​How to Use Data #LikeABuilder


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You're listening to the School Leadership Reimagined Podcast, episode number thirty-one.

Welcome to the School Leadership Reimagined podcast...

where we rethink what's possible to transform your school. If you're tired of settling for small wins and incremental improvement, then stay tuned to discover powerful and practical strategies for getting every teacher in your school moving towards excellence. Now, here's your host, Robyn Jackson.

Hello Builders!

Welcome to another episode of School Leadership Reimagined. I’m your host Robyn Jackson and today where we’re going to talk about how to use data #LikeABuilder. 

But before we dive in,

But before we dive in, I want to read you an email I got from a Builder’s Lab Alum this week. He said:

Getting to our real values has been more powerful than I could ever have imagined. Just today I met with a senior student in our outdoor ed class who was outside of these boundaries and not responding to the teachers effort to change this pattern. My time with Robyn has equipped me to have a powerful and direct conversation that has already impacted this student. This is not isolated. It happens every day and not just for me but my entire staff and student body. You guys make a real and profound difference in our practice. Thank you for all you do!

Isn’t that awesome!

I get emails like this all the time from Builder’s Lab alums. Principals whose schools were struggling and came to Builder’s Lab and went back and turned their schools around. Instructional Coaches who were struggling to get some of their more difficult teachers to improve, come to Builder’s Lab and go back and have major breakthroughs with teachers they thought were lost causes. District Leaders who bring principals to Builder’s Lab and then return to their districts and see multiple schools make MAJOR improvements.

It’s one of the main reasons why we’re offering multiple Builder’s Labs this summer because we know this stuff works.

When you come to Builder’s Lab, you’ll spend three days working intensively with me to overcome the frustrations like:
Feeling like you don’t have enough control over your time to focus on what matter most. Instead, you are constantly putting out fires or dealing with issues that are distracting everyone from the most important goals of the school.
Frustrations with some of your teachers. They don’t seem to listen, understand, or follow through with their actions. They also don’t take ownership for the part they play in student achievement, preferring instead to blame the students, the parents, or even you for why they do not reach their goals.

Falling Student Achievement: Students are failing and you aren’t sure what to do to turn things around.
HItting The Ceiling: Your growth has stopped. No matter what you do, you can’t seem to break through and get to the next level. What’s more, people seem satisfied with the status quo. You feel frustrated and unsure about what next steps to take.

Nothing’s Working: You’ve tried various strategies and quick-fix remedies. None has worked for long and as a result, your staff has become numb to new initiatives. It feels like at this point, you’re spinning your wheels.
You have 2 chances to join us this summer. The first is Builders Lab in Palm Springs, CA June 24-26. The second is Builder’s Lab the Coaches Edition designed specifically to address the needs of instructional coaches and that one is taking place in Washington, DC July 15-17.

So right now, go to www.mindstepsinc.com/Builders-lab and get your tickets today for either Builder’s Lab or Builder’s Lab the Coach’s Edition and get ready to discover how to get everyone who works in your school or district on board and working together towards your school goals. That’s mindstepsinc.com/Builders-lab and I’ll also put a link in the show notes. 

Okay, let’s dive in.  

Have I ever told you about my first introduction to “data-informed instruction?”

I was a high school English teacher and we got a new principal. You know how it is when you get a new principal. Everyone is really curious about who he or she is so when this new principal dropped by our English Department meeting shortly after he arrived, I was excited to hear what he had to say.

When it came time for him to talk, he said, “I’ve only been here a few weeks, but I’ve had a chance to look at your data a bit.” Then he pulled out a folder and then he said, “I’ve then took the liberty of compiling some simple data for you” and he passed out these pie charts that showed our grade distribution for our progress reports.

After he passed everything out he said, “this is not good. What are you going to do about this?”

I remember being shocked at his bluntness. I also remember being surprised at seeing my data. I felt ambushed and defensive.

While he sat there and waited for us to deliver answers, I stared at my data and it felt threatening. I felt threatened.

Luckily, our department chair stammered out something about us needing time to process the data and that we would get back to him after our next meeting, and he left.

We all just sat there feeling blindsided, and defensive, and angry.

It was NOT a good introduction to data for me.

