Developing an Intentional Mindset About Data

Winter 2018

By Saber Kahn, Linda Vasu

Schools have become massive repositories of data, regularly collecting data from employees, students, and families. A new generation of independent school leaders concerned about mission sustainability, equity, and inclusion have begun to embrace a culture of data, using it to make informed strategic decisions. And though many schools appear to have embraced the current era of “data-driven metrics” and “measurable outcomes,” what this means may be unknown to many school constituents and stakeholders. Data has become something of a buzzword, and, as is often the case with buzzwords, they tend to lose meaning when used in association with disparate agendas and philosophies. When we hear the word data, it can be difficult to understand what it means and what purpose it serves. 
Data itself is not the problem. Once it has been collected, often by different departments, it can seem to enter a black hole. School leaders may not know exactly what the school collects and all the ways the data can be used to make decisions. Having an intention about it is critical. We should be asking these questions: How is data used? What story does it tell? What story does it not tell? Whom does it serve? Who controls it? Do we need it? For example, we collect information on academic achievement and typically use it for marketing and college admissions purposes. But how might we purposefully design a system using such data to increase access to high-quality education for underrepresented students? 

Fundraising and development data are often narrowly assigned monetary values. How might we design a system to imagine new possibilities for giving? The ubiquity of digital learning has opened classrooms to surveillance by technology corporations. How might we design digital communities and our own homegrown networks to better reflect our values, especially in regard to privacy? How might we use small data to improve teaching and learning? 

Answering these important questions requires schools to have a philosophy about data. School leaders must deeply understand their goals and agendas. Data is often used to promote or substantiate certain ideas as insight—truth—over others to guide institutions toward certain behaviors. Even the tools we use guide the types of data we can collect. And as digital tools become essential for most of the processes, the data can change hands in unforeseen ways. We need to consider the implications of this change in how we work. 

Schools need to develop an intentional, thoughtful process for the collection and use of data to guide policy and instruction. Useful data can support schools in becoming more equitable institutions, raising institutional awareness of students’ academic and social-emotional learning, and preparing schools to meet emerging challenges revealed by the data. 
Author Dialogue
Q Saber Khan: When do you think about using data in your work? When is it actually serving a use or purpose, rather than a catch-all for innovation or a panacea for what is wrong with education?

A John Botti, head of school, Browning School (NY): In school life, particularly in small communities, so much anecdote can get reified as canonical. And I think in those instances applying data to something which is held as institutional truth is really smart. For example, when a comment like “fifth grade—that’s where the math gets really hard” passes into conversation, and before you know it, the hallways have determined that we’re trying to prove Fermat’s last theorem with 11-year-olds. That’s where data comes in. Let’s look at, for example, what our GPA trajectories show us. What does the quantitative average homework load show us? There are ways that data thickens the conversation. Just as quantitative data shouldn’t stand on its own, neither should qualitative reportage.
Q Khan: So this sounds like a scientific approach, where you have hypotheses that you want to test before making decisions?

A Botti: That’s right. I think this is within the liberal arts tradition. Let’s use all that can be used to make a healthy decision. And I think schools, societies, governments will get themselves in trouble when they determine that there is only one lens through which something should be seen. Data—or quantitative analyses—are important tools that can be synthesized with other tools to give us a more robust picture of what we’re trying to do and where we might hope to go.

Small Data, Big Picture

The word data is often used to suggest utopian silver-bullet solutions to a myriad of problems, wherein the enterprise of schooling the whole child can be lost. To use data meaningfully, a school needs to be guided by its mission and its values. Instead of looking for a single solution to complex situations, schools should look to data to help reveal a more complete picture. Instead of big data, we can use small data to tell the stories. Small data connects people with timely, meaningful insights, often derived from big data, that is organized and visually packaged to be accessible, understandable, and actionable for everyday tasks. For example, in a school, this is a data set that can be collected from a schoolwide survey or focus group and stored on a laptop. Small data is human-centric and tells an authentic story that provides insight and allows for an action plan.  

Small data can be used for instructional purposes and curriculum design to support students and track the development of the skills that teachers value. For example, in weekly grade-level meetings to discuss students of concern, faculty members often cite test grades and calculations recorded in digital gradebooks. This numerical can be meaningless unless it provides a learning portrait of the student’s capacity for critical thinking, abstract reasoning, problem solving, and the competence to write effectively using the lens and terminology of the subject. Faculty members recognize that they need to “see the person” behind the data. 

