Leading with Data in Schools

by | Jun 4, 2020

Adapted from the preface and introduction to Leading Data-Informed Change in Schools.

Data are everywhere. On a Monday morning, our phones know we’re heading to work and tell us whether the traffic will be light or heavy. Data collected on our online activity feed into algorithms to deliver targeted advertising, suggest friends we might know or automatically recognise faces in photos. Phones and smart watches track our steps and activity and tell us when we need to get up and move and even when to breathe.

Some people call data the ‘new oil’. It is powering our economy, it is viewed as an asset that requires an asset strategy and a handful of organisations own significant amounts of it. As reported in the Economist, ‘data are to this century what oil was to the last one: a driver of growth and change’ (“Data Is Giving Rise to a New Economy”, 2017, para. 1). But unlike oil, we don’t trade data for money or for resources – putting it to use in our organisations is how we strike it rich.

Data and education

Schools are microcosms of society and, as a result of the prevalence of data in every other aspect of our lives, data are consuming the field of education. Countries are compared based on how their students perform in international testing; schools are compared using standardised testing and school-leaver data; students are tracked using their individual data and that of their peers; and in some parts of the world, teachers are tracked and monitored (and paid) using data.

Education never used to be like this. The significant shifts that have happened in the data space in schools have largely occurred since the turn of the century. But like in other industries, these changes have accelerated at a remarkable pace in the last decade. Using data is an expectation of teachers and school leaders everywhere. Globally, the use and comparison of school data are strongly linked to school improvement and evaluation (see Schildkamp et al., 2013; Schildkamp & Poortman, 2015). In this data-driven world, the people investing in our schools want bang for their buck, as ‘modern societies no longer tolerate putting large amounts of money into an education system that does not deliver on expectations’ (Van Damme, 2019, para. 2).

Additionally, leaders are now expected to know how to measure progress and achievement using school data and the myriad of other data sources available, all while leading their teams to build these same skills and understanding. This is a huge task, complicated by the expectations and publication of data in local, national and international media.

The data culture and data expectations in schools put pressure on educational leaders, as no one can lead a data-informed team through effective and long-lasting data-informed change if they do not understand the data to begin with. What happens when someone is appointed to a senior leadership role and they aren’t completely comfortable with the data? What if a new principal has always worked with people who have done the analysis for them, and now they’re in a position where they need to demonstrate that they understand what is happening with the data? What if a new deputy principal has never had to be the one that used and responded to data – and now they have to lead data-informed change?

Beyond merely an understanding of the data itself, and to lead data-informed projects effectively, the leader must also be able to convey the inherent good that data can bring their organisation, and the insights that it offers. If school leaders do not buy into the data-informed climate to begin with, they are not going to be able to lead others to effectively engage with the data or evaluate the impact that their school is having.

The place of educational evaluation

Although some educators might philosophically disagree with the use of quantitative measures in education, fundamentally, data support the process of evaluating the efficacy of education, which ultimately benefits young people. The prime objective of educational evaluation in its purest form is actually well intentioned.

Educational evaluation seeks to monitor the quality of teaching and to facilitate the improvement of learning opportunities for our students. On one hand, this is largely why we entered the teaching profession in the first place – to do the best we could for the people we teach. But school evaluation as a label (and sometimes as an experience) tends to be viewed negatively by educators.

Quintessentially, evaluating and reflecting on practice and impact as an individual teacher has been a professional responsibility for years – it is not a new concept in our field. In fact, over 50 years ago, John Dewey (1963) wrote about the need for reflective practice in schools as a way of shaping the future performance of teachers and students. He stated that teachers:

must survey the capacities and needs of the particular set of individuals with whom [they are] dealing and must at the same time arrange the conditions which provide the subject-matter or content for experiences that satisfy these needs and develop these capacities.

We would not have chosen to be teachers if we did not see reflecting on our impact and trying to do the best job we could as one of our core responsibilities.

