Data-Driven School Improvement
ERIC Identifier: ED401595
Publication Date: 1997-01-00
Author: Johnson, James H.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Educational Management Eugene OR.
Effective educators make effective decisions, decisions based on accurate information.
If knowledge is power, then studying the current abilities, skills, attitudes, and learning
styles of students empowers educators to adjust the curriculum to achieve whatever
goals the school and district have chosen.
When educators study their schools and classes, they seek an answer to an ageless
question: Is it good because we've been doing it for a long time, or is it good because
we have tangible evidence of its worth (James McLean 1995)? In many instances one
must conclude the former because no evidence exists to support the latter.
One solution is to collect data on student learning that are both timely and accurate.
CAN DATA USE IMPROVE EDUCATION?
McLean contends that "implementation of a complete program of data collection and
use can lead to the improvement of education as has no other educational innovation of
the last century." Fundamental to this effort is equipping teachers and administrators
with the skills and inclination to ask, "Is there a better way?"
Traditionally, data collected in schools have been used to assess student performance.
But with the growing decentralization of power in most districts, educators are more
likely to rely on data to help them make better choices and uncover better ways of
serving students and the community. Educators routinely evaluate reading, writing, and math achievement, but they rarely
assess management skills, individual learning styles, or other elements that may affect
"We do the testing," said Marilyn Olson, of the Lane Education Service District, "and we
get the individual student's scores back, but there's no concerted effort to interpret the
data and work with them" (Johnson 1996).
Olson is currently involved with a project to create a database "that is consistent and
accurate enough so that we can use it to make program changes." The goal is to enable
educators to collect accurate information on students so they can make adjustments to
teaching styles or curricula to gain measurable improvements. Students experiencing
difficulty can be identified and helped earlier than is currently possible.
"Right now," Olson says, "we've got different teachers dealing with different data and
they don't talk to each other, so a student slips through and no one recognizes the
discrepancies in the student's data."
WHAT TYPES OF DATA SHOULD BE COLLECTED?
Data are endemic in educational settings. As Richard Wallace (1996) reports, "School
districts usually gather much more data than they can effectively use." The challenge is
to analyze the information and use it wisely. Many believe the logical starting point is to
make better use of existing or archival data (Wallace, Emily Calhoun 1994, McLean).
These data include statistics on attendance, grades, referrals, retentions, and
standardized-test results. When compiled and reported on a regular basis, archival data
provide a baseline of school operations and can be used to make comparisons among
With minimal effort, these data can often be disaggregated or broken down. Often done
by grade, gender, race, or socioeconomic background, disaggregation can reveal
previously unrecognized patterns that, in turn, may suggest areas in need of
With varying degrees of effort, other classes of data can be collected. Examples include
survey results, interviews, numbers of books read, and other information on student
achievement. These data typically require development of a means to collect and
analyze the information (Calhoun). Data that may be more difficult to collect and
interpret objectively include evaluations of student work, such as portfolios and
SHOULD TEACHERS SERVE AS RESEARCHERS?
Traditionally, educational researchers have been the ones to proclaim various
educational practices as either effective or ineffective. Principles of effective instruction
are often drawn from large-scale studies.
However, teachers do not work in large-scale, static settings. They face unique sets of
students who respond variably to different strategies. Hence applying academic
research findings to individual classrooms can be problematic.
One alternative to overreliance on the findings of large-scale studies is for educators to
assume the role of researcher. By studying their students, teachers can bring the
academic findings down to earth, as it were, and discover what works in their specific
Susan Black (1996) equates teacher research to the work done by anthropologists or
ethnographers. "They are able to observe the cultural scene closely ... and create a
research record of the people, places, events and objects within it, as well as their own
personal interactions and responses." By using the classroom as laboratory, teachers
can, for example, learn whether interdisciplinary teaching is as effective with their
remedial students as with their high achievers.
Research conducted by teachers differs from academic research (Black).
Such small-scale studies are often termed action research, because the
teacher-researcher takes action based on the results of his or her findings. The
research may be formal or informal, short- or long-term. But it is based on the
understanding that the results are collected from a set of students and the action is
applied to those same students (Calhoun, Molly Watt and Daniel Watt 1991).
- First, academic researchers strive for objectivity, keeping the subjects of their study at arm's
length. Teachers, in contrast, maintain a close relationship with the objects of their
- Academics try to design and control events under study while teachers observe
activities as they occur in the real world, namely their classes.
- Finally, traditional researchers seek to globalize results while teachers know that their findings apply only
to the students in their classes.
HOW CAN DATA BE USED EFFECTIVELY?
In any organization, those who possess information typically exercise a degree of power
or control over those who don't. How information is to be used will affect how
data-collection initiatives are perceived and then implemented.
Data can be used to judge people's performance and take punitive action against
underachievers, or it can be used to diagnose problems and determine the efficacy of
Principals' "willingness to provide opportunities for information acquisition...may be
tempered by their competitive notions of power which only impede the empowerment of
teachers" (Peggy Kirby and Ira Bogotch 1989).
The concept of continuous improvement should be stressed. "Each data-collection cycle
and its results should not be thought of as an activity with a grade...it should be thought
of as information on the progress being made toward attaining the collective goal and to
assist all members of the organization as they make decisions for current and future
action," states Calhoun.
Choosing a specific area of focus is also crucial. Through consultation with other staff
members, whether formally or informally, the researcher needs to select a well-defined
set of objectives. The data-collection cycle and subsequent action steps should be
designed to address these needs. When goals of the improvement effort are clearly
defined, teachers, staff, and the community will be more likely to understand and
support the initiative.
WHAT STEPS CAN SCHOOLS TAKE TO IMPROVE THEIR USE OF DATA?
Most researchers suggest that a logical first step in using data is to begin making better
use of existing data. A systematic analysis of data that are already being collected can
reveal previously unseen patterns and opportunities for improvement. More inventive
data sources require greater efforts to collect and interpret them.
Outside resources can support efforts to collect and analyze data effectively. For
example, the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory administers a variety of
data-driven school-improvement programs that have been proven effective (Robert
Blum, Kim Yap, and Jocelyn Butler 1992). One recent innovation is their "data in a day"
program, wherein advisors, staff, and student volunteers select an area of focus in the
morning, collect data, and present findings later the same day. The immediacy of the
results and the involvement of a range of individuals often provide tangible benefits to
everyone involved, especially the students.
This publication was prepared with funding from the Office of Educational Research and
Improvement, U.S. Department of Education, under contract No. OERI RR93002006.
The ideas and opinions expressed in this Digest do not necessarily reflect the positions
or policies of OERI, ED, or the Clearinghouse. This Digest is in the public domain and
may be freely reproduced.
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