge and experience with the different forms, purposes and uses of assessment and data. In “All About Accountability,” James Popham says: “The situation is analogous to asking doctors and nurses to do their jobs without knowing how to interpret patient charts. Because health professionals are evaluated according to the longevity and physical well-being of their patients, you can be certain that those professionals thoroughly understand how to ascertain a patient’s vital signs.”

In other words, one cannot begin to make sense of data if one doesn’t understand assessment. The analysis and ability to act on data is a necessary shift made possible by technology to assess the learning process. Data that shows how a learner is constructing meaning, forming understanding and making learning decisions is the basis of the revolution in ongoing formative assessment.

Ongoing monitoring, measuring and analysis of school and system initiatives

Leaders must engage in assessing and evaluating the number, purpose, intent and impact of each initiative in motion for alignment.

Most importantly, they need to assess and evaluate the time, effort and energy of staff. A practical tool for school and school system leaders is Daggett’s Rigor/Relevance Framework, originally developed by staff of the International Center for Leadership in Education ( The framework provides practical questions for school system leaders to not only analyze and assess current practices, but also evaluate new initiatives.

Selecting the right data.

The same structure applied at the macro level can be applied to data-use in the classroom. We can use the what-why-how framework to sort data that has meaning for individual districts, schools or classrooms.

Accountability systems have required schools to be heavily dependent upon data. The natural and practical benefit from ongoing capacity building is reflective in the process of selecting the “right” data itself—the information that is essential to closing gaps and raising achievement.

The role of leadership is to articulate the vision, champion the mission, and create the conditions for teachers to access and use data effectively and efficiently. To do so requires a focus on leading indicator data that provides insights into the process and products of learning.

These insights represent a powerful disrupter to “failed learning”—creating the access and opportunity for all learners to participate in the full curriculum and to ultimately be successful.

Gregory Firn has been a superintendent and a deputy superintendent, and has had educational leadership roles in Texas, North Carolina, Connecticut, Washington and Nevada, and overseas.

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