K–12 data leadership: Be the change for your school community

I will never forget the day I was hired as a teacher. There was one position open in a local school, and the principal was excited to offer me the job as I had been a student teacher and then a substitute there. I walked the fifteen minutes from my home on that hot, late summer New York City day, passed through those big red doors, and waited in the office for my name to be called. Soon enough I was informed of an open sixth- and seventh-grade 12:1 math position. Could I teach students with IEPs? Sure thing. Could I teach math? You betcha. The principal and I shook hands and he congratulated me on becoming the school’s newest faculty member.

The moment I emerged from those metal doors and began the walk back home, the reality of the situation hit me: I had just been hired as a math teacher. I did not grow up a “math person.” While I was in the higher performing classes due to tracking, as a student, math was my Achilles heel. It was the one subject that perpetually held down my overall average, the one subject I needed a tutor in, and the one subject that made me sweat and dread school. But here I was, about to become a math person, whether I liked it or not.

It doesn’t take much to go from data novice to data rockstar, but the first step to overcoming any obstacle is to admit that there is one in the first place.

As every teacher knows, that first year was a trial by fire. I struggled to keep my head above water those first few months. Then, one day, I gave myself a firm talking to. I confronted my negative disposition toward math, which had been exacerbated by years of struggle and disconnect between me and the subject. I told myself that I was a math person, that this shift, this work, was essential, and that I was going to rewrite my math story.  A few years later, I had become a leader in the department, and my classroom was often showcased during high-stakes school visits and highlighted for its innovative lessons. When I left the classroom many years later, I felt a deep sense of pride for all I had accomplished. That inner sixth-grader who, once upon a time, failed math couldn’t have been more proud.

Often, when we face necessary “evils”—uncomfortable systems or processes or subjects that we can’t live with or without—we defer to old habits. When presented with that first teaching assignment, I really wanted to melt back into my old ways of interacting with math: ignore, procrastinate, or just get by. However, I knew my students would suffer if I didn’t show myself some tough love.

I now have the pleasure of working with school and district leaders in my role at NWEA as a senior professional learning consultant. In this capacity, I am able to have robust, honest conversations with those who are responsible for the health and growth of a school and its community. We speak frankly about K–12 data leadership, the things that are working, and the obstacles to progress. Year after year, I’ve heard the same responses from school leaders: they know their assessment reports are important, but they’re just not a “data person.” Well, you’ve come to the right place.

Data is essential

Stay with me while I lean into a metaphor many of us can relate to.

Imagine you go for a routine physical. The doctor is out of network, but you’ve weighed the cost of a visit and deemed it valuable since they are a leader in their field. A week later, you receive your results: a carefully packaged, in-depth summary of your current health. The doctor has even taken the time to provide a few suggestions based on your results. You get the folio and toss it in your trunk, your linen closet, your kid’s toy chest. For weeks. You just don’t have the time for it; it’s too much to read and you feel fine, for the most part. But, why? There’s no point in going to a doctor if you aren’t going to acknowledge your results in a timely manner and make changes, however small, based on their recommendations.

The same goes for K–12 data. What is the point in administering an assessment if the data isn’t going to be used to its fullest potential? Data is essential, but it can feel like a necessary evil if your default disposition is to ignore, procrastinate, or just get by. While it doesn’t take much to go from data novice to data rockstar, the first step to overcoming any obstacle is to admit that there is one in the first place.

Self-assess to get started

If you feel as though you may need to refresh your data aptitude, or if you find yourself rethinking your data habits as you read this, you’re off to a good start. Self-reflection is a necessary prerequisite in any growth process. To begin, I encourage you to ask yourself questions such as the following:

  • Do my teachers and teacher leaders see me as a role model in data implementation?
  • Do my teachers and teacher leaders view me as enthusiastic and interested in our data?
  • Do I promote a school culture where teachers understand the value of data in meeting the needs of students?
  • Am I confident in my ability to lead data-driven discussions across teams?
  • Am I confident in my understanding of my school’s data?

7 steps to becoming a data leader

If you’d like to get started on your journey toward highly effective K–12 data leadership, here are a few steps that will guide you in the process.

  1. Rewrite your identity. First, consider yourself a data person. Envision the type of leader you would like to be: confident, fluent, and both empowered and empowering.
  2. Start small. Don’t attempt to tackle all your school’s data at once. That would be the same as adopting all your doctor’s recommendations at once. While it is good practice in theory, real success and shifts in habits happen gradually. Pick a few data points, such as the MAP® Growth™ School Profile report, and pair it with attendance reports or feedback from teachers regarding new resources.
  3. Seek professional learning. In the movie 28 Days, Sandra Bullock must wear a sign around her neck that says, “Confront me if I don’t ask for help.” I always thought that was brilliant because most people consider asking for help a sign of weakness, despite the countless ways we give the opposite message to our students. Many school leaders feel they must know all the answers, or be perceived to, and that can become a tricky, limiting, and isolating space to occupy. NWEA offers a variety of professional learning experiences to help get you on your way—and keep you on the path—of data leadership.
  4. Build a team of thought partners. Share your newfound knowledge and enthusiasm with a team of key players in your district or building: principals, assistant principals, instructional coaches, subject leaders. It takes a village. They might even be able to provide additional insight you may have otherwise overlooked.
  5. Hold yourself accountable. Old habits have a way of creeping back in without notice, so hold yourself accountable to a consistent, committed mindset. If you find that it is difficult to commit to the work…
  6. Find a mentor and be a mentor. Committing to habit change is easier when you’re in the work with someone you value and trust. Being accountable to a colleague and having them be accountable to you is a surefire way to make sure you are surrounding yourself with people who will support and enhance your growth.
  7. Self-reflect throughout. Just because the process began with self-reflection doesn’t mean the practice should be left in the rearview mirror. In the same way teachers are encouraged to constantly use data, observations, conference notes, and all their experiences to make changes and confront obstacles, so should you—and often.

Feel free to personalize these tips; they’re just suggestions to help you on your way. I hope to see you at Fusion 2024, our annual conference, where our presenters will be tackling this and a variety of other topics facing educators and school leaders today.


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