Data-Driven School Leadership: Confronting the Brutal Facts to Build a Culture of Excellence

by | Jan 27, 2019 | Equity and Excellence

Principals create policies and school improvement strategies to help their schools achieve excellence and equity.  However, it is important to note that our teachers are the ones on the front lines implementing these changes in their classrooms every day.

Principals and their staff must work together toward a common shared goal; otherwise, they will be unable to achieve their school improvement goals. Data-driven school leadership gives teachers the tools they need to create and implement improvement plans to achieve the goals set for their school. Data tells the story, and quite often the story may reveal truths that make schools uncomfortable because students are not meeting or exceeding the school’s student achievement targets.  However, to create a culture of excellence and equity, schools must confront the brutal facts first.

Use Data to Create Inclusive and Culturally Responsive School Environments

Tests only are indicative of what a student knows or how well they take a test. A student can understand all the information, but not do so great on tests. One of the flaws of test-only data is that it does not provide a complete picture. To use data more effectively, you need to look at the whole student and not just their test scores. However, what does it mean to look at the “whole” student? We must begin to look at different data sources, like:

  • Race
  • Gender
  • Previous instruction
  • Current skill level
  • Socioeconomic status

This information allows you to create personalized instructional strategies, which have been shown to be highly effective in educating students. Some teachers may think it is too controversial to look at some of these categories, but each of these areas can be helpful in creating lesson plans that address the needs of all students.

Looking at the whole student also allows schools to create a culturally responsive school environment.  Creating inclusive and responsive school environments requires educators to implement positive and proactive policies and practices that are focused on addressing the cultural, social/emotional, behavioral, and academic needs of each student.   Why, is it so important that we get this right in our schools?  Students depend on us to prepare them for the college or career of their choice, and when we get it right, they have access to them.

Cultural responsiveness starts in the principal’s office. Principals need to engage in culturally responsive work and leadership to overcome any barriers that stand in the way of achieving their student achievement goals. Principals should combine social activism and curriculum innovation. How can a principal encourage this type of behavior? There are a few things you can do.

To begin with, focus on the hiring process. In addition to focusing on high-quality applicants, you should hire individuals who reflect the demographics at your school. If that isn’t possible, you need to hire individuals who embody cultural responsiveness. Teachers can influence change, so hire a quality teacher with a culturally responsive orientation.

Professional development is also a huge part of this process. Principals need to attend conferences and training sessions alongside their teachers so that everyone can learn evidence-based practices at the same time. Professional development sessions should be job-embedded with a focus on setting aside any personal bias in order to address the needs of students.

To create better professional development, principals should connect their staff with outside professional development opportunities that will encourage cultural responsiveness. With limited budgets, this will be a bit of an investment, but it is an investment that is worth making to see your students succeed.  At the end of the day, this will help level the playing field for diverse learners, because teachers cannot help if they don’t fully understand the problem.

Focus on What Matters

In the book Results Now, Michael J. Schmoker wanted his readers to face the brutal facts of their data. Rather than be discouraged by this information, this can be an opportunity if you allow it to. Ignorance is not bliss when it comes to this data. The facts may be difficult to look at, but the cold, hard truth will set your school free and put it on the road to achieving all its goals. Student achievement data gives you the information you need to quickly reduce the opportunity gaps at your school and give every student the same chance despite social or economic backgrounds.

When you take the time to do professional development that focuses on diverse learners, you are teaching your staff to overcome the challenges that each student presents. The only way that you can succeed as a school is by addressing these issues head-on so that you can overcome them. Schools must focus on analyzing the data, even if the results don’t align with what you may be currently doing. There will be times that you will uncomfortable with the student achievement results, however, this is the only way you will begin to create improvement plans that address the unique needs of your student population.  Focus on what matters—your students—even if this means you must confront the brutal facts that you would rather ignore because it means disturbing the comfortable.

Trust Your Teachers

When you hired your teachers, you saw something in them that inspired you to trust them with your students. What makes a highly successful principal stand out from others is that they believe in their teachers. Principals maintain a vision that allows them to improve the outcomes of diverse learners by using data strategically. However, that’s not all.

Successful principals also allow their teachers the freedom to determine the best path to achieve the school’s overall objectives. Teachers are in the classroom every day, so they can better judge if the strategies are working or not. However, this does not give teachers the freedom to do whatever they want. A successful principal also understands that they will need to say no if they do not feel as though a teacher’s plans are going to benefit the students. The whole point is to encourage the success and achievement of their students.

Focusing solely on test scores when trying to solve your school’s issues is going to get you nowhere. There are many different factors that you need to consider before you can create an effective plan to improve your school. Even when the data seems hard to deal with, you need to look at it to better develop a plan for your school. Look at the demographics of your students and the other indicators that were mentioned throughout to get a complete picture of what your school needs to work on.

The Center For Student Achievement Solutions provides technical assistance, professional development, and coaching support to create schools and classroom environments that are equitable and inclusive.  

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