Top Five Tips for Effective Data Teams

By Douglas B. Reeves

Tip 1: Laugh and Cheer
Great data teams are on a treasure hunt, not a witch hunt. When you watch the data teams from Norfolk Public Schools -- the school system that won the Broad Prize for the best urban system in the nation -- you don’t hear recrimination, anger or defensiveness as they examine student data. You hear cheers, laughter, encouragement and challenges. The challenges always happen in the context of this central question: What are the best practices we have and how can we replicate those best practices? Rather than embarrassment and humiliation, great data teams provide encouragement, reinforcement and innovation.

Tip 2: Go Beyond Test Scores
Of course test scores are important, but they are not sufficient as the basis for an effective data team. After all, if we were to examine data on student health, would we just look at the “scores” reflected on the scale, or would we also consider diet, exercise and other health factors? When considering student achievement data, test scores are only part of the story. We must be as diligent in measuring the work of leaders and teachers as we are in measuring the work of our students. Examples of adult measurements include the time we devote to academic subjects, the level of agreement among the faculty in scoring student work, the accuracy of student grades, and the interdisciplinary reinforcement of literacy provided by every single teacher in the school.

Tip 3: Data Trumps Opinion
James Barksdale, founder of Netscape, said, “If it’s a matter of data, then everybody’s facts are equal; but if it’s a matter of opinion, then my opinion counts more than anybody’s.” Wise leaders conduct meetings in which everybody’s facts are equal. When I hear, for example, “we don’t have time to write” or “high mobility prevents us from having better achievement” or “it’s impossible for ELL students to achieve” or “there is no time in the schedule to provide more literacy,” I don’t respond with a contrary opinion. I simply say, “That’s an interesting hypothesis -- let’s test it.” Then I draw some simple bar graphs suggesting what the data should look like if the hypotheses are true. For example, if we spent more time on writing, then we would not have sufficient time to cover the curriculum, and if we don’t cover the curriculum, then test scores would decline. The bar chart should show that schools that spend more time on writing will have lower test scores. When we look at the actual data and we find that schools that spend more time on writing have higher scores not only in writing, but also in math, science, social studies and reading, then that hypothesis has been defeated. Surprisingly, there are many educational discussions in which opinion remains the prevailing force. For example, Professor Thomas Guskey of the University of Kentucky has assembled more than 90 years of research that demonstrates convincingly that grading as punishment is an ineffective strategy. However, every day of my professional career I find people who accept as an article of faith that grading as punishment will be effective. Develop the habit of asking -- and asking again -- “What data do you have to support that opinion?”

Tip 4: Focus on Next Steps
Great data teams are not exercises in theoretical navel gazing. These are hard-working educators who are seeking solutions. They leave each meeting having learned new strategies and agreeing to try them, test them and improve upon them. Data teams are not just about reporting data, but about using data to improve professional practice.

Tip 5: Create Time for Reflection
Leaders who say they believe in data analysis have the professional obligation to give teachers the time to reflect consistently and frequently on student achievement. This means, for example, that the leaders are willing to give up much of the time that they have traditionally controlled in faculty and department meetings. No more announcements, no more lectures. Just a simple, “Ladies and gentlemen, here are the announcements. Please read them at your leisure. Now, let’s get to work on our data.” Every day, leaders show their priorities by how they spend their time. When they choose to read another list of dreary administrative announcements or recount the details of the last central office meeting, they send one message. When, by contrast, leaders are sitting literally and figuratively on the same side of the table as teachers, learning about data, learning about professional practices, struggling with practical issues, and collaborating to improve professional practices, then they send the right message about commitment and priorities.

By Douglas B. Reeves, Ph.D., founder of The Leadership and Learning Center (formerly Center for Performance Assessment).