So when I hear the term “data-informed instruction” or I hear people talking about meeting weekly in data groups, I often wonder whether teachers feel about data the way that I used to feel about it. Or maybe you feel that way about data too.

I mean have you ever gone to a district meeting and been presented with your data and been told to fix it?

Or has your supervisor come to your school and hit you over the head with your data?

Unfortunately, data is often used as a sort of blunt instrument to beat people over the head and then demand new results.

You know what else I’ve seen. I’ve been in schools where ALL they talk about is data. They have charts and graphs that tell them to the minutest detail how every student is doing on every single standard and substandard and they constantly track that data daily.

They have data walls and elaborate spreadsheets and can look up every benchmark test score for any student in less than 3 seconds.

In these schools data is king and they take great pride in their massive amounts of data.

Trouble is, they are so obsessed with data that they have lost sight of the kids. 

And they are so invested in moving the data that that becomes the goal instead of true learning.

Builders don’t run from data or beat people up with the data but they don’t become so data-driven that they lose sight of students.

Now I can’t get into all the innovative ways that Builders use data, but today, I’d like to talk about some of the principles that drive how Builders use data because if you understand these principles, you can make data WAY more meaningful and efficient in helping you serve your students.

And look, I get it. When used the right way, data can be a powerful tool.

Data is neutral. It’s what we do with data that makes it powerful. So today, I want to talk about 3 ways that Builders look at data differently from Leaders or even Bosses.

Look at Data in the Context of your Core Values, Mission, and Vision.
One of the things that we do at Builder’s Lab is that we help you create a Builder’s Blueprint. Your Builder’s Blueprint is a roadmap that takes everything you learned in Builder’s Lab and shows you your specific pathway to achieving your goals once you leave Builder’s Lab.

And the wonderful thing about your pathway is that is always starts with your vision, your mission, and your core values.

In fact, Builders look at their vision, mission, and core values BEFORE they look at their data.

Leaders do it the other way around. They look at the data first and then they determine their goals, their mission, and their vision based on what the data tells them they are NOT doing.

That’s backwards. The data shouldn’t drive your vision, mission, and core values.

Your vision, mission and core values should drive how you view your data.

You see, Builders start with deciding who you are as a school, what is your purpose as a school and what is the promise that you will make to every student you serve. That drives your work, not the data.

THEN, Builder’s look at data in order to determine whether we living out our core values, is our work on mission, and how well are we achieving our vision?

It’s not that Builders dont’ see data as important, it’s just that Vision, mission, and core values come first.

So let me illustrate the difference. Here’s how a leader looks at data.

They start by drilling down the data and looking at student performance data (and by the way, leaders look at performance data almost to the exclusion of any other kind of data. We’ll talk about that in a minute.)

They look at test scores and see who is proficient or above and who is not proficient and who is on the “bubble.”

Then they look to see where the district or state says their scores shoulld be. Then they set a goal to make up the difference.

And that’s how we get school goals like We will increase the number of students who are proficient in reading by 12.5% by 2021.

Or we will increase the number of students who score at or above proficiency to 65% by 2020.

Here’s the problem with goals like that. Every time you set a goal that doesn’t include 100% of your students, you are planning for some of your students to fail.


But when percentages or data sets determine your goals, it’s pretty easy to set goals like this because you only see the number, you lose sight of the kids those numbers represent.

Here’s how Builders use data to determine their goals.

They start the conversation by revisiting their core values, their mission, and their vision for their school.

They ask themselves, are we truly and consistently living out our core values every day? Is the work that we are doing still true to our mission? How close are we to achieving our vision for 100% of our students?

THEN, they turn to the data to answer those questions.

The data tells them how well they are living out their core values and where they are off the mark. The data tells them whether they are doing work that is on mission or whether they are wasting time on work that is not serving students. The data tells them whether or not they are keeping their promise to 100% of their students, which students are they not serving, and where they are falling short of their promise.

In other words, the data tells Builders where their biggest constraint is that is getting in the way of their achieving their vision, staying on mission, and living out their core values.

After they have examined the data and determined where their biggest constraint is at the moment, Builders then develop a 90-day plan to address that constraint. And the way that they monitor their progress is to monitor the data that revealed the constraint to begin with.

