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Data-Driven Decision Making

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The American public, dissatisfied with the results of their public education system, has for some time been clamoring for reform. International standardized tests have shown that American students are not competing with their foreign counterparts. Reports have come out which show that entire sectors of American society—the poor, minorities, the English language deficient, and the learning impaired—are being left behind. In response to these alarming statistics, political leaders, the parents who elect them, and the social scientists who inform both have been advocating countless reforms, some of them quite extreme. President Bush’s "No Child Left Behind" education bill is itself the product of a highly dissatisfied public demanding instantaneous reform. Whether the "No Child Left Behind" legislation will achieve its stated purpose is a matter of debate, but the fact that it has passed shows that the majority of the voting public wants results and they want them now. This pressure for rapid results and increased accountability has put many educators into a difficult place, particularly principals and administrators because they are seen as responsible for the health of the schools they run.

Fortunately, however, the education reform movement has not produced criticism alone. A number of relatively recent innovations, theories, and experiments have emerged which provide today’s principals and administrators with a variety of tools, which heretofore have been unavailable. Perhaps the most interesting of these is the increasingly popular idea of data-driven decision making, hereafter D3M, which has been achieving results around the country in the most struggling school districts. For principals in particular, D3M represents both a promising solution to many problems they face in their schools as well as a difficult and often painful challenge. Regardless of what one thinks of D3M, however, it seems inevitable that the role of D3M will increase in public schools as parents and political leaders more and more demand information and statistics about their schools’ performance in an atmosphere of ever-increasing accountability and evaluation. Understanding D3M is, therefore, immeasurably valuable to today’s principals not only because of its increasing importance in the discussion of public education reform, but, more importantly, because it is also one of the most intriguing and promising ways to give everyone what they want—improved results.

Though data-driven decision making is relatively new as an element in school reform, the successes it has brought about throughout the nation make it an unavoidable force for change. Indeed, principals, teachers, superintendents, due to the "No Child Left Behind" legislation’s demand for demonstrable results as well as the education reform movement’s strength in general, will all be held more accountable in coming years, not less so. Data will be collected about their performance whether they like it or not. Principals today have a unique opportunity to use D3M to help fix problems in their schools on their own before those problems are brought to them by angry parents and politicians. More importantly, D3M, when used correctly, has the ability to help countless children turn their academic careers around. D3M is not the only solution to the problems in America’s public school systems, but it has already proven that it can help.


Data-Driven Decision Making is a relatively recent idea that has emerged in the last 10-15 years in response to the perceived lack of informed decisions made by principals, administrators, and teachers regarding problems and failures on the part of students in general. Proponents of D3M believe first and foremost that every student can learn and that it is the duty of every principal and teacher to find the best way possible to make sure this happens. Consequently, proponents of D3M believe that student failure, whatever happens before and after school, is ultimately the responsibility of teachers and principals and that solutions to every student’s problems exist; it is simply a matter of unearthing what those solutions are. Ultimately, the most direct route, say D3m advocates, to unearthing solutions for student failures is to know as much as possible about individuals or groups within the school to the extent that scientific, informed, and well researched remedies can be applied. The ultimate goal of D3M, therefore, is to have enough information at hand to know where problems exist and how to best solve them.

Theorists supporting data-driven decision making state that it is not a one- time solution meant to be applied ad hoc or at random. D3M is an ongoing process that requires continuous collection of data concerning student and teacher performance. For example, student grades and test scores are reported weekly. Surveys of students are conducted often to see what they are thinking and how they are feeling. Every student is to some extent monitored and all of his teachers know where he or she is succeeding and failing. Teachers collaborate at designated meetings or individually to help solve student problems and their own. The parents are routinely informed of their children’s progress and are invited to help in their child’s education. Principals monitor every teacher’s performance in every classroom by examining what grades are achieved, what students feel about the class, and what the teacher is actually doing. Standardized tests are taken and student performance is disaggregated as much as possible so that trends, both positive and negative, can be discovered.


By continually collecting, disaggregating, and analyzing all of this data, practitioners of D3M can find which students are succeeding or failing, where they are doing so, and why. Many of the early practitioners of D3M discovered a number of problems they never knew existed. One school, for example, noticed the English-deficient students, despite good grades, were not actually improving their English language skills in the school’s language development program. After observing the situation, the principal and concerned teachers realized the students were not being challenged enough. After reforming the program, the grades experienced a temporary dip, but the performance of these English-deficient students improved on standardized tests and their writing skills in English jumped. The same group of teachers achieved this success with the same type of students; they just had never realized that they were doing something wrong.

To date, the schools that have engaged in D3M have seen their principals emerge as leaders, organizers, and facilitators of D3M based policies. Principals introduce the idea of D3M to the teachers, for example, inform them of how it works, and set up an intellectual framework for their teachers to work from. They then monitor the broadest data themselves and report to the teachers on how they are doing as individuals, how the school is doing as a whole, and where improvement is needed. In other words, the principal is the ultimate evaluator and analyzer of the collected data, and the initiator of all broad reforms. However, D3M advocates note that the principal must not become a judge and jury before which the teachers stand; D3M is to be a school-wide, team effort. A principal must conceive of him or herself as a "project leader," which is to say someone who has more responsibility but is nonetheless still part of the team. Likewise, students and parents should all be considered part of the team as well. The principal must ensure that everyone answers to the data that is collected—no one is exempt. If a student is failing somewhere, it is everyone’s problem. If a principal can remind everyone of this crucial point, he or she will have taken the first step toward making D3M successful.

A principal initiating data-driven policies will no doubt uncover some startling facts that had either not been known or kept secret. In Ohio, for example, data on minority student performance has recently been released that shows the state’s minority students, in particularly African-American students, are performing far below white students; the state’s school districts are failing their minority students absolutely. The public outcry that ensued over the release of this data has no doubt put educators throughout the state on edge. Within individual schools, principals will no doubt have to encounter similar difficult situations. Because the data is objective, what it says is not always pleasant. A principal who adopts D3M in his or her school may be shocked, for example, to find that the second grade math program is absolutely dismal. Proponents of D3M, however, point out that no matter how painful the data may be, it must be faced if all children are to be given the best possible education.

Another problem a principal may face is an unwillingness on everyone’s part to collect and analyze and in turn face all the data. For example, one principle who implemented D3M in his school pointed out that, while his school as a whole routinely did better than the state average on standardized tests, his English-deficient students as a whole were doing far worse. The data collected and analyzed revealed a flaw in a school that was otherwise rather self-satisfied. The implementation of D3M has to be thorough and honest if it is to help student’s achieve.

Finally, many advocates of D3M warn that too much data can be a problem if it is not organized and analyzed correctly. What good is it, for example, having countless statistics if no one can make sense of them? What good are weekly surveys if no one reads them? A principal who decides to adopt D3M in his or her school must look at the resources available and use them accordingly. Some of the nation’s wealthier schools, for example, have reams of information on every student kept in computers that is continually updated and observed by a professional data-analyst. Other schools collect data, put it on a computer, and then do nothing with it because they have no time or lack the knowledge to use it correctly. Still other schools have simply worked harder to collect crucial but limited amounts of data and have achieved success that way. D3M will look different in each school, but it is most effective when the data collected is capable of being used correctly.

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