My Lessons Learned Working with a Diverse Set of School Leaders Deeply Committed to Taking a Data-Informed Approach to Whole Child Development

By: DJ Cervantes

Since 2016, Transforming Education has worked closely with NewSchools Venture Fund to collaborate with a growing portfolio of innovative school leaders across the nation. This collaboration supports the efforts of these schools in expanding the definition of student success by integrating an intentional and data-informed focus on the mindsets, habits, and skills needed for success in college, career, and life as well as the positive school environment conditions that promote them. Collectively, it is our belief that when these skills and conditions are coupled with strong academic outcomes, students are better positioned to graduate from high school prepared and inspired to lead a good life full of opportunity, connections, choices, and meaning.  A core element in this pursuit involves coaching school leadership teams on the interpretation and use of data collected from bi-annual student voice surveys so that they are empowered to take a data-informed approach to promoting students’ social-emotional learning (SEL) and a positive school culture and climate.

As Transforming Education’s project lead, I have had the privilege of working closely with and learning from these school leaders along their journey.

Here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned in working with school leaders who are committed to driving change in student outcomes through a data-informed approach.

1. School leaders who are most effective at using data to inform action realize that a key step in this process is ensuring that the right people have access to the data. These school leaders have systems set up to engage all stakeholders (teachers, parents, and students) in making meaning of the data. Together, they evaluate the data and develop theories around what might be driving the trends. They then create and implement a plan to replicate and scale drivers of the positive trends while supporting the identified areas for growth.

2. Schools that are using the data effectively do not simply identify priority areas by examining which competencies, mindsets and environmental conditions students are ranking the lowest. This approach is often one that is undertaken with academic data. However, a challenge arises when applied to social-emotional development because it forces SEL data to be viewed through a deficit-based lens, which can put the onus of the results on the student instead of the systems and structures in place. Further, when schools simply prioritize the lowest-ranked factors, they often end up focusing on a series of discrete priority areas that do not necessarily have a clear and communicated purpose that resonates with teachers, parents, students, and the broader community.

An alternative approach is to set a broader goal around student SEL development and school culture-climate in conjunction with the school community, and then prioritize those competencies that align to that goal. For example, in one school I worked with, their goal was to ensure that every student experienced a healthy and safe environment so that all students could thrive academically and personally. This school then identified the four constructs that – in their view – were necessary to achieve a healthy environment. They prioritized the analysis of data around those four constructs and focused on identifying those aspects of the school environment in which there were gaps in student perceptions across subgroups and grades, potentially indicating inequity in students’ lived experiences.  This in turn allowed educators the opportunity to test out classroom and school-level strategies to improve the identified environmental constructs. Ultimately, prioritizing this set of anchoring constructs enabled the school to communicate their priorities effectively, take meaningful and targeted actions, galvanize support from their school community, and improve inequitable environmental factors.

3. Schools that are effectively taking a data-informed approach to the development of SEL and school climate do not simply rely on biannual data collection. Instead, they collect formative data throughout the year, using fall data as a baseline to set initial priorities and examine change. There are several ways schools are able to collect and analyze informal, or practical, measures of student SEL development and student perceptions of the school climate throughout the year. For example, one school I worked with implemented improvement science data cycles. Using this approach, school leaders worked with teachers and social workers to develop a hypothesis based on their fall data to determine the type of additional data they needed to collect and analyze to inform their hypothesis. They then implemented an improvement plan, studied the data they collected, and acted quickly on the results from the data. This school had a concrete structure and routine in which they discussed the data every six to eight weeks. The discussions enabled the school team to shift their practice in real time related to student needs and school systems.

Throughout this three-year project, I have learned that excitement for implementation does not always translate into immediate capacity to take action. For example, schools are typically eager to replicate what others are doing to tackle similar challenges. Of course, understanding the strategies and resources that other schools are implementing successfully can be informative for a school; however, the solution for each school is often not that simple, since the impact of a strategy will be influenced by an individual school’s context. Therefore, I’ve always tried to deeply understand each school’s needs, priorities, capacity and will before implementing new strategies and resources. Likewise, school leaders must consider the needs of their students, families, and broader communities based on any and all data they’ve collected. They must also consider their schools’ mission and vision to determine what strategies will mesh with their existing design. And, they must think through teacher capacity to implement the intended strategies as well as leader capacity to ensure fidelity of implementation. All of these factors are crucial to ensuring that both the new strategies can be implemented with fidelity and implementation of those strategies improves outcomes equitably for all students.

You can read more about this project in NewSchools Venture Fund’s latest Insight Brief here.



Disclaimer: The Assessment Work Group is committed to enabling a rich dialogue on key issues in the field and seeking out diverse perspectives. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Assessment Work Group, CASEL or any of the organizations involved with the work group.

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