The Three Essentials: Improving Schools Requires District Vision, District and State Support, and Principal Leadership

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 The Three Essentials: Improving Schools Requires District Vision, District and State Support, and Principal Leadership

Strategies of Highly Supportive Districts

  • Continually ask why school conditions and achievement results have to continue as they are and what must be done to change them.
  • Work with principals and school leadership teams to diagnose problems and implement a set of actions to improve the situation.
  • Assist schools to move beyond examining only state test results by creating a “balanced scorecard” to examine progress on additional key indicators, such as the percentage of students meeting college- and career-readiness standards, attendance data, failure rates, discipline problems, readiness for the ninth grade and student engagement.
  • Disseminate data and continuously engage principals in conversations about how to understand a broad array of data and how to use data to drive improvements.
  • Provide schools with formative assessments and benchmark tests.
  • Assess prospective principals on the basis of their ability to use data in diagnosing problems and taking action to address them.

Center School Improvement Efforts Around Data

Since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, America’s education landscape has been flooded with data. Schools now have enough data to clearly define their strengths and weaknesses. The challenge no longer is getting data. The challenge now is using data to improve school and classroom practices and to raise students’ achievement while they are in school, rather than allowing them to drop out or graduate without the academic skills they need for college and careers. Current state assessment and accountability systems give schools end-of-the-year data, but schools need actionable data on an ongoing basis to help teachers know how to tailor instruction to prevent student failures.

Districts must help schools interpret and use data to inform school and classroom practices that raise achievement. The highly supportive districts in this study were more likely to offer evidence demonstrating use of data and to report that they use formative assessments and diagnostic data to identify and meet the needs of individual students. (See Table 8.)

Table 8
Comments Indicating Accountability and Data Support

District Level
of Support

Percentage of

Total Number
of Comments

Comments per

Comments Indicating Districts Have a Strong Understanding of Data













Comments Indicating District Support With Formative Assessments and Diagnostic Data













The disaggregation of data was a key indicator of support for schools. An assistant superintendent of a highly supportive district observed that “we know every child is not treated the same, so we disaggregate data constantly.” His district currently uses support provided by ThinkGate and previously worked with EduSoft for assistance with disaggregation, data analysis and benchmarking. Within the districts, disaggregation of data is quick and easy and shows results for individual students and classrooms, providing an important tool for principals to use

That same district also has hired staff to develop psychometrically sound quarterly benchmark tests for the coming year. Other districts reported purchasing formative assessments from a variety of vendors, rather than developing their own assessments. For the most part, however, the adoption of highquality formative assessments is something districts plan to do in the future, rather than now. The best practices of consistently disaggregating data and using formative assessments throughout the year require heavy investment in staff, technology and funds, but they have great potential to help schools modify instruction to raise student achievement.

At the same time, using data should only be a means to improved instruction, more engaged students, and higher-achieving students. The collection and interpretation of data must be part of a bigger effort to help school leaders understand different instructional modalities that will motivate and engage students in learning intellectually demanding material. The disaggregation of data and the use of formative assessments must be coupled with classroom instruction that is more engaging and authentic.

Go Beyond AYP and State Test Results

The root causes of many academic problems often can be found in data beyond state test results, such as attendance data, failure rates, suspension rates, students’ readiness for the ninth grade, college-readiness data and indicators of student engagement. Of the districts in this study, Archer and Carlton — both in the same state — used the widest variety of data in their schools. Districts in this state have received extensive training and technical support in adapting “balanced scorecard” strategies from business management. A balanced scorecard takes into account many different quality indicators across a spectrum of activities related to student achievement and school operations. For example, the balanced scorecard for a school might include student attendance rates, teacher absenteeism and student suspension rates, along with state test data. Implementing a balanced scorecard strategy helps a district understand the contributing factors to the challenges it faces, especially those not immediately apparent in state test data.

