Over the past 20 years, really since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, data in schools has become so many things—a carrot for more funding, a weapon used to dismiss teachers, a four-letter word, an unreachable pot-o-gold. Not to mention its many manifestations like a Data Wall, a Data Day, a Data Room, etc.
What data hasn’t become is the tool that actually gets kids learning more than they were. Sadly, despite the relentless focus and efforts to collect data about student learning, American student achievement this past decade has remained stubbornly stagnant.
It’s no surprise though, that when summative student learning data becomes both a reason to withhold funding and a reason to grant more funding, a reason to pay teachers more and a reason to fire them, that teachers’ trust in data also remains stubbornly stagnant.
When data is no longer a means to an end, but becomes the end itself, it’s time for a hard reset.
In order to build a strong data culture in a school the very first thing an administrator should do is take the temperature of the trust of the staff. Nothing will stifle a data-informed instructional culture like a staff who have learned over the years to be distrustful of their students’ learning data and how it may be used against them.
Here are some warning signs to look out for that you may have a data trust problem in your school—and what you can do about it.
It’s a natural human response—during times of mistrust, insecurity or uncertainty—to turn inward for self-reliance. If your staff is reluctant to work together in grade level or subject area teams, there may be some mistrust brewing that will prevent your data culture from taking hold.
Teaching can be incredibly isolating, and though teachers are generally collegial and supportive by nature, deep and frequent collaboration isn’t often baked into the job of most teachers.
In order to build trust among your staff over time, work to find ways to embed collaboration into the daily lives of your staff. Help them tag-team lesson planning or resource sharing to work more efficiently, brainstorm intervention ideas for students that need extra support, and bring their collective professional expertise together to support newer staff members to lighten the load.
A staff that can work together effectively is one that can begin to be vulnerable with one another and embrace data-centric conversations honestly and objectively.
There can be so much comfort in doing things the way they’ve been done before. Especially in times of uncertainty or doubt, reverting to the norm or the mean or the past can bring feelings of security and confidence.
But that comfort can also mask some insecurity or mistrust that may hinder a transformative data culture. If you have staff that is reluctant to adopt new tools or strategies, there may be underlying fear or uncertainty that can either be addressed and remedied head-on… or left to remain and possibly grow as the gulf between the adopters and the rejectors widens.
Make sure to focus on both the ability and the motivation components of your rollouts—training should not only address technical skill development but also mindset adjustments and trust building.
Fast feedback loops can also help staff see real-time information on their efforts. Using tools like Schoolytics can help put progress information in the hands of staff quickly, without having to wait for students’ formal test scores to see progress.
Too often in schools there is a combative relationship between administrators and instructional staff. This adversarial relationship keeps the entire school staff from being unified on the same team against poor student outcomes.
While there may be myriad valid reasons for this friction, we know that a contentious relationship with even one or two teachers can prevent a solid data culture from forming. And ultimately, it’s up to administrators to fix the fractures and help the staff move forward.
At the end of the day, teachers want to be respected, they want to be heard, and they want to feel valued. Because of the weaponization of data over the past 20 years, any move to a more transparent data culture can feel threatening unless these core components are also conspicuously present.
In order to build a strong coalition WITH your teachers, find ways to use data to build trust and bring efficiency to the role. Automating tedious tasks can save teachers a great deal of time when compounded over the school year, and eliminating double-work—like transferring grades from one system to another, or copy-and-pasting notes—can prove that you respect and value teachers’ time.
At the end of the day, it is up to administrators to set the tone and culture for the school, including the data culture among staff. Demonstrating vulnerability is a great way to begin promoting a culture of collaboration and confidence. Adopting tools for fast feedback and time saving can also go a long way to showing your staff that you value their time and effort and that you are a partner with them in promoting high achievement.