How Can Schools Use Data Effectively?

By Brian Soika

August 17, 2021

A female teacher kneels down next to a female student, helping her with a school assignment on her laptop, and highlighting how schools can use data effectively.

Data is an essential tool for K-12 schools. When used effectively, it helps districts identify and achieve important goals. Students, staff and the broader community can all benefit. 

But when faced with intractable challenges and myriad metrics to measure, how does school leadership maximize their use of data?

Bob Nelson, BS ’91 EdD ’18 understands this question well. 

For five years, he has been superintendent of Fresno Unified School District, which serves almost 74,000 students. 

Despite significant improvement in student achievement year over year, the district continues to grapple with high levels of poverty. It’s also home to chronically underserved populations of marginalized students.

Data plays a significant role in how Nelson addresses these issues. He recently shared some of his insights.

Let the Community Be a Guide

When determining top district goals, schools can turn to the community. “Find out what they want their graduates to look like and what they want their community to be,” says Nelson. “And then you create a series of metrics and drill down to just a few.” Based on community input, educators can “drive the system where they want it to go.”

This information can be shared with the public so they can track progress, comment and take ownership of how schools in the community are performing. 

Establish a Baseline for Progress

Data is valuable to schools for its power to quantify success and failure. But in order to gauge progress of a program or initiative, there should be a clear baseline from which to measure. 

Then, districts can set goals as well as growth metrics to show if efforts are paying off.

Pair Data With Expertise

Measuring progress with numbers is useful but schools should rely on the expertise of educators as well. “I’m a big believer in mixed methods,” says Nelson, referring to his preference for combining quantitative and qualitative approaches to a challenge.

Experienced administrators can contextualize data points to better understand their implications. Additionally, they may be able to determine if a program even has a relevant quantifiable metric.

Attach Metrics to Objectives 

Once a district sets goals, it’s important to determine which metrics are appropriate. 

Fresno Unified’s five-year strategic plan includes five major goals including improved academic performance and increased student engagement. These goals are tied to specific key performance indicators.

To measure progress in other areas such as academic and social-emotional learning, the district looks at broad metrics such as graduation rates, as well as more specific data.

Use Data to Identify Student Needs

The pandemic has underscored the need for social-emotional support in schools. 

In Fresno Unified, students are asked twice-per-year via survey about whether they feel connected at school, their experiences with bullying, and if they feel there’s an adult on campus who cares for them. Other questions assess their self-efficacy and growth mindset. 

Another important task is addressing the needs of Black students

The district established an Office of African-American Academic Acceleration because “something fundamentally in the interaction between Black kids and their teachers [is] off,” says Nelson. Measuring and analyzing the discrepancies in academic performance between African-American students and other students is ongoing.

But Nelson adds that closing equity gaps is tough given the country’s hyper-polarized political climate.

Coordinate Among Teams 

Different divisions within a school district that collect data can sometimes lack cohesion.

Nelson says he’s building a system based on a “single theory of action around data that all parties agree to.” This gives individual teams greater input and lets them become stakeholders in achieving common objectives. 

While data does not always yield perfect solutions, Nelson underscores its importance. “Leveraging data in meaningful ways and being able to derive trends from data is a… critical skill for current leaders.”