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How to Create Strong Data Culture in Your Building: Tips from a Former Principal

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July 28th, 2020

As districts adopt data-driven frameworks like MTSS, many are also focused on developing strong data cultures in which educators are increasingly skilled and facile in using data to inform decisions. These focuses are often discussed from a district-level lens. But in terms of how day-to-day implementation happens, principals play a key role in how a data culture is grown and valued. 

I served as a principal for nine years. In that time, I faced the reality of how to support, encourage, and empower my team with data—and how to make those processes part of our normal routine.

Those questions are only more salient today. No matter what your back-to-school plan looks like, data should be a key part of it. Although many of us expect an increased depth and range of social-emotional behavior (SEB) and academic needs, we need to use data to ascertain what those needs truly are so we can help students get back on track and accelerate learning throughout the year. This means that our teams need to be comfortable and confident in using and understanding data—and that comes from data culture. 

If you are navigating questions around how to strengthen your building’s data culture, here are 10 tips I recommend.


1)  Monitor and enhance your own data literacy.

Many of us did not receive data analysis training as part of our educator or principal credentialing. But leading data conversations in your building is a lot easier (and more successful) when you feel confident interpreting data yourself. Be self-reflective and aware of your own areas of strengths and needs, and take opportunities to learn more about data and statistics. 

2) Model using data.

You set the tone for how data are valued and used throughout the building. If you have staff meetings or meet with teacher teams without talking about data, it’s going to create an environment that says, “Data aren’t important.” When you infuse data into your key conversations with staff, it naturally becomes the culture. It helps your teams know what to expect. When your team knows that data will be used in every meeting and that there will be expectations that they can participate in those conversations, it becomes part of the day-to-day work you do.

3) Set data-based goals reasonably.

When creating School Improvement Plans or setting building goals, identifying unrealistic goals can do a lot of damage to your data culture and team morale. Every principal in the nation wants their students to succeed. But identifying a school goal of 100% proficiency by end-of-year is not realistic. If we aren’t careful about setting attainable, thoughtful goals that still challenge our teams and students, we set up for failure—and, set up for a lot of data-based conversations dissecting that failure. Setting reasonable, attainable, targeted student and school goals is a key role for principals—as is creating reasonable goals around how the team will use data throughout the year.

4) Form high-quality PLCs.

True change and improvement is going to come from teams of people using data to share ideas, solve problems, and use data for decisions. Most buildings are familiar with professional learning communities (PLCs) or a similar teaming structure for this work. While the structure and size of districts can impact what is feasible, here are a few tips to consider if they are possible:

  • Work in principal PLCs to compare data and information with colleagues, in addition to building-level data teams with their grade-level teachers or departments. Principals with common grade levels are likely using common materials and giving common assessments. They can really dig into the data because they all understand what each other is looking at. 
  • Periodically work across levels as well (for example, elementary and middle school principals working together). It can be helpful to get an outside perspective; sometimes we look at our data differently when we’re also thinking about various roadblocks in the way of changing those data. Sharing information from one level to another can also help educators better understand their incoming students, approach programming proactively, and transitioning kids smoothly.
  • Develop norms for the PLC’s practices. Teachers’ time is extremely valuable, so make each PLC meeting worth every minute by developing meeting norms: start and end on time; focus on data-driven conversations (these are not times to plan field trips); avoid gripe sessions; plan to compare results and student work.

5) Identify important data and guide focus around them.

As we know, teachers are inundated with data, and it can be hard to tell which data should be focused on at different points in the year. For example, many PLCs analyze seasonal interim data—especially in context of longitudinal trends. There’s a lot of great information in those assessments, but they can become “outdated” quickly. If the interim data are two months old, there’s much more current and relevant data to be found by analyzing classroom or common assessments tied to immediate instruction. Remove the guesswork and provide clarity around which data are most important for which questions throughout the year.

6) Focus on the whole child.

Our nationwide shift from a singular focus on academics to a broader focus on the whole childincluding attendance, social-emotional behavior (SEB), intervention, etc.—should be incorporated into your PLCs. Including data sources like behavior incidents, SEB universal screeners, and climate surveys in your set of key data grows the collective ability to connect those interrelated factors and support student well-being as well as success. For example, students who miss many days of school but earn good grades might require a different intervention than similar students who earn lower grades. If the importance of non-academic factors isn’t universally accepted in your building though, adjusting that perception is part of your role in growing your data culture.

7) Create and support a leadership team that’s representative of the building.

Creating a leadership team helps ensure everyone is supported and moves forward without requiring you to be in every data conversation or meeting. When selecting your leadership team, ensure it represents the whole building. For instance, consider selecting a member from each grade level or department, a Special Education representative, a specialist or interventionist, a student services representative, an aide or paraprofessional, a parent, etc. The leadership team in my building met for either monthly or bimonthly meetings for data conversations, as well as a summer data retreat. Then, they would take those findings back to their PLCs or department teams to look at the data at a finer level. This also creates a safer environment for staff who are reluctant data users, where they can learn and adjust their practice amongst their peers without fear of being judged by their site leader.

8) Create a positive, growth-mindset culture.

For some educators, the idea of a data culture causes fear or anxiety around how those data will be used. In a healthy data culture, data isn’t a weapon or jumping point for assigning blame. Data are used as information to help the team better understand how they can better support kids. As a principal, you play a large role in communicating and modeling that as part of your culture. Meet with your team to identify where any trepidation is coming from and reframe data usage as a support tool. Your leadership team is also a huge part of this work; it gives staff who are nervous some comfort in that they’re not doing this alone and there are support processes in place. 

9) Build data into parent or guardian meetings.

There are a few reasons for this:

  • There are many times that site leaders must have difficult conversations with parents and guardians. Using data helps both parties focus on facts and student needs (for example, you might say, “The data shows that your child struggles in this skill” or “Your child has had three behavior referrals in three days”). It helps diffuse defensiveness or perceived judgement and provides a clear need—and common groundfor the conversation to take place.
  • Those data can also be used to develop goals. For instance, if the conversation is around behaviors, you can work together to discuss reward systems for both school and home.
  • It helps parents continue supporting students at home. Data can provide targeted, easier-to-approach recommendations, such as, “Here are two standards your child is struggling with and here are some resources to use at home.” The more that guardians see and understand that data is part of supporting their child, the more they will embrace those processes and be able to support them at home.

10) Identify areas for efficiency.

High-quality tools and resources are instrumental in creating a strong data culture and fostering high-impact data conversations. Using a data management platform will make it easier for teachers to use the right data at the right time—and enable efficient conversations around previously hard-to-use data sources, like locally-created common assessments. The right tools make it possible to get instant formative feedback about classroom and individual needs and ensure students who need remediation are able to receive it when it’s needed. When you can make teachers’ lives easier by removing time-intensive tasks, like grading tests or creating reports, you’re giving them back time to create high-quality lessons and work directly with students.


Illuminate Education partners with K-12 educators to equip them with data to serve the whole child and reach new levels of student performance. Our solution brings together holistic data and collaborative tools and puts them in the hands of educators. Illuminate supports over 17 million students and 5200 districts/schools.

Ready to discover your one-stop shop for your district’s educational needs? Let’s talk.

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