Using Data in Schools for Better Practices: Need Technical & Professional Capacity

As data becomes more and more important in the public eye, the demand for evidence to support policy and practice in all sectors has increased dramatically. The education sector is not an exception. Parents now expect that schools change their policies and practices after reflecting on reliable and valid data, and show that there has been improvement in student learning and achievement.

Principals and teachers appreciate that there are high expectations in terms of data-based decision making. These demands means that, at all levels of the education system (school, district, state, & national), having data at your fingertips is essential for education professionals. Accessing, analyzing, and interpreting data to decide on what to do to change classroom practices (or not) is now considered an essential dimension of school work.

There are two key components to making evidence-informed practices a part of school processes:

1. Technical Requirement: Data management system to collect, store, and provide ready access to data

2.  Professional Requirement: Professional capacity to use data effectively to inform practice.

Governments, school districts and schools are all creating processes and practices to facilitate data access and analysis. There has been a serious increase in the technology to host this practice because there is a technical component that can really facilitate those tasks.  Most schools and school systems have tailor  made or off-the-shelf student information systems – sometimes known as school information systems or school management systems because they are often sold as an administration tool. These systems generally act as a data warehouse. The systems that are set up appropriately help educational leaders organize the data and facilitate access for all relevant staff.

This technical solution to support a larger need is important. It allows for teachers, principals, and district leaders to focus on the thinking rather than get caught up in data management. But although a SIS is critical to facilitating evidence-informed decision making, it is only a tool! How the tool gets used in schools is actually what makes a difference to classroom and school improvement & effectiveness.

So what is the key to making the shift in practice? Capacity to effectively utilize the data for educational decision making. Teachers, principals, district leaders all need the capacity to utilize data for decision-making so that the investment in SIS is not wasted.

There are some tempting one-shot workshops on how to use a particular SIS. These training sessions/modules are best described as how to navigate data management systems. This is a technical requirement when using SIS – it is not a human capacity focus on data-based decision making. Although the technical requirement is important because teachers and educational leaders need to know how to navigate their SIS to readily access and analyze their data, it is not sufficient. This technical requirement is not part of the professional knowledge and skills school staff need to understand: What kind of data is required? What kind of questions to ask of the data? How to find answers that matter to the classroom and school?

In other words: Exactly how can educators use the data in the SIS to inform their practice?

The technical requirement is being addressed. However, if we are to ensure that educators do use the SIS effectively, then responsive professional capacity building that helps teachers develop their skills in using the data to support their decisions for better practices is essential. In focusing on this professional component, we will have better schools, teachers, and student results.


2 thoughts on “Using Data in Schools for Better Practices: Need Technical & Professional Capacity

  1. This is an interesting post and I agree but can you point me to resources for building that human capacity you mention is so important (and needed)?

    • Hi Sarah,

      There are a number of resources out there now. Some are:

      1. Facilitator’s Guide to Leading Schools in a Data-Rich World Harnessing Data for School Improvement is based on the book Leading Schools in a Data-Rich World Harnessing Data for School Improvement.
      This is a practical guide (with worksheets) that leads school leaders/teachers through the steps from finding a problem, examining the data, and monitoring and solution
      You can find some of the basic principles in a paper available free online:

      2. Preparing educators to effectively use student data systems is Chapter 6 in the Handbook on data-based decision-making in education published by Routledge in 2008

      3. You will find a series of resources from the largest district in Ontario working on the MISA initiative that I have mentioned in my blog several times.

      The research in this field has shown that there are some key characteristics for effective data-use in schools. Not surprisingly, collaboration around data is always mentioned as a critical piece. Data literacy is also important, but for this kind of work, there seems to be greater success when groups work together and challenge the status quo of decision making.

      The reason I mention this particular point is because when you are working to build a culture of systematic quality data-use in schools, an important component is to actual DO and DO together. You can and should read on data use in education. But reading will only get you so far. You will need to actually start doing and thinking with others to examine real data in your classroom or school. The difference in learning curve is big when you jump in. And once you jump in, it is quite amazing. To find yourself asking better questions and finding answers that help your practice… just really cool.

      I hope that this is helpful. Please feel free to write in a question or ask for more specific resources.

      Good luck.


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