So instead of goals like increasing the number of students who are proficient in reading by 12.5% or getting the number of students who are proficient or above to 65%, Builders use data to create goals like this:

So that we can live out our core value of rigorous thinking, In the next 90 days, we will create rigorous unit plans so that every student in our school is engaged in rigorous acquisition, application, or assimilation every day in every classroom so that students can develop more critical thinking skills.

In order to achieve our mission of making this school a beacon in the community where students and parents feel invited and welcomed, every teacher will have 3 meaningful interactions with every parent of every student their serve by the end of the semester.

In order to reach our mission of 100% of our students reading on grade level by grade two and at or above grade level in each subsequent grade, in the next 90 days we will increase our time on reading from 45 minutes per day to 1 hour and 15 minutes per day.

Do you notice how each of those goals are anchored not in the data but in the larger vision, mission, and purpose of the school?

It’s really hard to be inspired by 12.5% or 65% years from now. But with short, 90-day goals anchored in your larger vision, mission, and core values, you can do something meaningful and then track whether or not it makes a difference. And you don’t have to wait until 2 or 3 years from now to see if what you are doing is working. In 90 days you should see movement in the data. And if you don’t, you have time to make adjustments so that you can start seeing data.

And here’s the thing. When you anchor in your core values, mission, and vision, your data MEANS something. It’s not just test scores and percentages; it represents your vision for yoru students, it represents your core values as a school community, it represents your purpose and mission for the work that you do.

It’s time we stop looking at data in a way that reduces students to test scores and percentages and start looking at data in a way that truly reflects the most important aspects of the work that we do.

Which leads me to the second difference between the way that Builders and Leaders look at data --

Builders Look at a Variety of Data

While Leaders tend to focus almost exclusively on student performance data.

The problem is, student performance data only tells a part of the story.

It tells you how students are doing on small set of discrete skills. But what it doesn’t tell you is how students are thriving in your school.

Builders are not satisfied with a few data points on student performance because they know that that information only tells a small part of the story.

For instance, student performance data may tell you that a certain number of your students aren’t reading on grade level, but it won’t tell you WHY they aren’t reading on grade level.

It may tell you that a certain number of your students are not proficient in math, but it won’t tell you what’s preventing them from being proficient.

Student performance data may tell you that a certain group of students are lagging behind the rest, but again, it won’t tell you why.

You know, one of my mentors once told me that there were different stages of understanding.

The first stage is data. 

That’s just the numbers. You can look at the numbers and still not understand the problem.

Unfortunately, much of the training we get around data stops here. We look at the numbers. We know our numbers. We can tell you what percentage of our students are proficient or above. We can even break the data down a bit and tell you this number of ESL students or this number of Asian students are at or above proficient. But beyond that, we really don’t understand what the numbers mean.

The next stage of understanding is Information. 

That’s data that is in a form that we can read it and understand it. That means that we can organize the data in some way. We create data walls and we create elaborate charts and graphs to help us see the trends in our data.

Again, it’s helpful in that we understand our numbers better, but we still don’t know what to do about them.

The third level of understanding is Knowledge. 

That’s when we look at the data and can start to determine the cause and effect.

And here is where most Leaders struggle. We can look at the data and even understand the trends. But we don’t know what to DO about the data. We don’t know why students are not at proficient. We don’t know why certain groups of students are performing below average.

So we make guesses. We see that students are not reading at grade level and we go looking for a reading program that will promise us test score gains. We see that students are not at proficient in math and we even see that their scores are trending down, but we don’t know WHY they are trending down. So we make an educated guess and choose a new math curriculum or spend more time reviewing basic skills with students and HOPE that this will impact their scores.

What Builders do is they look for cause and effect in the data. They don’t just look at student performance data. They look at a variety of data and see if they can detect causality.

The way that they determine that is that Builders put lots of different kinds of data in CONVERSATION with each other.

Sure, they look at student performance data. But they put that data in conversation with school climate data -- and I’m not just talking about those end-of-the-year climate surveys either. Builders look at all kinds of climate data like attendance data, suspension data, the number of students who are involved extracurricular activities, student surveys. And Builders conduct student focus groups and parent focus groups and teacher focus groups to collect QUALITATIVE data that helps round out and explain the numbers.

