Data-Driven Decision-Making

Is It the Mantra of the Month or Does It Have Staying Power?

'Data-driven decision-making': the term falls trippingly off the tongue. It has become a school-reform mantra that is celebrated but widely misunderstood, and is often ignored (despite its hype) or actively feared.

The term almost conjures up images of Bartleby the Scrivener, the protagonist of Herman Melville's eponymous tale. One can see the modern Bartleby, his green eyeshade, arm garters and three-legged stool gone; his quill pen replaced by Microsoft Excel spreadsheets; sitting in his district office, faced with the daunting task of harnessing student data to inform instructional decision-making; and saying with all the ambivalence of Melville's scrivener, 'I would prefer not to.'

Much ballyhoo, even hype, surrounds data-driven decision-making, which is the process of collecting student data - academic performance, attendance, demographics, etc. - in such a way that administrators, teachers and parents can accurately assess student learning. They can then make decisions based on the data to improve administrative and instructional systems to continually promote student achievement.

Governors, state legislators, reform-minded school superintendents, eager school board members, the occasional teacher, policy wonks and entrepreneurs wax enthusiastic. Used wisely and well, they say, data-driven decision-making will permit school boards to step back from their fixation on micromanagement and concentrate on effective policy formulation. They also tell us that practitioners in the trenches, from principals to classroom teachers, will be able to improve practices by pinpointing problems and transforming them into new opportunities.

At its best, data-driven decision-making is much more than an accountability tool; it is a diagnostic tool that permits - nay, encourages - teachers to tailor instruction to student needs. Thus, it finds that they can better and more easily direct their students toward success. So far, despite data-driven decision-making's many vocal proponents, it is equally clear that the message has not yet gotten to the front lines.

Why Educators Resist It

Why have some educators been resistant to a concept that has so much support from the government, businesses, parents and other stakeholders? Not to put too fine a point on it, the first reason is fear and loathing. With only slight exaggeration, it is safe to say that most educators view data as the enemy. Data is something a third party requires you to gather about yourself with the expectation that it will be used to embarrass you down the road. D'es this sound familiar: 'Kids doing poorly? Fire the bum! Kids doing well? They're so smart they could do well anywhere.'

The second and collateral reason for educator resistance is that, with few exceptions, educators see data as a burden, not an asset. Even if it is not going to be used to hold you up to ridicule, it has little utility. A teacher needs to spend time with his or her students, not with data entry and arcane analysis, the argument g'es. With the notable exception of attendance data, which in most districts generates revenue, school data neither simplifies life nor increases a sense of professional efficacy.

The importance of this phenomenon cannot be overemphasized: Only when data becomes genuinely useful and commonplace in the classroom will teachers and administrators welcome it. And only when it is useful will data quality improve. This lack of 'clean' data - i.e., data that is timely and accurate - is the bane of researchers and analysts. Up until this point, no one cared too deeply if a student name on a school record didn't exactly match the student name on a test record, because no one was really doing anything with the test data.

However, if we really want to follow how a particular child performs on tests over time, we need all of his or her data to align. The benefits to districts are palpable as well. For instance, districts in Texas improved their graduation rates dramatically when students who were listed as dropouts were matched with the other names they were enrolled under and taken off the dropout list.

It also bears mentioning that the disuse of data for decision-making is not unique to schools. Only recently have private for-profit firms begun to appreciate the power and utility of the large data sets that they generate. For example, Wal-Mart shouldered aside Sears and Montgomery Ward in large measure because it is one of the nation's premiere users of on-time, online data - leveraging it to provide precise and infinitely detailed inventory control, shelf-stocking and ordering, as well as just-on-time delivery. Among other advantages, this permits the generation of substantial economies that are passed onto customers in the form of lower prices.

In the mysterious realm of data-driven decision-making, the following three dimensions are essential in order to make it work:

  1. Data warehousing with decision-support tools. By this I mean a strategic, relational database that can be queried to answer any question for which there is a quantitative answer and for which digital data is available. How many kids are taking Advanced Placement courses in terms of race, sex and ethnicity? How many are taking algebra? Where are absences concentrated? Is there a pattern to 'hard' course taking?
  2. Standards-based, curricular alignment. This is essential to successful instruction and assessment. What is on the agenda to teach, what is actually taught, what is actually learned? These are the questions that must be answered to fashion instructional programs that work.
  3. Community engagement. Getting everyone involved in the enterprise as a virtual partner means management of a dynamic Web portal by the institution for its entire school community. E-mail for all is a good place to start, as are activity calendars and posting school report cards. Indeed, the demographic and test-score data contained in the data warehouse should be easily accessible to all Web site visitors, so long as student privacy rights are respected. And the sky is the limit, because in today's busy world a virtual school is just as important as a real school.

Data for Entrepreneurs

The cement that holds this together is entrepreneurship, a much overworked and misunderstood term. The great French economist Georges Says once said that an entrepreneur is a person who develops a product or a process that no one else knows they need. I believe that we have entrepreneurial-minded educators nationwide who lack the essential data they need to dream up new products and processes that will help all our students realize their truest potentials.

Data-driven decision-making also promises real economies of operation -getting it right the first time saves money because it means an end to remediation and improved performance across the board. Equally important, improving educational performance means increased public confidence in the schools, which will make it easier to muster resources for education. The stakes couldn't be higher. Put bluntly, as the population in our society ages, competition for resources will increase precisely when it is essential to get greater performance from our schools. Today's students are tomorrow's tax-paying adult citizens, and the better educated they are, the better off society will be as a whole.


I hope schools will come to understand that data-driven decision-making is genuinely useful and desirable. However, even if they don't, they must understand that they have little choice but to start implementing it. President Lincoln began the modern practice of collecting education data at the national level 150 years ago, and with No Child Left Behind, data will have to be used, not just collected. It will be used to plot progress (or lack thereof); plan and execute instructional interventions; report results; as well as hold students, teachers, administrators and school systems accountable.

Like death and taxes, in the foreseeable future, no educators will be able to escape the demands of data-driven decision-making. And if they're thinking like entrepreneurs, and not like our friend Bartleby, they'll see the opportunity in the challenge.

Denis P. Doyle is a nationally recognized education writer and consultant. He is the co-author of Winning the Brain Race and Reinventing Education. Doyle is also the editor of 'The Doyle Report,' a weekly e-newsletter on education reform and technology ( Co-founder and chief academic officer of SchoolNet Inc., Doyle can be reached at [email protected].

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2003 issue of THE Journal.