Today, key educational researchers – such as John Hattie and Robert Marzano – repeatedly confirm that teachers are the key school-based influence on individual student performance. Therefore, why wouldn’t educational evaluation be pivotal in supporting the review and reflection of the teacher, and to support and maximise student achievement? Perhaps it is because much evaluation has progressed beyond the individual teacher reflecting on their own individual performance – it is now dominated by school comparisons, can be linked to funding and, in some parts of the world, is linked to whether teachers actually keep their job.

The collective responsibility of educational evaluation

While much negative attention is drawn to the evaluation of education and its impact on individual teachers, it is a team effort – middle leaders, senior leaders, system leaders and governments should all be involved. As leaders in schools, we have an important role to play. We need to support our teachers and be the subject of evaluation at the same time. Today, teachers are their data and students are a product of the effectiveness of their teachers, leaders and the entire system.

Although it is potentially daunting for teachers to consider that we are in an age of evaluation and comparison, a benefit of educational evaluation is that it can be the instigator and main driver in the change process for schools. By evaluating and reflecting on student performance at a class, cohort, school, state/county or national level, issues can be identified and then rectified, ideally leading to school reform and improvement. In a perfect world, these improvements in pedagogy would lead to an improvement in educational outcomes for students. Ultimately, students should be the ones that benefit from the evaluation and the use of data in schools.

Leading data-informed change

Whether we like it or not, leading change is a constant in our schools. There is an increasing expectation on school leaders to lead their teams through data-informed change to ultimately improve outcomes for students. And although leaders might excel at many of the skills required to lead teams effectively through change, it is difficult to implement data-informed leadership and change in schools because there is such a broad range of characteristics and processes required of the leader and the school in order to do this well.

Success in data-informed leadership relies on the leader possessing the key leadership attributes, as well as the courage to follow a process for change with the right amount of pace, intensity and human factor, all while engaging staff, motivating students, and convincing other stakeholders of the benefits. It is a massive undertaking! It is completely natural that leaders will be better at some aspects of data-informed leadership than others. The challenge is in recognising your skills and identifying the areas of data-informed leadership that you need to work on.

I am a firm believer that data have the potential to be used to help school communities flourish – by informing practice, improving pedagogy and improving teaching and learning. But some teachers and leaders do not see the inherent good that data can bring and – instead of embracing and using data to thrive – are fearful of them. As leaders, we need to be able to harness the power of data, promote its use, lead data-informed change for the right reasons in our schools and bring our staff along with us on the change process. Let’s jump into the data!


Data is giving rise to a new economy. (2017, May 6). The Economist https://www.economist.com/briefing/2017/05/06/data-is-giving-rise-to-a-new-economy

Dewey, J. (1963). Experience and education. Collier Books.

Schildkamp, K., Lai, M. K., & Earl, L. (Eds.). (2013). Data-based decision making in education: challenges and opportunities. Springer Science & Business Media.

Schildkamp, K., & Poortman, C. L. (2015). Factors influencing the functioning of data teams. Teachers College Record, 117(4), 1–42.

Van Damme, D. (2019, April 15). Why knowledge is the most important resource for education systems today. OECD Education and Skills Today. https://oecdedutoday.com/knowledge-education-policy-research-practice/

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Leading Data-Informed Change in Schools

Selena Fisk

Leading data-informed change in schools offers teacher team leaders, principals and administrators a practical guide on how to collect, analyse and use data to help school communities and the students they serve flourish.

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Selena Fisk Selena Fisk, EdD, has 15 years' teaching experience in schools in both Queensland and in South London. She earned her Doctor of Education degree from the Queensland University of Technology in 2017 and has held a range of leadership roles in her career. In 2017, Selena started her data consultancy practice, Aasha for Schools, to help teachers and school leaders see the inherent good that data can bring, as well as the benefits of using data to develop thriving learning communities. Read more articles by Selena Fisk

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