Data — What is it Good For?

There is no shortage of conversation or research about data these days — how to capture, interpret, and use it to better organizations and their management.

Schools are not immune from data’s long reach; indeed, because schools are invested with the most important responsibility of all, the education of children and the creation of an informed citizenry, they are under increased pressure to try to quantify as well as qualify their efficacy. Thus, what seems like an increasingly mad scramble in schools private, public and otherwise, to collect and measure information in real time.

To wit, the most recent edition of Independent School magazine, a bell weather for private school teachers and administrators, is focused entirely on how schools can and should use data to improve the experiences of their students, faculty and families.

Data in schools can be mined in many domains. From admissions: the number of inquiries, visits, applications, acceptances, and signed contracts. From marketing: the tally of Facebook shares and tweets and Instagram likes in response to school events. From academics: the number of A’s, B’s and C’s across a grade level or a school division and the percentage of national merit scholars in a graduating class.

All of this data — the facts and statistics generated by the daily processes of school life — are important. But importantly, good — and useful — data depends on our asking really good questions at the outset.

Carla Silver and Erin Park Cohn of Leadership + Design, an organization of educational consultants well versed in innovation and design thinking, get it right in their Independent School article, “Take Note,” when they point out the limits to survey data and the importance of asking the right questions.

Interestingly, Silver and Cohn recommend that schools act more like anthropologists than scientists as they seek to better understand their various constituencies, including their students. “Stories and behaviors can be revealing,” they say. “More often than not, what we say about ourselves in general terms differs greatly from our actual feelings or behaviors. If you ask a student to describe her eating habits in the dining hall, she might report eating well-balanced meals regularly. Yet, if you ate with her for a week, you might witness her skipping meals and consuming a lot of fluffernutter sandwiches.” The same holds true for other constituencies as well. “A parent might say that ‘strong subject matter knowledge’ is what he values most in a faculty member, but then tell story after story about the emotional connection his child had with her chemistry teacher. People are complex, and so much of that complexity is lost in survey data.”

Better, in their view, is to observe, ask really good questions, listen, record, reflect. Perhaps the gold standard to data collection is to shadow others. One of the most enlightening experiences of my life was the time I shadowed a head of school. In the three days that I was her shadow, I learned more about what her real life as a head of school is like than I ever could have by having her fill out a questionnaire, even if it were filled with the best and most important questions. The times I have shadowed students have been stunningly revealing of the truths about their experience. Why they are tired at certain times of the day. Why they perform well or poorly on a quiz that they were more than prepared for. Why they feel detached from one teacher but loyal to another.

Like other educators, I’ve seen my fair share of questionnaires and other data-collecting instruments, some very useful, others less so. I hope that the informed practices of experts like Silver and Cohn will help schools to find creative and truly qualitative ways of assessing and measuring what is happening in their classrooms, admissions processes, hiring practices and hallways. Stories, after all, are the trade of schools and cultures — and it matters who tells them, how they are told, how they are heard, how recorded and understood, and by whom.

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