The 4 Pillars of a Strong School Data Culture

Administrators and teachers discussing data in a school classroom

Schools with strong data cultures are those that prioritize data-driven collaboration, decision-making, and of course, instruction. It sounds simple enough, but there are a number of practical roadblocks that keep well-meaning administrators from successfully implementing a strong data culture in their school (or schools), including:

  • Lack of trust between teachers and administrators
  • Unclear, difficult-to-track goals and strategic objectives
  • Lack of training in practical data application
  • No clear processes for gathering, analyzing, and acting on classroom data

Clearing these hurdles requires a district-wide mindset shift when it comes to how data is used both strategically (i.e. budgeting decisions) and tactically (i.e. personalized lesson-planning). These four pillars of a successful school data culture can help you get there.

Pillar #1: Developing Trust

Trust is the bedrock of any positive school data culture, but two-way trust can be elusive. For instance, while 77% of principals say that their actions have a completely positive impact on schools, on 37% of teachers feel the same way. This speaks to a disconnect between the top-down initiatives that principals are rolling out and how they’re received by classroom teachers.

There’s no shortcut to building trust - professionally and personally, it takes time and consistency. But a foundational building block is vulnerability. 

When leaders are vulnerable, their team is given implicit permission to open up about what they’re experiencing, too. For principals, this can be easier said than done. In fact, the NASSP found that the vast majority of principals aren’t willing to reveal their own vulnerability and responsibilities in conversations with others when trying to solve important on-the-job problems. This is an important hurdle for leaders to overcome, as study after study tells us that vulnerability is crucial for building a trusting environment for everyone.

Pillar #2: Setting Shared Targets

Some teachers turn away from a data-driven approach because the reason for collecting and sharing classroom data is unclear. If it’s just another task meant to check a compliance box, then why should teachers prioritize it over tasks that they know have an impact on student development?

Worse yet, some educators may view student performance data as a tool that can be weaponized against them at contract renewal time.

One potential solution to this hurdle is quite simple: involve teachers in the goal-setting process. Of course, there are some goals that are non-negotiable based on standards, requirements, or strategic plans, but it’s equally as important to find a set of measurable goals that resonate with educators. This helps create an intrinsic motivation to gather, analyze, and act on valuable classroom data. 

Ideally, these goals can be measured on an incremental, short-term basis. Assessing data, like any other performance review, feels less daunting when it’s done on a continuous basis. Quarterly, bi-annual, and annual data/performance assessments carry additional weight that can add unnecessary anxiety to a teacher’s already stress-prone day-to-day.

Pillar #3: Developing Data Skills

This pillar is less about ability and more about enablement. Teachers tend to be highly educated and naturally curious, so it’s up to school leadership to tap into that and cater to their professional development accordingly.

Odds are, a handful of teachers in any given school consider data-driven instruction an area of strength. If school leaders can identify these data nerds (we mean that in the best way), that presents an excellent opportunity for teacher-led professional development.

Teacher-led PD not only gives faculty a sense of ownership over their own professional growth, but it also tends to be more engaging than externally-sourced PD. Even if no one on staff feels comfortable leading a data-centric PD, your teaching staff may know folks from their professional learning communities (PLCs) who are.

Anna Hartranft, Director of Instructional Technology at Schoolytics, may have said it best:

“If your school is still standing after [2020-2021], then you probably have a few great teachers. Ask them to weigh in on the PD calendar for next year.” 

Pillar #4: Establishing Data Processes

If your school’s data culture is a house, then established processes make up the plumbing. You can build a beautiful dwelling, but without the pipes in the walls taking everything where it’s supposed to go, the house will be unlivable!

Establishing the three previous pillars goes a long way toward getting a solid data process in place. The most efficient way to supercharge your data processes further is through technology. Still, there are some pitfalls to avoid.

Some districts opt for a complex web of spreadsheet-based data trackers as a cornerstone of their data process. While cost-effective, this option requires a lot of manual work, and one faulty equation or missed cell can send the whole system into a death spiral. Plus, you don’t have to spend much time on the r/Teachers subreddit to find folks who are fed up with using unwieldy spreadsheets to track their classroom data.

Some districts turn to data visualization tools like Tableau or Power BI for a more sophisticated approach. However, the power and sophistication of these options can be a double-edged sword, as there can be a steep learning curve for upkeep and administration. And while platforms like these offer use cases for education, they were originally built to support complex, private sector enterprises. This can make them needlessly complex and difficult to maintain for the average school district.

The good news is that there are data platforms purpose-built for education. These platforms will automate many previously-manual data integration tasks while surfacing the most important, action-ready information for school leaders, instructional coaches, and classroom teachers.

And since you’re reading this, congrats! You’ve already found a classroom data platform that school districts across the country love to use. Check out Schoolytics if you haven’t already. We offer free pilot programs for districts, and teachers can join for free!

Oh, and by the way: this blog post is based on a webinar we recently produced. You can watch the whole thing here!