But even the data on the balanced scorecards used by the districts in this study too often focus on minimums. When a district focuses entirely on minimum competency levels, it may quickly see its student achievement averages drop.27 Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland (not one of the seven districts examined in this study) has had a remarkable record of success in raising achievement for all students during the last decade, and its superintendent, Jerry Weast, links much of the district’s success to its focus on “raising the roof ” for student achievement while also “raising the floor.” Montgomery County’s vision is to ensure that 80 percent of its students graduate with some type of postsecondary education degree or credential within six years of high school graduation. That is an ambitious goal, but the type necessary for the nation to respond to author Thomas Friedman’s warnings about workforce needs and to meet President Barack Obama’s call for America to return to world leadership in the number of college graduates.28

Collecting data on success or failure in meeting minimum state standards or passing low-level graduation exams is not a sufficient strategy for a district hoping to prepare its students for a prosperous future. Districts instead should measure the effectiveness of the school system in preparing students for college and careers by using a broader set of achievement indicators, including:

  • Gains on the SAT and ACT
  • Enrollment in International Baccalaureate (IB) programs and success on IB assessments
  • Increases in numbers of students taking and passing AP exams
  • Increases in numbers of students passing employer certification exams
  • Increases in the percentage of students who proceed to college without needing remedial courses
  • Higher percentages of ninth-graders graduating in four years
  • Reduced failure rates in grades nine and 10

Districts can use student surveys to collect feedback on students’ experiences, satisfaction and the school climate to better understand the root causes behind student achievement results. Unfortunately, districts and schools rarely tap these data resources. Schools in six of the seven districts in this study have adopted the HSTW school improvement model, which systematically collects and helps schools use student-survey data. Over the past 22 years, SREB has developed a number of questions on its student surveys that are highly predictive of a high school’s ability to improve student achievement. For example, students are asked how frequently they experience these school and classroom practices:

  • Teachers clearly indicate the amount and quality of work necessary to earn an A or a B.
  • Students revise work to improve its quality.
  • Teachers are available before, during or after school to help students with their studies.
  • Students have to work hard to meet high standards.
  • Students review with their parents and a guidance counselor the sequence of courses that they will take throughout high school.
  • A teacher or counselor talks with students individually about their plans for a career or further education after high school.

Students perceptions of these experiences are an accurate barometer of what happens in schools. Yet none of the district respondents described an emphasis on using student survey data to better understand student achievement or school and classroom practices.

Use Data to Set Clear Expectations

High-quality data can help districts set clear goals that address schools’ specific challenges. Unfortunately, some key staff members in the districts studied by SREB were rarely involved in goalsetting discussions. When these discussions did take place, they were between superintendents and principals, without the involvement of the district staff most intimately familiar with the districts’ data. One of the districts, however, did use its data to set clear expectations for principals. In this district, one respondent said that each school receives “a spreadsheet that has three years of what we call baseline data. And then we have a space for this coming year’s data and then we have targets for three years. So ... we then look to see if we made our target this year ... so we can quickly see [in] what areas we’re still suffering.”

Make Data Accessible to Principals

SREB’s study of principals’ perceptions of district support revealed that many principals do not have ownership of accountability data.29 Respondents in only two of the seven districts in this study — the two highly supportive districts — indicated a belief that schools do have ownership of their school data, saying:

  • “It’s not being looked at at the county office and then passed down. We’re all looking at it at the same time. It’s real-time to everyone because of the software we use, and the reports are available to everyone at the same time.”
  • “I don’t think it’s me providing data. I think it’s them [principals] holding and looking at the data that they already have. We don’t create another diagnostic set of data for them other than what we just pass along. But they have data within their school. We encourage the use of that data. And I think many of their programs spring up not from just the state data, but from the data that’s generated at that school.”

