Overcoming Key Challenges in Using School Data

Adapted from Exploring Five Core Leadership Capacities Using Data: Transforming Potential into Practice


Some school leaders are afraid of integrating data into every line of their decision-making process. They fear that data requires an insurmountable amount of time and effort to become fluent, especially when they were not born in a 4.0 era and have to adapt and learn new technology constantly. This article will discuss three main challenges that are holding our educators back from effectively using data to make decisions in their schools.


1. Overcoming Data Anxiety

Fear of Data

Educators now embrace the use of data as an indispensable tool for school improvement. Yet, any expectation for change continues to generate fear, for example, the fear of not making a measurable impact even after all this data analysis.

  • Organize data management seminars for your school personnel. Recruit the best data teams on the market to train your staff in collecting and analyzing data effectively.

  • Visit and consult other school leaders who have an excellent reputation for data control/management/analysis.

  • Allow teachers to participate in the data selection process that supports their teaching performance.

Mistrust of Data

Data compilation is a work of humans, and like everything else, it is prone to manipulation. This issue also pertains to school leaders’ fear of using data. Some recommendations to lose the mistrust in a school setting:

  • Collect and analyze data collaboratively and anonymously by team, department, grade level, school, or district. This reduces mistrust among teachers if receiving negative feedback.

  • Highlight success stories that utilize data management and ethical use of data. Honest numbers like low student performance or terrible teacher evaluations can hurt, but it will only get better from there.

2. Building a Culture of Data Use

Developing a data-driven culture is not an easy job. Even if the school management team is committed to this lifestyle, teachers and school staff might not be convinced by the effectiveness of data evidence, thereby refusing to use it. What drives them to change is developing a schoolwide inquiry habit of mind, where teachers constantly find ways to enhance the teaching and learning experience. We are not collecting data for the sake of data collection, but for a collective benefit that will empower the whole school.

It is important to intentionally cultivate and practice an inquiry habit of mind – a habit of using inquiry – to engage in evidence-informed thinking about the current state, the ideal state, how to bridge the gap, and what progress is being made. - Katz, Earl, and Ben Jaafar (2009)

As school leaders try a different approach to integrating data into all aspects of their schools, they should start with these tips:

  • Involve others in interpreting and engaging with the data – actively schedule meetings and checkpoints with teachers and other staff

  • Stimulate an internal sense of urgency – data can be a powerful mechanism for refocusing the agenda or recasting a problem

  • Allocate ample time to familiarize school personnel with meaningful data management

  • Provide targeted professional programs for data literacy that emphasize applications of real-world data, statistical training, data methods to uncover patterns, generate hypotheses, recognize sound and unsound data, etc.

3. Too much data, too little time

Boudett, City and Murnane (2005) suggest that in many cases the challenges associated with the sheer volume of available data may seem insurmountable. In the mere span of a year, school leaders need to collect data on students’ academic achievement, their social and physical wellbeing, student satisfaction, parent satisfaction, facilities status, teacher evaluation, and so on.

There are so many categories that data play an essential role in, which can seriously intimidate newcomers boarding the data train.

So, what should they do facing this incredible amount of data and how can they conduct meaningful analysis? To address this challenge, school leaders should take these actions:

  • Set aside ample time for data use. If you want to accelerate the process, you should delegate data work to different departments and have regular check-up meetings.

  • Build a culture that focuses on improvement rather than blame. If you figure that one or two teachers underperform based on students’ assessment scores, try to take it further than cracking numbers. Look beneath the surface and try to analyze the reasons behind their performance. Is that because they are experiencing a family emergency? Is that because they are demotivated?

Data and numbers are important, but they should not hold complete validity over external reasons.
  • Identify the common goal of using data: is the data being used to improve students’ Maths scores, or ELA scores, or parent satisfaction? After being able to pin down a common goal, collaboration among different teams will be much smoother. Choosing what data to use would not be such a time-consuming and challenging task.

  • Give teams the professional development and support they need to be successful.

Although it can be difficult to create the conditions that support collaborative data use, evidence has proved that such conditions are attainable. Also, the payoff of schoolwide data application in terms of organizational learning, and ultimately student learning, is too great to ignore.

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