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When the board of trustees gathers around a table, the most vital part of mission-driven, data-informed decision making is seldom the data.The board was making a decision based on data, right? Not quite. Step back a bit and ask yourself: What data-derived PROBLEM is the board solving with their solution? Having observed a single, albeit troubling data point, do they know WHY the data appears troubling? And what other data might best inform them on this issue (for instance, admission yield rather than application numbers)?
While the concept of data-informed may seem simple, the process is actually quite complex. And as you will see below, the most vital part of mission-driven, data-informed decision making is seldom the data — it is the questioning derived from the data and the sense-making conversation that results.
What is Data-Informed Decision Making?
The core purpose behind data-informed decision making is organizational growth. In order for organizations to continually improve, they must assess progress towards their stated goals. And to do that, they need evidence — something schools have in abundance, actually, but could learn to use much more wisely.
Input, process, outcome, and satisfaction data can all be used to determine an institution’s effectiveness. Input data might include school expenditures or student demographics, while process data could encompass financial operations, retention efforts, or the quality of the academic program. Outcome data may include student test scores, while satisfaction data might comprise the opinions of teachers, students, parents, and the community on school climate (Marsh, Pane, & Hamilton, 2006).
The push for schools to utilize data-informed decision-making in the public sector came from accountability measures such as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), Race to the Top (RTTT) and the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). When implemented well, data-informed decision making shifts the work of the organization from being reactive to engaging in a proactive process of development. At the classroom level, many teachers examine assessment data to identify student strengths and areas of growth in order to improve their own instructional practice. But how does this apply to independent school boards?
It may surprise you to realize that boards are already pivotal in the data-informed decision making process, whether they are aware of this or not. This is true because the north star of any such process starts with the mission, vision, and goals of the independent school. Data-informed decision making has no meaning unless done in connection with these aspirations — without them, we would be examining and evaluating data in relation to…what? Being driven by mission and goals, is the key to effective decision making.
“What is difficult for heads and boards to remember is that not all data is relevant. Without taking the time to first agree on the purpose … the information will not be as useful in decision making.
Assuming that your goals and objectives are clear, timely, and relevant, the next step is for boards to fully understand the value of mission-driven, data-informed decision making and how it can guide their work. The board must provide the necessary resources, such as professional development, to their heads of school and admin teams to prioritize and cultivate the skills of data sense-making and reflection in their progress towards stated goals and objectives. The board should also model this mindset, using the mission as a guidepost for data collection, data analysis, strategic planning, and generative discussions. Continual improvement, learning, and accountability must be part of the board’s culture if it is to be reflected schoolwide.
What is difficult for heads and boards to remember is that not all data is relevant. Without taking the time to first agree on the purpose — what problem do we hope to solve and how will this data inform our plan of action? — the information will not be as useful in decision making. A key is to be intentional during the data gathering process in advance of needing to answer questions and then in how we make sense of the data related to school improvement efforts.
Let’s take a look at the case study above. Imagine that a head of school creates a data dashboard that includes student demographics, school financials, admissions, attrition, and family satisfaction. Most trustees would agree this is all important data for the board to have. But without a clear purpose or goal, trustees are left to create their own meaning of the data, and in many cases, look for problems and challenges that should be addressed. In this case, Bob quickly determined that declining enrollment is the problem to be solved, and increased marketing is the solution. But without taking the time to make sense of the enrollment data and the variables that impact it, the board has lost a critical learning opportunity and more importantly, the ability to make a well-informed decision. Quite often, the appropriate reaction to new data-informed knowledge is better questions, not solutions, and this also may involve bringing new voices to the conversation to apply available expertise strategically.
Even if the purpose of data collection is determined in advance, this does not guarantee effective or practical use. Data must also be analyzed and communicated in a way that is clear and comprehensible to trustees who often have limited understanding of the independent school context; this is a skill which needs to be developed and refined with practice. Ample time and support must be provided to develop a shared understanding among trustees of what the data actually means and what narrative is being revealed about the school. Too often, boards receive data and then jump straight to decision-making, rather than taking a step back to make sense of the data within the school’s context. Knowing this, board chairs and heads of school must ensure board agendas allow for these rich and complex conversations to occur.
It is important to remember that mission-driven, data-informed decision making is an iterative process. In their article Making Sense of Data-Driven Decision Making in Education, Marsh, Pane, and Hamilton (2006) explain, “Once the decision to act has been made, new data can be collected to begin assessing the effectiveness of those actions, leading to a continuous cycle of collection, organization, and synthesis of data in support of decision making.” Although we would advocate a pivot from a “data-driven” to “data-informed” lens, the takeaway remains similar. Mission-driven, data-informed decision making is not a singular or yearly event. It is a mindset, an enduring commitment to growth and development that will help ensure the long term sustainability of the school.
Key Considerations for Heads and Boards