How to Create a School Culture of Effective Data Use

How to Create a School Culture of Data Use

The educational technology revolution has given an enormous boost to data-driven instruction. With new teaching tools and assessment software being developed all the time, educators can gather almost limitless information about their students' needs, skills, and progress.

However, adapting teaching practices to this rapidly changing world of data use can be a source of contention. While some educators are excited to master new programs and devices, others are frustrated that learning to use edtech adds yet another task to their already heaping plates. Still more educators fall somewhere in between: They like the ideas behind edtech and data-driven practice, but they just don't have the time to incorporate these into their teaching.

A 2015 research review by Nancy Gerzon analyzes how some schools have succeeded in creating "data-using cultures," the full text of which can be read here. Gerzon's analysis focuses on five key areas of practice that encourage data use: communicating professional expectations, participating in the flow of information, making data meaningful, providing professional development, and nurturing a schoolwide culture of data use.

Read on for our takeaways from Gerzon’s review that can help your school build and develop its own data-using culture.  


Setting professional expectations

Many of us in the education world want to "use technology effectively," but what, precisely, does that mean? Research reveals that principals who clarify expectations for educators have more success implementing technology in their schools. Gerzon found that the following actions can help leadership set professional expectations:

  • Provide a clear message to educators about how data use supports student learning
    What data needs to be collected and why? Explain to educators why data from a new assessment or reports from an edtech company will be helpful to their students.  

  • Clarify when data needs are changing
    Perhaps a school has a growing population of English Language Learners and new edtech is needed to assess these students' language-learning skills. Maybe the school has launched a new STEM program and needs to measure student progress in science, technology, engineering, and math. Decisions about data use should always be informed by student needs.  

  • Communicate expectations through presentations, policy documents, and modeling
    As school data use increases, principals and other school leaders should use a variety of techniques to explain changing requirements. For example, demonstrating how to use an online gradebook could take place at a staff meeting, while learning the ins and outs of a computer-based assessment might be best done by observing a lead teacher.  

Facilitating information flow

Collecting data is only the first step of data use—next, someone will have to compile the data, analyze it, and distribute the findings. Since edtech enables us to gather more information than ever before, it’s important for schools and districts to have a plan for managing the resulting information flow. Research findings suggest that collaboration between districts and individual schools allows users to make this process streamlined and effective. Consider these points from Gerzon’s research review:  

  • Coordinate to centralize data reporting between districts and schools
    Should data be compiled and reported at the school level, or does it make more sense for the central office to be the main hub for data reporting? The answer likely depends on the type and amount of data. Consider which would be the most efficient approach for your specific situation.  

  • Clarify when data analysis needs are changing and address emerging needs
    After analyzing the data, educators may have questions that need to be addressed in future reports. For example, if assessment results reveal that a high percentage of students are behind in their literacy skills, educators would rightly want to collect data to find out why. Is it a matter of inadequate instruction, or could other factors (such as poor attendance or low parent involvement) be at play?

  • Ensure data reports meet the needs of educators
    Remembering how data will be used is essential when compiling data reports. If assessment results will inform more effective instruction, create a report that focuses on what skills students have mastered and what skills they are developing.  


Making data meaningful

The downside of using buzzwords like "educational technology" and "data tracking" is that we can lose sight of why data collection is important in the first place. Data-driven practice allows educators to track student progress and create lessons that meet learners' current needs. The research shows that effective schools approach data findings with a spirit of collaboration and inquiry. Try these tips to encourage meaningful data interpretation:

  • As an educator, use collaborative inquiry to make sense of data
    In this respect, data and edtech are no different from other aspects of teaching, as educators must work together to analyze findings. Additionally, research shows that focusing on improving student learning leads educators to change their approach to instruction. For example, if data shows that students are struggling with decoding skills, educators can work together to identify new instructional strategies.  

  • As a leader, offer support and ensure educators apply data findings to instruction
    If educators are having trouble figuring out how to use data to guide their instruction, it’s important that school leadership is available for support. Maintaining good communication with educators allows administrators and lead teachers to answer questions about data use as needed.  

Providing professional development

In order for educators to truly invest themselves in edtech, they need to know how to use it! In addition to implementing a new device or operating a computer program, educators also need to learn how such resources will help them gather data and inform their teaching. Gerzon’s research review found the following strategies were helpful for schools planning professional development:

  • Discuss both data literacy and assessment literacy
    Professional development should include time to learn new technological skills, as well as time to practice interpreting data results. Knowing how to use the software is just as important as knowing how to use the findings.  

  • Include instructional strategies  
    Educators need to be able to transition from interpreting data to using their findings to increase their effectiveness in the classroom. With this in mind, give educators instructional strategies that make the most of data use. For instance, a lead teacher could demonstrate how assessment results can be used to create tiered reading groups for focused instruction.   

  • Plan professional development during the school day, and use internal leaders
    Creating a culture of data use includes prioritizing time for educators to learn about and practice using edtech. One finding of Gerzon’s research review was this: When data use and learning opportunities were not embedded into the workday, the extra work discouraged educators from incorporating any data use practices.


Nurturing data culture

Once a data culture has been established, schools and districts need to continue nurturing its growth. At both the school and the district levels, research indicates that data use flourishes when everyone is on board. Gerzon found that successful schools and school systems had these factors in common:  

  • Empowered principals who are held accountable for school data use
    The research supports the key role that the central office plays in maintaining a culture of data use. The central office can lead principals in recognizing the importance of data-driven practice and provide support for schools having difficulty incorporating data into everyday practice.

  • Principals who ensure educators have resources that support data use
    School staff can help educators incorporate data use into the workday by providing opportunities to learn new technology, practice analyzing results, and support teaching strategies that incorporate these results.  

  • Use of teacher leaders and other shared or distributed leadership models
    Since collaboration is a critical component of effective data use, successful schools generally involve multiple teacher leaders in data analysis, professional development, and communication. When educators are empowered to take the lead on interpreting data and putting it to use in the classroom, the school becomes a place where data is a natural and integral part of the school day.  


As the edtech revolution continues to shape modern education, it's critical that schools are able to support and encourage educators in their adapting roles. According to Gerzon's research review, school and district leadership set the tone for how edtech and data-driven practice will be implemented. However, we also see that educators themselves are key players in data culture. Encouraging a spirit of collaboration and inquiry allows educators to take a leadership role when incorporating data results into their daily lessons. The end result of effective data use is a school culture that looks at student needs to improve teaching—and that's a vision everyone can support.  

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