Using Data to Solve K–12 Challenges

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K–12 districts are data-rich, but often have limited capacity to turn it into actionable information. A continuous improvement mindset and data literacy tools help educators make decisions that improve outcomes. 

In K–12 schools and districts, data can be found everywhere: in student records, test scores, learning management systems, budget spreadsheets, survey results, and teachers’ gradebooks. It’s a critical component of evaluating programs, establishing goals, monitoring changes over time, communicating with stakeholders, determining appropriate funding, and informing instructional decisions.  

Yet despite a wealth of accessible data, K–12 districts don’t always have resources to interpret and act on that data in an ongoing, systematic way.  

Educator and author Peter Drucker once said, “You can’t improve what you don’t measure.” To make lasting improvements in classrooms, schools, and districts, it’s essential to use data to guide that work. Ultimately, using data should be a part of everyone’s regular practice, not just a handful of employees behind closed doors in a central district office. 

Data Is Part of Everyone’s Job

In reality, school and district data are often stored in many different platforms. Employees may not have much experience working with data. Leaders may review some types of data (usually quantitative) and not enough of others, missing a fuller picture of their district or school. And busy teachers may lack the bandwidth to take on data-focused duties such as program evaluation. 

Data literacy is the ability to read, interpret, and communicate data as information. It’s always been a critical skill for K–12 staff, but it’s not commonly included in teacher preparation or educational leadership coursework. With a continuous improvement mindset, however, and a few key data literacy tools and best practices, educators can learn how to use data to make more informed decisions that maximize student learning and success. 

A Continuous Improvement Mindset

Plainly speaking, continuous improvement is a way of consistently reviewing and enhancing the quality of an organization’s programs and operations to ensure efficiency and effectiveness. The Carnegie Foundation defines it as “the act of integrating quality improvement into the daily work of individuals in the system.”  

When it comes to using data, districts and schools that cultivate a continuous improvement mindset often share some similar traits: 

  • Frequent Use of Data: Using and interpreting data is part of everyday work, instead of being considered an add-on or an afterthought.
  • Organization-Wide Data Literacy: Everyone at the district, school, and classroom levels understands how to interpret and use data to make informed decisions.  
  • Standard Processes: There is a central framework or structure in place that helps people follow a standard process for evaluating what’s going well and what to improve. 

A continuous improvement mindset relies on a problem-solving learning process that invites questions, tests ideas, and uses results to adapt and adjust plans. It calls for flexible thinking and an openness to taking in new information, incorporating new skills, and modifying strategies based on where the facts take you. For this kind of mindset to take hold across an organization, the leadership must pave the way by not only modeling these behaviors, but also implementing a system-wide framework for improving work and providing professional learning opportunities to all staff.  

Learn how district leaders are building their school system’s capacity to effectively evaluate programming. Watch Hanover’s webinar recording, Building System Capacity for Program Evaluation. 

A System-Wide Approach to Data Use

To guide your continuous improvement efforts, your organization needs a system-wide framework and process for using data (one example is the Carnegie Foundation’s improvement science protocol).  

Why is this important? A framework allows employees across a district or school to use data consistently. While some districts develop a framework on their own, others may want external support to get the ball rolling. Either way, making data part of your organization’s daily practice is key.  

Here are a few tips as you begin to formalize a data collection and evaluation system in your district: 

  • Identify a handful of data evaluation goals and metrics related to your district’s priorities, aligned to your strategic plan. Start with fewer, specific goals focused on the areas with the greatest need and adjust over time to include other goals. 
  • Assign metrics or key performance indicators for each goal so you have something to evaluate your progress against. 
  • Look at both quantitative and qualitative data to get a view of the larger picture. 
  • Avoid making decisions based on just one snapshot or year of data. It’s better to look at trends over time to get a more comprehensive view. This is particularly important with pandemic-era data, as COVID-19 introduced many anomalies and changes that skewed typical patterns. 
Learn more about how the superintendent of Danville Public Schools partnered with Hanover Research for system-wide support with quantitative and qualitative data tracking. 

Building Educators’ Data Literacy Skills

Data should be part of every decision in a district or school from department meetings to professional learning communities across school sites. Getting everyone on board with system-wide data use often means people need some additional training. So, it’s important to develop professional learning opportunities that help leaders, teachers, and staff strengthen their data literacy skills. This is another area where you may want to lean on external support to build capacity initially. Once district and school-based administrators are comfortable with data use, they can begin to support teachers and diffuse new skills across the rest of the organization. 

Learn a seven-step process for creating an engaging professional learning plan for your K–12 staff by downloading our District Leaders’ Guide for Developing a Professional Learning Plan 

Teachers, administrators, and staff alike can learn how to look for patterns or gaps in data, interpret trends, and apply data-driven insights to their decision making. When this happens, everyone — most of all, students — reap considerable benefits. 

—Marriam Ewaida, PhD, Managing Director, K–12 Professional Services, Hanover Research

Build your district and school employees’ data literacy skills with our Data Literacy Checklist.

Educators can use data and continuous improvement tools to solve K–12 school challenges

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