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The Story Behind the School Data Numbers

Jordan Catapano

There’s no doubt that school data is an extremely helpful decision-making tool. Whether in schools or in businesses, data provides a certain type of information set that is essential to how we understand the totality of what we’re working with. Data has a knack for equipping us with a bird’s-eye view of what’s going on, so that we can see how a school operates with hard facts and figures.

Using numbers as an indicator of progress and conditions provides a few advantages not available through other feedback tools. First, there’s something unbiased about cold, hard numbers that makes them easy to trust (depending, of course, on how they were collected). Also, school data is easy to organize, quantify, and compare. In the AASA report “Using Data to Improve Schools,” they say “Data help district and school leaders craft a sound blueprint with measurable results for continuously improving schools so decisions are no longer based on incomplete or biased information.”

School data can be especially helpful in identifying gaps or weaknesses, providing for teachers and administrators an opportunity to compare demographics, grade levels, school-to-state success, and other target areas of instruction or improvement. Data can put a hard line on an otherwise ambiguous or subjective topic. Other methods of evidence – namely expert opinion and examples – offer valuable-though-limited perspectives on many issues. Teachers may “have a feeling” about certain students or classes, but without supportive quantification, it’s difficult for them to make definitive claims worthy of basing decisions off of.

But for all the praises of data, there are flaws that enter into the data collection, interpretation, and application process that conscientious individuals need to maintain awareness of. But what I want to particularly focus on is what I consider to be the essential companion to the numbers: the Story.

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What the School Data Story Tells Us

While data can quantify and organize a wealth of information for us, what the numbers can’t do is answer an important question for us: Why is this data what it is?

James Cox writes in his book “Finding the Story Behind the Numbers” that we must “Put test scores in context, not isolation.” If we look strictly at the numbers, then we only have a dataset without the background to tell us what the numbers mean. Imagine looking at a picture of two strangers: a Man has a scar, a woman has a wedding ring, they both have farmer’s tans, wear goggles, and are in a helicopter. From this photo you can glean the surface level information, but the actual meaning of the information is ambiguous.

In education, the data might show us an achievement gap between demographics, that teacher turnover rate is high, that test scores are rising, or that truancies are rampant. This information helpfully provides a portrait of the school, but doesn’t automatically answer the “Why.” The data is like the hands of the clock – the story is the gears underneath.

How to Find the Story Behind the Numbers

We must first be committed to understanding the numbers themselves don’t reveal all the components that produce the numbers. When we pursue the story, we pursue the essential information that will truly help to inform our decisionmaking.

Ask yourself the questions: Start by asking yourself, “What factors contributed to making this data what it is?” Has anything changed recently that would impact the data outcome? Who are the stakeholding people? How does this data compare to previous years, or to other schools?

Distribute a survey: Don’t start and stop with yourself. Get an informed consensus from those who might understand or play a role in the data. Create a survey that addresses key factors you want more information on. Request both scaled and personalized responses. And yes, this can create more data (but helps to illuminate the big picture).

Conduct the interviews: Beyond surveys, spend time with the key players who might be able to shed additional light on the story. Present the data to various individuals and ask for their feedback or opinions. Share private conversations, or even publically present information that is worthy for groups to process.

Do the research: It’s likely that the numbers you’re encountering are related some way to numbers others have encountered. Do your research and find their stories. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but rather lean on those who have already charted this territory. Their stories might not end up matching yours, but at least you have more insight and context to inform your process.

Respond to the Story

And just like we leverage data to help guide decisionmaking, we can double the potency of our decisions once we add the full context to the numbers. A student might have ended a semester with a C grade, but the story would reveal if they kept a C all semester, raised their grade from an F, or steadily declined from an A. And that story helps us understanding the outcome and examine the implications for future actions.

Just like this student’s semester grade, our entire schools are bastions of data. But decontextualizing data means isolating a final number without the story of how it got that way. Stories can have bias, can vary widely, and can even confuse or complicate matters. But they also possess rich opportunity for understanding the full nature of our collected data, and they give us another powerful tool for making informed decisions in our school.

What do you think about the story behind the numbers? How do you think about data and use it in your school? Leave a comment and tell us your perspective!

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

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