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Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Is "Data-Driven," Drivel?

Is “Data-Driven,” Drivel?

By Dr. Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

It’s fashionable for us in K-12 education today to be “data-driven.” 
High-priced, drive-by consultants tout its sexiness; bureaucrats at times encourage our pledge to its cause, and even the occasional principal proudly proclaims it when interviewing for jobs or speaking at the local civic-group luncheon.
What’s up with that?
My question is, “If K-12 leaders are data-driven, who or what is doing the leading?”  [i.e. the driving]
Answer:  Might be the data, not the leader. 
That’s not good.
We, at Indiana State University, have the privilege of sponsoring Ph.D.-level dissertation research, chairing many dissertations, probably numbering in the 20’s or 30’s for each of us who serve in this role. 
So we know data.
We like data. 
Data isn’t the enemy here.
Yet, our K-12 perspective on “What data DOES,” as well as “What WE DO with data” (in terms of our leadership and instructional planning), might very well be.
Data are incredibly important in finding answers to our profession’s important questions.  Yet, alone, data are incomplete.
Data position us not necessarily to find answers to all of our questions, yet instead to ask better questions.
Our use of data needs a complement – something additionally to inform what we do –  so that we can make sense of our numbers toward improving our schools. 
It needs “story.”
Consider this:  Do we spend as much time forming plans of action to address the stories behind our data in K-12, as we do devising battle plans to attack our numbers?  How fashionable is it to ask “Why?” or “Are we sure?” in our grade-level or content-area meetings? 
How sexy is it to say, “So what?”
If those questions are encouraged, that’s great.  But if we are hearing, “The numbers speak for themselves,” that’s simply an inaccurate statement.
At best, shortsighted.
Closer to home we might ask ourselves, “Are PLC’s data-driven?”  
Are they as well, “story-driven” or even “student-driven”? 
I hope the latter two, more of the time. 
As we collaborate in schools, might a qualitative approach, turning story into code into themes into findings, be more effective in terms of school improvement, than disaggregating the next batch of formative assessment scores? 
Don’t get me wrong: Data walls are not the enemy, but if they “drive” what we do rather than “inform,” they’ll most assuredly generate output, in terms of teachers’ triaging whatever’s urgent at the moment, yet they’ll do little to affect longer-term input to the equation of student outcomes, such as organizational wellness, school and family partnerships, teacher efficacy, student readiness for learning, or overall school culture.
Again, rather than data-driven; how ‘bout data-informed.
Let’s change the term.
Let’s change the bumper sticker.
Is our drivel regarding “data-driven,” in actuality, some well-intentioned eye candy that places undue pressure upon everyone in two academic areas, at the expense of other developmental experiences that would better allow teachers to teach, and students more often, to be children?
Moreover, what is this saying about leadership at all levels in K-12, when a responsibility such as driving is relegated.


Dr. Ryan Donlan is not really on a soapbox, as much as he is on a mission to reframe the good work of educators in a way that our public, our policymakers, and even those in our profession, can understand.  He questions that if we don’t own our narrative, and the terms we use, then who does?  If you would like to contact him, please be encouraged to call (812) 237-8624 or write at  He would love to hang-out.

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