These days, everyone is talking about data-driven decision making. But how many school board members really are comfortable using data to make decisions?
And how do they determine what data they really need?
These questions are at the heart of “Data-Driven School Governance,” a series of articles featured in ASBJ’s July issue.
One invaluable use of data is to help school boards fulfill their role as good stewards of their districts—to hold school personnel accountable for students’ instructional success, data experts say. But school leaders often aren’t certain where to begin.
“What benchmarks or criteria do you use to evaluate the successes and failures of your superintendent and district leadership?” one article asks. “And how do you determine whether good instruction is occurring in your schools? If 70 percent of third-graders at your elementary school are proficient in reading, is that a huge success or a disturbing failure?”
Joe Wehrli, director of board development for the Oregon School Boards Association, says any data used for accountability must be developed jointly by the board and superintendent.
“They need to be very specific and laser-focused in their discussion with the administration about what achievement expectations they are after … to identify specifically what types of assessments they’ll use,” he says. “If you’re holding district personnel accountable for their work, you’ve got to set expectations … and you have a responsibility to provide the resources for the work.”
Yet accountability isn’t the only use for data, experts say. “It’s one thing to put district administrators on the spot after a three-year effort to boost reading test scores; it’s another to use data to help determine why that effort failed — or what to try next.”
“That’s the biggest ‘ah-ha moment’ I’ve had in 20 years in working with data — that there’s accountability data and instructional improvement data,” says Ronald Thomas, associate director of the Center for Leadership in Education at Maryland’s Towson University.
“School boards need [data] to deeply delve into the next set of questions … what do students know, what do they not know, and what are we going to do about it.”
All of this should sound great in principle, but how do you make it happen? The answer is training—from the school board down to the classroom teacher. Everyone needs to learn how to “use data to turn the board priorities into day-to-day instructional practices.”
Ironically, the toughest battle may be convincing board colleagues to invest in their own training. But school board members must educate themselves, says Steven Ultrino, a former board member for Massachusetts’ Malden Public Schools.
“Professional development is key for board members.”