Builders also look at observational data, from how teachers are teaching in the classroom, to how students are behaving in the halls and on the playground and in the lunch room. They are paying attention to EVERYTHING.

And then,

instead of looking at each data point in isolation, Builders are looking at all the data together. 

For instance, one of my mentors was working with a school whose vision was to get every student at or above proficient in reading by second grade.

They spent weeks pouring over the student performance data and talking to parents and students looking at climate data and they determined that when students spent more time reading during the school day, they performed better on benchmark tests.

So then they started observing to see how they could increase the amount of time students spent reading each day. The school was in a place that was really cold and the second grade classroom was all the way at other end of the building. After observing for a week, here’s what the team noticed.

In the morning, it would take students about 15 minutes to undress from their snowsuits and boots before they were ready for instruction. Because it took so long, about 15 mintues before recess, the teacher would stop instruction so that everyone could suit up and make the long walk to the front door in time for recess. And then after recess, it took another 15 minutes to make the long walk back to the classroom and undress.

So you know what the administration did? They didn’t buy a new reading program and they didn’t ramp up benchmark testing, and they didn’t grab any of the other quick fixes out there.

The only thing they did was move the second grade classroom right next to the front door.

And in the process they bought an additional 30-45 minutes of reading time each day for students and guess what? Scores went up.

I’ll tell you another story. One of my first consulting clients was a school that was looking to increase their AP scores especially for students of color who were often under-represented in honors and GT courses and therefore under-prepared for AP classes.

We poured over these students data. We looked at their grades and their PSAT scores and their benchmark test scores and could not figure out how to help them increase their passing rate on the AP test.

Then, one day I was observing an AP class while students were doing practice AP test problems. I noticed that the students were not completing all the problems in the time alloted because many of them were getting stuck on one problem and not moving on.

When we asked students why they weren’t just skipping the question and moving on, the students told us that they were afraid they would be penalized for skipping a question.

Well the AP test at the time actually didn’t penalize students for skipping questions but DID penalize students for giving the wrong answer.

So we taught students how to skip questions. We actually practiced skipping questions in class as a part of their warm ups.

Guess what happened. Their test scores went up.

And we would have never figured that out if we had only been looking at student performance data.

That’s why Builders look at multiple sources of data. They don’t just want to know the numbers or even the trends. Builders want to try to understand causality and then, what’s more, they want to over time develop the wisdom to be able to know WHICH cause to work on or which cause and effect relationship is important.

That way they can make sure that their work is productive and they are actually seeing gains in the data over time.

Now there’s one last difference between Builders and Leaders that I want to discuss today and that’s this...

Builders Look at Leading indicators, while leaders focus on Lagging indicators

Leading indicators are like canaries in the coal mine. They tell you the first sign of trouble so that you can actually respond and address the issue before it’s too late.

Lagging indicators simply tell you what has already happened but they give you no opportunity to do anything about it.

For example, every spring students take a battery of tests that tell you how well they are progressing in reading and math.

You don’t usually get the test results until the end of the school year. So the best you can do is try to adjust things for next year and hope they make a difference on next years’ scores.

Those test scores are lagging indicators. They tell you that something has already happened. 

Leading indicators are different - they tell you that something is about to happen so that you still have time to fix it.

For instance, Benchmark testing can be used as a leading indicator. It can tell you where students are headed so that you can intervene early and get students on the right track.

Formative assessments are leading indicators. They tell you which students are making progress and which ones are not so that you can intervene with struggling students before the summative assessment.

But there are other leading indicators that we ignore. For instance, is there a connection between your attendance data and student performance?

Does your suspension data signal something deeper happening in your climate that needs to be nipped in the bud?

One of my favorite Leading Indicators is student focus groups. In fact, Student Focus groups are one of my favorite data sources period.

Basically student focus groups are where you meet with 12-15 students and you ask them a few questions to get a sense of how students are doing in school.

I won’t go into the exact steps to doing a focus group now but if you want me to cover those steps in an upcoming podcast, let me know in LinkedIn and I’ll do it.

Suffice it to say, the students tell you the real deal.

