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The use of data: Getting the whole picture

6 min read


Education is a lot like baseball: They were both slow to embrace data as a tool for decision-making, but now accept it as an integral part of how they function. In both cases, data provide an anchor in a sea of subjective judgments about how people perform. In baseball, knowing how a player does over time, in a variety of situations, is a welcome alternative to relying on a gut instinct for predicting how a player will do in the future. In education, which is not a game but involves people’s lives and the future direction of our country, the need to move away from relying on anecdotes and opinions in making decisions is an absolute necessity.

Without some way of getting an accurate picture of current student performance, progress will always remain elusive: If we don’t really know where we are, we really can’t effectively plan for where we want to go, nor measure our progress in getting there. Without the use of data, it is too easy to cling to our own versions of what is happening that be can easily mistaken for the “truth.”

Even a cursory review of social psychological research will reveal the multitude of reasons of why individual perceptions and judgments are inaccurate and unreliable. In fact, research has consistently demonstrated that even eyewitness accounts of events are never clear-cut depictions of what actually happened. It seems that as soon as an event is over, we start to recollect it in way that easily becomes colored and shaped by our prior experiences, our emotional state and our pre-existing interpretations of the world. So if discreet observable events are easily misread, any accurate assessment of student performance in a constantly shifting set of circumstances is a daunting challenge, to say the least.

Those who use data to facilitate positive change, however, need to be aware how it is perceived and understood in the context of schools today. Here are some questions to consider when using data:

Tool or weapon? How anything is perceived becomes an integral part of its identity. Take a common kitchen knife, as an example: It is an essential tool in the preparation of meals, however, it has the potential of being used as a weapon. Many teachers unfortunately have associated the use of data with the evaluation of them as professionals with the potential of data being used against them. Unless data is clearly presented and explained as a tool, it could by default be viewed as part of a threat and rejected by the very people who stand to benefit the most from its use.

Half empty or half full? Contrary to the false notion that positive change is dependent upon getting rid of “bad teachers,” progress in schools is dependent upon the great majority of caring, competent teachers getting better. The use of data is most effective when it affirms the positive and provides non-judgmental feedback to help teachers build on their skills and knowledge.

Collection or invention? Data is collected from what has already happened. It is good at illustrating the results in schools as they are currently designed. Although data might indicate that something needs to change in a school, it doesn’t provide a clear picture of what that new design should be. Data can be a springboard, but substantive positive change requires the collective creativity of educators working together.

What, where and when? Or how and why? Data can provide very useful information on what needs to be taught. It can provide an accurate perception of learning over time and in specific environments. To get the best data for how students learn, educators have to invest time in asking students questions and listening intently and carefully to their answers. The answers to questions of why students are not learning can be complex, ambiguous, requiring a deeper understanding of the school environment, not just the students. Data must be viewed as more than sets of numbers and be expansive enough to include stories.

Seen or unseen? Schools have been heavily influenced by a behavioral approach to learning that relies on observable events and avoids making inferences from them. Although there are benefits to avoiding random speculation about human behavior, the empirical research in social psychology has demonstrated that data is essential for making inferences and creating helpful constructs. For example, a growth or a fixed mindset cannot be directly observed, but there is evidence to support these concepts. Schools need to avoid having data impede their ability to understand phenomena beyond the immediately observable.

End of debate or taking it deeper?

To many, the use of data offers the promise of eliminating the seeming endless conflicts involved with competing versions of the truth and providing the opportunity to finally find the common ground of “the truth itself.” Just as our individual perceptions are not the whole truth, neither can any set of data offer an objective version of reality. As tempting as it might be to remove the human element from our decision-making, we must not let our desire for clarity and certainty delude us into thinking that it is possible — it is not and never will be. We must use data to help us see things more clearly including our limitations. The productive use of data can never exist outside the realm of people communicating, questioning and trying to make sense out of how students learn and what they need.

The use of data in schools is a welcome addition to our efforts to make schools better places for learning. Educators will ultimately make the best use of data when they avoid the temptation to see it as THE answer and instead use it as one part of the still very human process of improving our schools.

Jim Dillon (@dillon_jim) has been an educator for over 35 years including twenty as a school administrator. He is currently the director of the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. He has written two books, Peaceful School Bus (Hazelden) and No Place for Bullying (Corwin). He writes a blog at

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