Data-Driven Instruction: What Is a School Leader’s Role?

When gathered and analyzed effectively, student data elevates instructional practices and improves student learning. Here are a few ways visionary school leaders can be the data champions of their schools.
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Blog date
11/14/23
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When we talk with leaders about the practice they’re most eager to improve, using student performance data effectively for the sake of enhanced instruction and student success is always on the list.

And, with good reason. When we have quality data, we’re able to truly embark on responsive teaching and learning. Good data helps teachers see their students’ readiness to learn based on the curriculum they’re teaching, design supports to ensure all students have access to challenging grade-level material, and identify that sweet spot—just past a student’s current level of independent ability—where instruction will be most beneficial

However, data-driven instruction isn’t something that just happens. Data analysis is both a tactical process as well as an adaptive one, with a foundational culture that must be operationalized throughout your school. It can be easy for teachers, staff, and leaders alike to become overwhelmed and disillusioned with the amount of data at their disposal—which is why it’s critical to have a “data champion” to ensure the right information is collected and reviewed based on strategic instructional goals.

Data-driven instruction isn’t something that just happens. Data analysis is both a tactical process as well as an adaptive one, with a foundational culture that must be operationalized throughout your school. 

As school and district leaders, you have the opportunity to be this data champion—leading the charge toward data-driven instruction and creating school cultures where data is used as a tool to identify patterns, explore relationships, and uncover solutions to both teacher and student success. 

Below, we dive into the definition of data-driven instruction, as well as a few strategies to consider as you work to build—or strengthen—your own data-focused school foundation. 

What is data-driven instruction?

While there’s plenty of evidence that focusing on “data-driven” instruction moves the needle when it comes to student achievement, there are also plenty of definitions that abound. For the sake of this piece, we’re defining data-driven instruction as the process of collecting and analyzing big data on student learning and behavior to drive classroom instruction. When we say “big data,” we’re referring to the overall scale and scope of the data being collected—both the summative, macro-scale data of assessments and standardized testing as well as the micro-scale, formative assessments used in classrooms regularly.

In the best-case scenario, data-driven instruction helps guide teachers and school leaders to spend less time teaching their students what they already know, and more time on what their students need. It answers the questions, “How do I know if my students are learning? And if they aren’t, what do I do?” 

In the best-case scenario, data-driven instruction helps guide teachers and school leaders to spend less time teaching their students what they already know, and more time on what their students need.

With that said, here are a few ways for school and district leaders to cultivate data-driven instructional cultures and the professional learning that sustains them:

Collaborate on the “what” & “why” of your data use

Part of the overwhelm and overabundance of data boils down to a simple fact: if you’re measuring everything, you’re actually measuring nothing. Agreeing on what data your school should be collecting and why—and getting clear on what you’re trying to measure—will help you and your team get past the data “noise” and into the exploration portion of the journey.

No one knows the “what” and the “why” that you’re looking for better than your teachers. Centering teacher voices in data conversations—what they’re seeing right now in their classrooms, the barriers they’re seeing to student success, and what kind of data they’d like to see—is a critical part of building out your data strategy.

Centering teacher voices in data conversations—what they’re seeing right now in their classrooms, the barriers they’re seeing to student success, and what kind of data they’d like to see—is a critical part of building out your data strategy.

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Prioritize data responsiveness and sustainability

Data can make the most difference for students when it's timely and accessible. After all, all information has an expiration date, and using data from last year isn’t going to help your teachers and staff make instructional decisions that address the challenges their students are facing today. As this principal says, “We don’t spend a lot of time looking at end-of-year data. That’s an autopsy. The data that is the closest and most recent is what we want to spend our time analyzing.” 

For school leaders, that means working with your teams to implement a responsive data culture where they can not only access the newest data possible, but they can also use that data to make informed decisions, iterating and adapting their instruction in real-time. Think about this responsiveness through the lens of implementing a new ELA curriculum. Would you wait until the end of the year to look at that data, or would you review data every month—or even every week—to determine whether the curriculum is being implemented with fidelity and what changes need to be made? The more access your team has to the right data, the more they’ll develop the habit of talking about data and using it to monitor student progress and remain agile and adaptive in their teaching approach. 

The more access your team has to the right data, the more they’ll develop the habit of talking about data and using it to be agile and adaptive in their teaching approach. 

And, while a principal may be their school’s primary data champion, it’s important to not be the only one. Don’t be afraid to tap into your staff’s natural curiosity and identify additional teachers who consider data-driven instruction an area of strength. Having multiple educators in your school who have access to the information they need, have reason to use it daily, and have been coached on how to use student data is paramount. It not only keeps your data-driven culture sustainable, but it can also lead to staff-led professional learning.

Give staff the space to determine new instructional strategies

Having time to analyze data isn’t enough to actually move the needle on instruction. There’s also a need for dedicated space within the school day to come up with strategies to narrow gaps and improve teaching because of that data.

Here’s where the idea of a data team can help. Data-inquiry teams are teams of teachers, leaders, and staff within a school who are focused exclusively on not only reviewing data for students, but also developing plans based on that data to respond to the needs and strengths of individual students, groups of students, and particular curriculum areas. 

Learning alongside your teachers and staff gives the signal that you’re just as committed to this learning and growth as they are.

It’s important to keep two pieces in mind as you’re building data-inquiry teams. One, even if your teams occur within specific grade-levels or subject areas, it’s critical to bring all your teachers together through regular staff meetings or professional development opportunities so that teams can share insights, brainstorm solutions, and discuss what’s been working and not working. This ensures any learning from specific data sets can be shared schoolwide and inform school improvement efforts too. And, two, as leaders, make sure that you take the time to be part of these conversations. Learning alongside your teachers and staff gives the signal that you’re just as committed to this learning and growth as they are.

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Lean into the discomfort, focus on trust and transparency

Using student performance data to inform instruction means you’re using actual completed assessments, grades, and assignments. And it’s this very aspect that can be uncomfortable for teachers and leaders alike. Peter Bezanson, CEO of BASIS Educational Ventures, says it best: “A key part of being a data-driven culture is you have to be able to stomach the idea that you’re not as good as you think you are or as other people think you are.” 

That’s why a considerable part of building a data-driven culture is a healthy dose of trust and transparency. It requires a safe environment, where there’s no blame or criticism if a particular teacher’s class performed lower than another’s. 

That’s why a considerable part of building a data-driven culture is a healthy dose of trust and transparency. It requires a safe environment, where there’s no blame or criticism if a particular teacher’s class performed lower than another’s. 

As you’re working to cultivate this kind of environment, consider that teachers are human, and there might be a bit of discomfort at the outset as they engage in data analytics more publicly. Remind your team that the reason for studying the data in a deeper context isn’t to call anyone out or offer commentary on the quality or style of anyone’s teaching. It’s purely so that you can learn—together—what works, what doesn’t, and how to better meet student needs collectively. 

Celebrate the wins along this journey

Prioritizing data-driven instruction is essential to strong school leadership—and it requires both intention and commitment. Celebrating your team’s wins as you’re building that culture, no matter how small, will not only create buy-in among your teachers and staff, but show them the growth that is possible.

When teachers see how students are learning—and shift their instructional approach to meet them where they are—that’s where the change happens. And with that change comes greater student achievement and growing excitement for what else the data might be able to show. 

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