Board-Savvy Superintendent

Which Data Should You Put in Board Hands?

by Mark van Clay

School boards need good data by which to make good decisions. Yet data used the wrong way can become a beguiling siren’s song for board micromanagement.

So how do superintendents manage their board members’ needs for useful data while at the same time protecting themselves and their school districts from data abuse?

Here are nine guidelines I use to sort through this increasingly common issue. They come with no guarantees that a board still won’t misuse data, but when followed, they usually result in good data for good board decisions.

Intended Uses

  • Measure the important things. When data are tied to school district goals or a strategic plan, the shared information focuses a board on what it has defined as most important. This is when board data can be most productive. Good board data don’t define board goals — they validate or fail to validate goals that already have been determined.
  • Know the intended use for the data. Accept the reality that a board can see whatever data it wants to see, but help board members understand that what it does with that data needs to align with district or strategic goals.

I find six questions by Edie Holcomb, author of Getting Excited About Data, are helpful in defining good data use: What questions are the data trying to answer? What do the data tell us? What do the data not tell? What else do we want to know? What can we celebrate? Where are there opportunities for improvement?

  • Stick to your role when identifying data needs. The board’s proper role is a strategic one. It sets organizational vision, targets and long-term goals. The strategic role doesn’t make change happen. It sets targets that school district staff must reach to make change happen. This differs from the administration’s tactical role — the planning and timing of change — and the teacher’s operational role — the implementation of change in classrooms. A board micromanages, for example, when it attempts to perform tactical or operational functions.
  • Understand the reality of data use at all levels. Data should cascade through the organization across all three roles. Though it won’t be the same data, all cascading data must be aligned. Because different data are necessary at tactical and operational levels, a classroom will be focused on individual student data while administration will be focused upon school- or grade-level data that derive from the individual student data.

Likewise, both must be aligned to the strategic data that drive the school district — usually district-level data and benchmarking comparisons to other school districts.

  • Identify role-appropriate indicators. Bad data for a board are data that cause a board to dive into tactical or operational functions. Data that publicly identify students or staff members, data that are classroom based or data that lead to board micromanagement or universal board judgments about staff performances should not be provided to a board.

Good data are information that has the board focus on the entire district, the long-term directions of the school system and the strategic goals it wants to reach. The indicators a board chooses — the kind of data it wants to see to gauge attainment of its strategic goals (particular test scores, attendance data, financial projections, perception survey results, etc.) — will usually determine whether the resulting data are strategically good or bad.

Proper Interpretation

  • Align resources to achieve results. There’s no point in collecting and analyzing data unless they are used to both celebrate successes and promote change. The limited resources of time, people, training and money should be directed toward attaining predetermined desired outcomes. This calls for aligning budgeting to strategic goals. It is equally important to align strategic goals to leadership evaluation tools that have measurable outcomes so leaders are held accountable for results. For superintendents, this has the advantage of having clear goals before the board early in the process. Evaluations by boards thus become more objectively data-based and less subjective.
  • Interpret data correctly. Boards need to understand it is as important to determine what data do not say as it is what data do say. Any single set of data is incomplete in and of itself. If a board acknowledges this basic reality up front, it will interpret the data it sees from both directions — what data mean and what they don’t mean.
  • Share information wisely and widely. A commitment to sharing data widely increases that data’s power. When the entire district at all levels and the public are all focusing on aligned data linked to strategic goals and targets, the conversations and the expectations from all directions become common. At that point, they are within reach for everyone and all feel committed at their level to reaching the goals and hitting the targets.
  • Carefully watch what you share. Sharing data widely doesn’t mean sharing all data widely with everyone. It means sharing only the data that are appropriate to share with those in a particular role.

Mark Van Clay is superintendent of the La Grange Elementary School District 102 in La Grange Park, Ill. E-mail: vanclayma@dist102.k12.il.us