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Why Administrators Like School Data

Jordan Catapano

Teachers sometimes complain that administrators seem so preoccupied with school data. Standardized tests that collect data may appear like unnecessary intruders in the classroom. And this puts teachers and administrators at odds with one another about the role that data should have in instructional decisions.

Teachers might claim that they could tell administrators all they need to know about each student without having to rely on school data. Plus, teachers often view data as a cold, impersonal way of looking at an otherwise intensely relational career. And also, teachers often doubt the validity and depth of school data: While data can tell us certain things about a student’s raw academic performance, we always know there’s a story behind the numbers.

What teachers don’t always understand is why exactly administrators are more likely to favor and rely on data. Administrators are not there in the classrooms with the teachers, so they cannot see what teachers see. Instead, data is one powerful way administrators have insights into the classroom.

Here are five reasons why administrators tend to like using data more than teachers do.

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School Data is Concrete and Quantifiable

So much about education is subjective. The way an instructor leads a class is as much an art form as it is a science. Regardless of how many rubrics we devise, multiple-choice tests we compose, or standards we create, concepts like “learning” and “intelligence” are very difficult to nail down.

When administrators want an answer to the question “How are our students doing?”, they cannot rely solely on the subjective responses of each teacher. Teachers are all different and have their different ways of relating to, defining, and assessing their students. A teacher’s description of a student – as accurate as it may be – is not necessarily a concrete, verifiable description that an administrator can walk away with. Anecdotal evidence is fluid and flexible, open to interpretation, and highly subjective based on the storyteller and the listener.

Data, on the other hand, is a set of concrete numbers that offer a clear ability-to-standard comparison. As questionable as assessments and standards may be, data is the most solid form in administrators’ eyes of an answer to “How are our students doing?”

Data Provides a Glimpse into Long-Term Growth of Classes and Students

Students change teachers year to year, but administrators still need a way to determine how a student is growing and achieving. As teachers change, so too do forms of content, assessments, perceptions, and a host of other variables. But what stays the same? Data -- when collected and used appropriately.

When the same type of assessment is given year after year to students, administrators can see the overall growth pattern of each student. They can see the peaks and the valleys, the spurts and lulls, and compare each year’s worth of growth to overall academic standards.

Also, if the same assessment is given to the same grade of students – like the ACT given to 11th graders – then information can be tracked about how 11th graders are doing from year to year. Data, for the administrator, is helpful in providing a broad bird’s-eye view of the status of education in the long run.

Data is Consistent and Unbiased

Two different teachers may have two completely different interpretations of a student’s ability. It’s not nice to admit this, but truthfully, each teacher instructs, assesses, and relates to students differently. Administrators understand that all teachers are different, and so asking all teachers to give a standard, consistent report about their students is unrealistic.

Data, on the other hand, is consistent and unbiased. It doesn’t play favorites or change from room to room. Data, in the eyes of administrators, is like bringing in the same measuring stick to each room and seeing how tall students are. It gets a consistent answer because it asks the same question over and over again and records the results in the same way for everybody.

Data is Comparable between Students, Teachers, Courses, Locations, and Years

Since, as stated above, data can be consistent and unbiased, it also means that it is a consistent and unbiased form of comparison. Administrators are responsible for answering questions like “How are our teachers doing?” and “How is our schooling doing compared to the state average?” and “Is our school showing improvement year to year?”

Data can help them answer these questions. If, for example, data shows that one teacher’s students consistently outperform another’s students year to year, then that gives administrators information they might not have otherwise had. If a school consistently performs below its state’s benchmark, then administrators need to know so they can make appropriate adjustments. If a student subgroup consistent underperforms compared to peers, then there’s light that’s shed on the problem. Being able to compare results is a powerful tool for leaders to see what’s normal, what’s exceptional, and what requires attention.

Data Gives a Basis for Making Decisions

Ultimately, administrators are responsible for making decisions related to curriculum, staffing, funding, professional development, and a host of other components. While responsible administrators should equip themselves with as wide a range of information as possible, they rightly should include data as part of their decision-making process.

Since, as discussed in the reasons above, data can tell us things that aren’t normally or reliably revealed in other ways, data provides information valuable enough to base decisions off of. Administrators need a concrete basis for evaluating their judgments, and data gives the foundation for their decisions as well as a means of justifying their decisions to others.

Administrators are ultimately responsible to the community and the state for making sure that students are performing well from year to year. And because of this responsibility, they must make sure that they are basing their decisions off of quantified, clearly delineated standards and achievement results. Everyone – even administrators – knows that learning and intellect are highly subjective, fluid concepts that are difficult to breakdown into easily discernable measuring points. Yet, as we also know, data is an important piece of the education picture because it is able to reveal information about school performance that isn’t as accessible through other means.

Do these reasons help illustrate the mind of an administrator when it comes to data? What else would you add? What do you think about using data in school?

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.