Culture – Data for Everyone and Success for All

Our post today comes from Tim Trow, an SJDLP Board member and Director of Curriculum and Instruction for the Gloucester Twp. Schools.   Tim’s post is the first in a four-part series about how his staff have moved from a data-fearing organization towards a model for positioning data at the heart of school operations.  Tim’s first post covers his introduction of a data-centered mindset to his staff, and the role of fear in this early stage.   Look for more from Tim soon!

Glassy-eyed, empty caldrons of confusion.

As educators we all dread having this effect on our classroom.  Worse yet is seeing this in the eyes of your staff as a building or district leader.  I have spent the last fifteen years of my life as an administrator in elementary school, middle school and as a district curriculum leader.  During that time, I have been known as a data person, always “geeking out” with some cool (in my mind) chart or graph of data.  My staff would usually say, “Wow” — most likely to appease me—and, frankly, little would change. As I considered what I might share with others about data leadership, I tried to boil the lessons I have learned into a few key areas.  The overarching, interweaving piece is the same as it is for any successful classroom, school or district – leadership and culture.  Without leadership and culture, data is just data and impacts no one. So, what lessons have I learned in the past fifteen years about leadership that impact data? I would boil this down to the statement, “Data for Every One and Success for All.”

I have found that most educators accept the fact that there is much data out there, but very few trust the data or have any idea what to do with it.  Sadly, the teachers I have worked with fear it more than they want to use it to improve student achievement. I attribute this to the politicized rhetoric of the times in which “failing schools” and “incompetent teachers” are discussed using standardized test data.  Virtually no context or nuance is shared, and teachers see this data being used to punish schools and fire teachers. Then I stand up in front of them and start talking about data and how we’re going to use it to improve our practice.  The inevitable and sad reality is that the culture of fear and self-preservation takes over and teachers resist or withdraw.  This should come as no surprise—it is basic human behavior.

In building culture, it is essential to establish trust.  Data is a tool.  As with all tools it can be used to build and improve our lives or it can be used to harm us and tear us down.  To ignore the need to establish rapport and trust with those we seek to lead is to set us up for undoubted and total failure.  My first mission is to establish that my primary goal is always to teach and grow others—not just in word, but in deed.

In my current role as Director of Curriculum and Instruction, I presided over the transition to the use of PARCC testing for local, state and federal accountability.  Fun, right?  As the new Director, how could I use this fresh tool for good when my staff saw it as an instrument of terror designed to point out their weakness and potentially end their careers?  I decided that this was an opportunity to lead and to begin the process of building trust while laying a foundation for using this data to improve our schools.  I wrote a communication to the staff in our 11 buildings.  It included this message: “It is never as good or as bad as the situation may suggest on the surface.  You should know that I will stand beside you and work through any challenge.  I urge you to maintain a calm and thoughtful approach to this both with yourselves, your students, and the public.  As with any challenge, those who are calm, patient, curious, and persistent will prevail.”

I found that my staff, in general, rallied around this call to action.

It has been a less than linear process, but three years later, I look back and see how we have systematically worked to integrate the use of this data and other key data to solve district issues and improve outcomes for students.  I have done everything in my power to take the data presented to us and use it for good.  I’ve worked to protect my staff with the idea that no matter what the data tells us, we can use it to thoughtfully inform and adjust our practice for everyone’s gain, not their detriment.  We are not assessing blame, but informing growth.

My belief was and is that creating a culture of trust and collaboration requires people like me using my platform to use words of encouragement in the use of data and then backing them up with concrete action that reinforces the value and importance of data in a safe environment. Then, and only then, do staff start to warm to it based upon the trust created.

The road can undoubtedly be bumpy, but I hope to share some practical lessons learned in future posts including: Small Victories, Trust the Process and Never Give Up – Don’t Ever Give Up!  We can impact our schools with the use of data.  It is a moral imperative entrusted to us.  Keep the faith and act in a manner that builds trust as we strive build data rich cultures in our schools!