President’s Corner

Welcome More Data, But Apply It Well

by Benjamin O. Canada

School accountability is an emerging issue in the education arena. Many states already track and evaluate students' test results as a means of evaluating schools. New federal initiatives under consideration may extend that sort of evaluation process to all public K-12 schools nationwide.

But are these reports and analyses of any value? What should we do with all of this data? How can we put it to good use?

We should welcome the additional information provided by these regular evaluations as yet another tool in our school districts' decision-making toolkits. The more data we have about how well our district's students are doing and how well particular programs are working, the more informed and appropriate will be the decisions we make.

Making decisions based on data frequently goes against the grain of educators. We are people people, so to speak. We enjoy interacting with others, and we want to respond to individuals' needs and concerns. It feels cold to simply look at numbers to make a decision. However, many times taking a good look at the numbers will enable us to do a better job of helping the individual students who contribute to those numbers. This type of data-based decision-making can be particularly powerful in spotting and resolving problems that may otherwise remain hidden.

For example, suppose you have set a district goal of bringing all students' reading and mathematics skills up to grade level. How can you respond appropriately to the emotionally charged issue of distributing limited resources among schools?

The answer is, you can look at the data and base your decision on the facts, rather than the emotions. In this way, you can respond to the real needs that exist, and do so in a way that allows you to track the effectiveness of your actions.

Perhaps there are several schools throughout your district where 75 percent of all students are achieving at expected levels, and several other schools where only 40 percent of all students are on target. The initial parent and community response might be to ask that you target your resources to the lower-performing schools. But is that the most effective response? Have you looked closely enough at the data?

Perhaps in one high-performing school you will find a significant achievement gap between certain ethnic groups, where 90 percent of one large group is meeting expectations and pulling up the overall results, although another smaller group in the school is achieving at only 25 percent. Perhaps throughout the district one ethnic group is failing to achieve at a much higher rate than any other group and is skewing the scores based on their percentage of the overall population at any given school. Perhaps differences are gender-based, or perhaps differences correlate to income levels or ability to speak English.

Once you study the complete and detailed data, you may find that your best use of resources is not to send extra teachers to all of the low-performing schools, but to send bilingual teachers to a few of the schools, provide diversity training in some of the schools and institute new teaching methods in a few other schools. In short, you may find you need to undertake a variety of approaches that wouldn't have been obvious without data-based decision-making.

The key is to gather and track the data. Initially, you must gather enough data to fully understand the problem. Then, you must regularly track the results of the solutions you implement. The data you gather will lead you toward an understanding of what is working and what is not working. In this way, you can make decisions that will be of the most benefit to the most students. By using data, you can be a better people person.

Ben Canada is president of AASA.