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Enhancing student success: The power of data-driven decision-making in schools

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Continuous improvement is at the heart of every school's mission. As education leaders strive to meet the unique needs of diverse student populations, making informed decisions becomes crucial for fostering student success. This is where data-driven decision-making steps in, empowering schools to analyze relevant information and extract actionable insights. 

By harnessing the power of data, school leadership teams can shape effective school improvement plans, optimize resource allocation, and plan targeted professional development initiatives. 

We explore the significance of data-driven decision making in schools, with a particular focus on its role in supporting the success of vulnerable student populations, such as English learners.

What is data-driven decision-making?

Data-driven decision making is the process of using data to make instructional decisions as you look ahead towards student success. It’s what happens when  school administrators take the  time to meet with the leadership team and teacher leaders to  dive deep  into relevant data.

As a school administrator, you want your school leaders, including teacher leaders, to determine if the initiatives and actions they’ve put in place have supported their students’ learning. You want them to have conversations, data chats, regarding academic progress as well as students’ linguistic, social, and cultural needs. And then you want to provide the time and space to take those conversations a step further and reflect on instructional decisions and practices. The analysis beckons asking questions such as, Who benefitted from what instructional practice or decision? What else do we need to do? What do we need to do differently? What initiatives and instructional practices have helped, and who did they help?

As a leader, you need to have honest conversations around data, and help teachers realize that it’s going to take a number of instructional practices and a variety of strategies and interventions to help every child. Putting the labels of our sub-groups aside and truly looking at each child holistically requires a shift in mindset. So as an administrator, time must be invested in analyzing data and reminding teachers that each is held accountable for ALL students succeeding. And teacher leaders must be held accountable for supporting teachers in making informed instructional decisions and interventions.  The question is always “How do we improve student learner outcomes and achievement…together?”

What types of data are typically used?

As an administrator, we always need to keep in mind that when we say “data”, it must be more than just state assessments, or seasonal diagnostics. We might start with that data, but teachers use formative and summative assessments to target and focus instruction that is aligned with curriculum standards. 

The analysis must trickle down to students’ day-to-day learning and overall achievement. And in the case of multilingual learners, we need to consider what they know in their own language. If you run a dual language or immersion school, it might be more feasible to review data that reflects their literacy and oral skills in their native language. But if you don’t have that type of data, rely on family interviews, tap into someone who can serve as a translator, do what you need to do to uncover what your students know in their native language and incorporate that information into the data chats. These are transferable skills that will help guide conversations regarding instructional priorities with your leadership team and teachers.

What would this process look like in action?

When we talk about multilingual learners, we must look past that umbrella term and begin the process by truly understanding who our students are. The data is important, but just as important, or even more important, is understanding the student behind the data. 

So, if we think about a process framework for using data-driven decision making for a school improvement plan, there are a few steps to keep in mind:

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1.  Data Analysis - Determine where each student is and where they need to be to meet grade-level expectations. What did they accomplish? What benchmark did they miss?

2.  Data Trends - Analyze trends in the data – look at the data by class, by grade, by student groups.  Bring in variants that might have impacted student success such as, teacher turnover mid-year. Consider what instructional practices are in place, and what curricular resources are being used – what might need to change in order for the data needle to move? Why did they not reach that benchmark? 

3.  Professional Development - Determine the type of professional development that is needed by each teacher. Differentiate the PD based on individual teacher needs; meet them where they are and ensure that they have the tools they need in their toolkit to support students and differentiate instruction. How can I do things differently so that they reach that benchmark? 

4.  Support and Coach – Regardless of how a teacher learns new skills, independently, in a small group, or in a large group such as a faculty meeting, if we leave it at that, we’ve only provided them with an awareness. Our job as school leaders is to move them to developing and applying their new skills so that they become instructional routines in the classroom. This happens effectively when we provide them with 1:1 support. Use your instructional coaches and teacher leaders to help teachers take what they’ve learned and apply it successfully.

5.  Reflection and Feedback – Teachers need time to reflect on their instructional practice. What worked? What needs to be done differently? They should have time with an instructional coach to share their thoughts and obtain feedback in order to continue growing as a professional.

What is data-driven professional development?

Data-driven professional development is powerful! It’s the ability to differentiate the professional development offered to a teacher that meets their needs. Sometimes the needs they have are obvious - they may be new to the teaching profession, or new to teaching a specific subject or sub-group, but other times, their needs are hidden. Analyzing their student data goes hand in hand with professional development. 

For example, if the data shows speaking is a domain that needs to be strengthened, you know that students would benefit from additional interactions and possibly differentiated language supports. The conversation around professional development then becomes one of “How can I as a leader provide my teacher with the confidence to increase interactions while providing students with differentiated linguistic support?” This means teachers need to understand, by way of data analysis, where they need to improve their craft. They’ll hold themselves accountable and own their learning if they’re vested in the “why”. 

Otherwise, they’re simply sitting in a compliance-driven session that creates awareness, but doesn’t bring about change. And that change in them and their instructional practice is crucial if we want students to be successful, academically and in life. 

What are the benefits of implementing data-driven professional development?

The most important benefit of implementing data-driven professional development is the students. All students, multilingual students specifically, need us to come in each day giving them our absolute best. This means we must know where they come from, what’s their story, what they can do in their native language, what they’ve excelled at, what are their dreams….. Compliance-driven PD can help a teacher better understand a process, a curriculum, or a resource material, but it cannot help a teacher develop an instructional practice. It’s during professional learning that a teacher can learn, teach, and then reflect on the new strategy. And if you pair your teacher with a coach, together they can brainstorm ways in which this new instructional strategy can be used for reteaching standards that were not yet mastered.

This blog was written in partnership with Ellevation’s in-house expert Sandra Medrano-Arroyo.  Sandra Medrano-Arroyo presently works at Ellevation Education as an Instructional Content Manager, where she spearheaded the creation of two new instructional practices specific to the pillars of Dual Language programs and presently contributes to the development of professional learning modules. Bilingual, bicultural, with strong Hispanic roots and more than 25 years of experience in education, she began her career in the private sector, serving as a teacher, academic coach, and school director. Wanting to extend her reach, she moved to Palm Beach County School District, where she served for 16 years in various administrative roles, including Manager of Multicultural Education. Her contributions included strengthening and increasing the district’s two-way immersion programs by focusing on research-based program design and professional development and implementing various initiatives to serve the county’s multilingual learners and their families. Sandra is committed to supporting multilingualism and multiculturalism as pathways of success for students and their families and can now be found advocating for multilingual learners on a national level.