Leading a Data-Driven School
I’ve collaborated with numerous school leaders around the country, and they all want the same thing: high student engagement, high student success, and high graduation rates. Additionally, I would say 99% of the schools that I have visited all struggle with the same thing: knowing their data. To me, as a leadership coach and former secondary school principal, this seems very counterintuitive—to have schools call me and know where they want to go but not where they have been or where they are now. The first step to increasing student performance is that school leaders must understand their data. This article examines the data sets and systems that school leaders should be examining over the summer to set their schools up for a successful 2022–23 school year.
My first question when working with a new school is, “What’s your data?” The answer is often, “This is my graduation rate.” Most secondary school leaders can rattle off their most recent graduation rate data in a heartbeat. Then I ask:
- What about your 5-year, 6-year, or 7-year graduation rates?
- What is the graduation rate of subgroups broken down by race and gender?
- What is your course-passing data, test score data, attendance rate data, and behavior data?
Most of the time the answer to these questions is, “Why are these data sets so important?” If we do not know where we have been, it is very difficult to know where we are going. A case in point? The common practice of an employer asking to see the resumé of someone interviewing for a job. The past is a great indicator of the future.
As a leadership coach, I would be remiss if I did not mention my awareness of the current state of education. The last two academic years for school leaders have been brutal. According to NASSP’s December 2021 nationally representative survey of principals, job satisfaction among school leaders is at an ultimate low, with almost 4 out of 10 principals (38%) expecting to leave the profession in the next three years.
I believe in the power of a great, well-informed school leader—and that if they are supported, they will keep serving their schools. My job is to help educators with the necessary skills to continue the work they are doing. By understanding your data, I guarantee your school will be better positioned for success next school year and for years to come.
ABC Success Metric Tool
This summer, analyze your data by using the ABC Success Metric Tool. ABC stands for Attendance, Behavior, and Course-Passing Data. As you prepare for the new school year, it is imperative that you have a solid understanding in these three areas.
You must know your attendance data. Why? I liken it to understanding the basic concept of gravity. Sir Isaac Newton explained to us that “what goes up must come down.” Although we may have a working knowledge of gravity, most of us cannot explain inertia or the law of motion that allows planes and helicopters to stay in the air. I say this because it is not enough to just have a working knowledge of our data; we must know our data. We need to know our attendance data for every grade level broken down by month and week and by race and gender. Further, we should also know the attendance data of our administrative team, student support team, and faculty. Knowing the data helps us to identify trends of the school. Attendance data tell stories.
The easiest thing to do as a school leader when examining data—if it is negative—is to blame the students and teachers. The hardest thing to do is to look in the mirror and say, “What kind of culture am I creating so that students and teachers do not want to be here?” Attendance is a big indicator of a school’s culture. People show up to school when they feel loved and welcomed.
As I work with school leaders across the country, I’m asked all the time, “Do you have an attendance program we can use? What is the secret for getting students to school?” My response is always the same, “Love your teachers; make them feel valued, appreciated, and that they are needed for the school, and students will, in turn, feel the same way.” Why? School leaders have an impact on student achievement and increased student attendance. As leaders, if we take care of our teachers and students, success will follow. When school leaders do not examine their attendance data, it’s because they either don’t know how to do so, or the importance of it has never been explained to them.
As school leaders, we need to know everything about the behaviors in our building, both positive and negative. We need to know who our students are, whether they struggle following the school rules, or if they are the ones with the most room to grow behaviorally. When I speak to school leaders and work with them to improve their schools, I ask, “Who are your best-performing and best-behaved students within the building?” The second question is “What makes those students the best?” Most times, principals and their administrative teams can only name a handful of their high-performing students. Then I ask specifically, “Who are the top 15 students in each grade level?” I can usually hear a pin drop because the room is so silent. On the contrary, when I ask about their students with the most room to grow behaviorally, they can give me a list a mile long. That signals that the school leaders focus more on negative behaviors than on positive ones.
Knowing the data gives the administration a balanced picture of the school. When schools are in crisis, the adults say things like “the school is out of control,” or “these students’ behaviors are horrendous.” The words are quite sensationalized. Hearing these types of comments can throw a leader into a panic. But, when you are tracking the data, you can speak from a supportive, informed, and data-driven point of view. “No, the school is not actually out of control. Last month, we had seven nonviolent offenses that were all from boys playing around, and we had only four real fights in the last six months.” As the leader of the building, you must have a pulse on what is taking place within the walls of your school.
School leaders must have strong systems and protocols for reporting and capturing behavior data. This system must be written and clearly articulated to all staff. After school leaders capture their behavior data, they must then be able to interpret it. To do so, they can use the ABC Success Metric Tool. This method is a system that assists school leaders with truly understanding the root cause of their behavior concerns and how to address them. As behavior data is captured, we disaggregate it by months and weeks, and the following questions are asked to provide clarity to the school leaders:
- How many write-ups were submitted this week?
- What areas had concerns?
- Who was the adult who generated the write-up?
- What was the gender and race of the student?
- What was the consequence?
Knowing this data allows you to understand the biggest issues within your building and can help to support initiatives that will move the school forward. If bullying does not show up in your data, then it’s not a problem in your school. Follow the data.
Creating a system within your school to track how students are performing in real time will change your school for the better—forever. As a principal coach, I ask school leaders to collect course-passing data twice a semester, once at the 5-week marking period and once at the 10-week marking period. Course-passing data is broken up into several ranges: 0–54, 55–64, 65–74, 75–84, 85–94, and 95–100. Each teacher is responsible for identifying where students fall into each category by class period. They are asked to reflect on the grades and to create an action plan for how they are going to support their struggling students. In education, we always talk about students “owning” their learning. This same concept holds true for educators. We must empower our teachers to own their data within their classrooms.
To be clear, data should not just be isolated to how students are performing in their classes alone. Under the course-passing data level, other aspects of student achievement need to be examined: state assessments, district benchmark assessments, and formative/summative assessments. When examining course-passing data, all the data sets should be examined regularly with the leadership team. Doing so will give you a clearer picture of how your school is performing and which teachers need your support.
Knowing your data is important. The 2022–23 school year will be amazing for you, your teachers, and your students because you now know how to lead a data-driven school. The hardest part of creating a successful school is setting up systems and maintaining them, but the summer is a great time to brainstorm and plan out how you will implement those data-collecting systems. And when you do, your school will thrive.
Marck Abraham, EdD, is the president of MEA Consulting Services, LLC, a motivational speaker, and the author of What Success Looks Like: Increasing High School Graduation Rates Among Males of Color.