The seven deadly sins of data analysis
Commit one of the Seven Deadly Sins of Data Analysis and you run a significant risk of missing AYP under No Child Left Behind (NCLB).
Commit one of the Seven Deadly Sins, so says the Bible, and you risk eternal condemnation or worse. Commit one of the Seven Deadly Sins of Data Analysis and you run a significant risk of missing AYP under No Child Left Behind (NCLB). So, what are these deadly sins and how can you avoid them?
You may disdain data analysis because you don’t understand how to do it, because numbers scare you, because it’s "geeky," or for any number of other reasons. The fact is, though, data analysis is the one of the most powerful tools available to you to discover your school’s strengths and areas of need. Data analysis eliminates guesswork, shrinks ambiguity, reveals previously hidden patterns of performance, and can confirm what you know as a result of your professional judgment. Vilfredo Pareto, the Italian management expert, posited the Pareto Principle around 1900. Also known as the 80/20 rule, the Pareto Principle suggests, that 80 percent of your achievements come from 20 percent of your activities, 80 percent of your discipline problems come from 20 percent of your students, etc. Data analysis reveals which students, teachers, staff members, leadership team members, programs, initiatives, practices, policies, etc. belong in which category. Data analysis, by itself, won’t change anything. It will, however, point you in the right direction. In a numbers-driven system like NCLB, indifference to data analysis is deadly.
School executives are barraged by multiple and competing demands that leave little time for reflection or looking at anything new. The common refrain is "I’ll get to it tomorrow." Generally, however, tomorrow is as hectic as today, especially when you work twelve-hour days. Given all these demands, it seems as if the easiest course is to wait until “things calm down” a bit. Don’t wait. The inability to “get past square one” may threaten your career. Analyze your data privately but regularly. Devoting as little as fifteen minutes per week pays tremendous dividends. If you are not sure what to look at or what you’re seeing, talk with a trusted colleague — another school level executive, your testing coordinator, or or someone at PEP.
3. Refusal to use what is available
The third deadly sin of data analysis is the misconception that you cannot get the data in the form that you want and therefore, none of it is any good. Usually, schools get periodic reports from the local testing coordinator and although you may desire more up-to-date data, much useful information is contained in “routine” reports. Not using available data and data analysis techniques while waiting for the “perfect” version of whatever tool you are looking for may prove deadly in the long run. School executives are drowning in data. The key is turning the mass of data we receive into useful information and then turning information into action. North Carolina provides a wealth of data you can use to improve your school. Analyzing data in electronic format by sorting, filtering, and creating pivot tables, allows school executives to “slice and dice” their data in previously unheard-of ways. Determine what you want to know, then determine which types of data are most important to help answer that specific question.
4. Analysis Paralysis
Even if you take the initiative to analyze data, you may be doomed to eternal torment by Analysis Paralysis, which occurs when a school executive begins to analyze data, finds an interesting but relatively unimportant point, and micro-analyzes it. The analysis paralytic seizes on trivial information and fails to see the big picture. To combat Analysis Paralysis, jot down observations and trends, then decide on your area of greatest growth. Develop an action plan that forces you to look at what you want to get done next week, next month, and next quarter until you get to your goal.
5. Being a Lone Ranger
You may want to undertake data analysis on your own to get a better understanding of your school performance. The effective school executive, though, understands that others must be involved in the process of data collection and analysis. Most teachers, for example, know their students’ strengths and weaknesses. Involve them in your efforts. Using data as a tool to help improve your school’s achievement cannot be a one-person job. Bringing others into your work and analyzing data together builds momentum within your leadership team and focuses attention on key goals and priorities. Even the Lone Ranger had a partner to help ensure success.
6. Failure to effectively utilize resources
All schools operate with fewer than optimal resources but the effective school executive learns to exploit every opportunity. Do not bemoan the lack of resources; exhaust those that are at your disposal. If, for example, you create a school improvement plan with your teachers, determine your goals, objectives, and benchmarks, then fail to regularly measure and monitor those benchmarks (see #5 above), you are squandering time, energy, and your colleagues’ commitment. One way to greatly enhance your chances for success is to quantify what will be accomplished, by what date, by whom, and by what criterion. These smaller and more frequent deliverables give you and your faculty a chance to see where they are going, and if moving in the right direction, create momentum for further action and if off track, give you time to correct before too much time has passed. The book, Results, by Michael Schmoker, gives some specific and practical strategies to move to action oriented plans and implementation.
7. Worshipping at the Altar of Technology
Almost all school executives now use computers in their work. The use of computers to assist in data analysis allows you to conduct your analysis quicker, see patterns more easily, and analyze performance measures with much less effort. One dirty little secret about technology is that technology is nothing more than a tool to help you do your do your job quicker. Technology can help you “crunch numbers” and write or modify reports, but school executives who believe they can manage from behind a computer screen deceive themselves and commit a deadly sin. Data analysis is an effective tool, yet data analysis does not replace your professional judgment. Technology tools can neither replace your professional judgment, nor perform the essential tasks of management and leadership.
No Child Left Behind and the ABC’s of North Carolina have elevated data analysis and data driven decision making to an essential tool in driving school improvement. Wise school executives avoid these seven deadly sins and greatly increase their probabilities of schoolwide success.