Such ownership of data at the school level was the exception rather than the rule in the districts studied. One district accountability director’s description of data use was representative: The state tests were administered in early April, and the district was still waiting in July to receive reports and an unwieldy data-file of results from the state. Once the district had the file, a programmer in the district unpacked the state results before sending them to the schools. The district respondent observed, “It’s all centralized at the district office, and not quick-to-fingertip at the school level.” He said his district is investing in a more modern system. In many states, a major factor in districts’ inability to send highstakes test data to schools quickly and in an accessible manner is districts’ dependence on the state — choices of software, file formats and calendars for data releases are set by state accountability systems, and districts must work within these parameters.

Even within such top-down accountability systems, districts can serve schools better. One district still distributed data through “big data notebooks” given to each principal at the beginning of the year. A respondent from the district said, “My gut feeling is that, after that first day or so, the notebook’s not used.” This district could follow the example provided by another district:

    “ ... Rather than giving the principals the [state test] scores, I brought them into a computer lab where everybody sat down and we worked out our percentages, showing strengths and weaknesses that day. That is how we spent our day. Everybody could do that, so that no principal was left out there trying to figure out, ‘How does this Excel program work?’ ”

Some principals in this district who were less technologically savvy or mathematically inclined brought assistant principals or teachers who had those skills to assist with the process. By the end of the day, the district had supported every principal in the system in becoming familiar with his or her school’s data and using data to address deficits in student achievement and school and classroom practices.

Constantly Use Data to Support Decisions

While many of the seven districts were struggling to provide principals with their data, some were able to cite examples of how they use school-level data to evaluate programs and improve instruction:

  • A district abandoned an algebra curriculum that was based on students’ completion of modular units at their own pace when a review of data showed that students were taking the same units repeatedly and never mastering the content.
  • One district worked with a principal to analyze data for the specific purpose of scheduling classes for and assigning students to initially licensed teachers in an effort to set those teachers up for success. First-year teachers were given smaller classes with students who were less likely to have discipline issues.
  • That same district added manipulatives to its math instruction on the basis of its data analysis.

Today’s principals need to be able to analyze their data with teachers, rather than simply relying on undigested information from the state or district. Most respondents reported that principals receive regular training from the district on interpreting their data. In the districts included in this study, the superintendents typically have one or two meetings with their principals each month, and respondents reported that professional development with a focus on using data is common in those meetings. An assistant superintendent described the training on data use: “We look at data constantly, so they understand, and I train them ... [to] understand you don’t go by your gut feeling or what you perceive. You go by the actual pieces of data that you have on the table.” Indeed, data competency has become a non-negotiable job requirement for today’s principals. One of the highly supportive districts has even incorporated data analysis into its job interviews for principals. Candidates are given actual data for the school they are applying to lead and have two hours to analyze the data and prepare a PowerPoint presentation. They present it to the interview committee, discussing what they see in the data and how the data would affect their plans to lead the school.

A Success Story:
Using Data to Identify Problems and Solutions

The following story, told by an assistant superintendent, is representative of effective data analysis leading to productive problem-solving discussions between districts and schools:

“We had one high school last year that didn’t make AYP. It was the most affluent of our high schools, but they ... all of a sudden ended up with [sub-groups] that had problems in math. ... So I went in, and the principal and I quickly figured out where our problems were, and he and I met with that leadership team ... maybe eight or 10 times. ... In that school’s case, there were two things they needed immediately if they were going to be able to get their safety net for those children in place. And so I dropped what I was doing and that’s what I did for the rest of that day and the next day — find the money, and fight to get those things in place, and get those things ordered and rushed in to them — you know, empowering them and letting them know they’re going to get the support they need.”

The process began with disaggregation of data to identify the problem and its causes. The district could have given this information to the principal and told him to fix it. Instead, the assistant superintendent held several meetings, not just with the principal but with the school leadership team and teacher-leaders in the school, to determine what the data meant, why some student groups were being left behind and what needed to be done. The assistant superintendent acted as an advocate for the school to make sure it had the appropriate resources. In this case, the district shared ownership of the problem with the school, and they solved it together.



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