They tell you what’s really going on in the school.

I’ve had students tell me that the reason that they weren’t doing their homework was because the text book was too heavy to take home on public transportation. So we changed the text book and homework completion increased.

I’ve had students tell me that the reason they weren’t taking notes in class was because they didn’t know how. We taught them how to take notes and their performance increased.

I’ve had students tell me that the teachers were spending way more time on their phones than teaching. We couldn’t see this during observations because the teachers would perk up when we walked into the classroom.

So we addressed the issue with teachers and student classroom behavior improved.

I’ve had students tell me that the teachers were “phoning it in” each day. The students knew that they weren’t really planning. So we instituted common planning times and rigorous unit planning templates and followed up with teachers and guess what, teaching improved and so did student achievement and discipline.

I’ve had students alert me to bullying issues before they became epidemic. Students have given me the heads up on safety issues before they became headlines on the news.

I could go on and on.

The point is, pay attention to the leading indicators in your school so that you have a chance to catch and fix things before they become serious problems.

There is not much you can do after the fact. But if you pay attention to leading indicators, you actually have a chance to intervene early and improve your outcomes for students.

I suppose that’s the main difference between the way that Builders and Leaders use data. Leaders look at data first, they look at a limited number of data, and that data is mostly focused on lagging indicators instead of leading indicators.

Unfortunately, that puts you in the position of always reacting to problems that come up rather than proactively preventing problems in the first place.

Builders on the other hand lead with their core values, mission, and vision. They don’t let the data dictate what they should be doing each year. They set their course and use the data to help them reach their goals.

Builders look at a variety of data. They go beyond just looking at student performance data although that’s important. They also look at climate data and observational data to round out the picture and make sure that they are working on the right things to help them reach their goals.

And Builders look at leading indicators instead of lagging indicators so that they can get out ahead of problems and nip them in the bud early before they have a chance to hurt student performance or wreak havoc on their school culture.

And remember what my mentor told me about the levels of understanding?

You start with data but just having the numbers is not enough. 

Then you move to information which means reading the data and noticing trends. But that’s not enough.

So you move to knowledge which means understanding the cause and effect relationship among the data so that you can focus your work on the right things instead of wasting your time working on things that will not affect your student outcomes.

But there is another level to which Builders aspire and that’s wisdom. Wisdom is where you can look at the cause and effect relationships and determine on which cause is the most important to work first.

And this is where Builders really excel. Because Builders are driven not by data but by their core values, mission, and vision, they can stay laser focused on the right work and not get distracted by things that won’t make a difference to their students.

You see, when you let data drive your work instead of informing your work, you are a slave to the numbers. But when you let your vision, mission, and core values drive your work, data becomes this powerful tool that helps you stay focused, track your progress, remain on course, and realized HUGE gains for your students.

Core Values, Misison, and Vision first. Data second.

And that’s how you use data #LikeABuilder

Now, before we go, 

Don’t forget to get your ticket to Builder’s Lab 2019. If you want to find out how to get your people on board and moving so that you can still reach your goals THIS year, even the resistant nay-sayers or the people who are just plain stuck, then you need to come to Builder’s Lab 2019. Just go to www.mindstepsinc.com/builders-lab and get your ticket now.

And, let’s make sure that we’re connected on LinkedIn okay? Find me at Robyn Jackson and let’s connect!

Also, I would love to know what you think about the podcast. Would you please go to itunes and leave me an honest review? Not only would it give me incredible feedback, it will help others find this podcast as well.

And speaking of finding this podcast, if you’ve been served by this podcast, would you please share this podcast with someone else? I would count it as a personal favor if you would.

Next week...

Ok, so next time. Originally I was going to talk about procrastination but I’m going to put that topic off until another episode. That’s because I just got back from the ASCD confererence and I noticed a few things there that kinda gave me pause and by that I mean, it kinda bothered me. So next time, I am going to talk about how to engage in professional development #LikeABuilder.

Bye for now. See you next time. 

Thank you for listening to the School Leadership Reimagined podcast for show notes and free downloads visit https://schoolleadershipreimagined.com/

School Leadership Reimagined is brought to you by Mindsteps Inc, where we build a master teachers.