Rather than data sets referring to GPA, forward-thinking faculty would like to be able to measure performances that foster a growth mindset and social-emotional aspects related to academic progress. Calculating numerical grades is easy; creating a data set that measures habits of mind is the challenge. This means devising new forms of performative assessments to measure character strengths, social and emotional intelligence, and the cognitive skills and dispositions associated with focused engagement, working memory, entrepreneurial approaches, and the motivation to embrace challenges with efficacy and zest. In an ideal world, data sets that measure schooling as a collaborative enterprise centered on individualized progress and success, in addition to standardized aptitude and academic performance, would be used to gauge and adjust the complex relationships that support student learning and teacher instruction. 

Author Dialogue
Q Khan: Is there quantitative or qualitative data that you wish you had as it relates to your school? 

A Botti: As someone concerned with the well-being of our kids, I would love to have more data around how much sleep our boys get and more accurate data about how heavy a homework load they carry. I would love to really dig in deep on questions like, “Does the hour of the day that a test is given affect performance?”
Q Khan: How do you see the rest of the community seeing the data or understanding it? How do you tell that story? 

A Botti: For me, data is the beginning of the conversation, not the end. Having it doesn’t negate the necessity of one-on-one human interaction, but it can really establish a more sophisticated framework and a collective body of knowledge we can all pull from and be fertile ground for conversation. So, for example, were we to find that some of our boys are sleeping five hours, we would ask, “What do we think this means? Do we think this is important? If we do, what do our values say we ought to be doing with this information?”
Q Khan: So the data would help you ask questions that would lead to discussions and consensus?

A Botti: If data is used as a cudgel to force through an agenda, I’m not sure that’s congruent with the way in which I think a school ought to operate. But if it’s a provocation, that’s really useful.

The Vector of Data

In many of our attics, there are boxes of traditional, predigital “data” about our kids and ourselves. School transcripts, report cards, teacher comments, drawings, papier-mâché sculptures, cardboard cutouts, collages, textbooks, annotated books, notebooks, essays, reports, poems. They form a data trail and portrait of our learning profiles. These artifacts/data points are not owned by a school, a website, an app, Google, or the cloud. In the predigital days, students could carry away their own data. 

In the current era of digitized data, the information creates a different kind of portrait, one that is “owned” by a third party, one that can possibly be misused, misinterpreted, or expropriated. Further, the data often offers a more narrow, numbers-only view. Can the numbers “lie,” misrepresent, or distort? Yes, in ways that are familiar, for being incomplete, for serving hidden agendas, for being ignored, for all the reasons we know. So how can we not use numbers when collecting the qualitative data that tells the story of a learner? How can we drive privacy in the data, and allow students to maintain rights to privacy, management, and ownership of their data? How can students take their learning profile with them as they graduate and move on to college and careers? How can we help students manage this?

Until recently, these questions about privacy rights and ownership have often remained unanswered when data is collected. But we need to be more thoughtful and intentional about addressing this. Can students ask for their digital records when they leave a school? When and how do records get deleted in a timely fashion? Who is responsible and liable for the security of data collected? There are no universal solutions; rather, solutions are found at the local level and are grounded in reflection and consensus-building. 
Author Dialogue
Q Khan: In diversity statements, which can be a little bit more forward than mission statements, there are commitments and values that are, in some ways, more measurable—you can count the number of people of color at our school, you can count the number of students on financial aid. How does data work in that field for you? 

A Botti: I think this is an area where data can be misused. Data can always be misused—sometimes it conceals as well as reveals. If we cash out diversity in solely quantitative terms, then we’re ignoring half a century’s worth of learning around what it means to have diverse, inclusive, welcoming, equitable schools. This is where, as with mission, data can be a starting point for conversation, but it cannot be the endpoint in conversation.

If I have 50 students, and 20 of them identify as color, it gives me a number. But it doesn’t tell me nearly enough about the spiritual state of the school, about the social state of the school, about the cultural state of the school, about how things like equity and inclusion are welcomed, understood and lived in that school. And so, yeah, it’s easy to marshal data to end a conversation on that, and I think—as with mission statements—it’s easy for schools to become complacent. We made our numbers, as it were, and that gives in to a kind of pro forma check-the-box circumstance, which is unworthy of any school that is trying to be inclusive and equitable.

A Lens on Equity

Schooling is at the center of the struggle to desegregate the country and end the disenfranchisement of African-American and other marginalized communities. Independent schools have played a role in keeping a system of de facto segregation possible in an age when de jure segregation is not permissible. From “segregation academies” that grew in the South in response to Brown v. Board of Education to the current underrepresentation of educators and students of color, independent schools continue to contribute to maintain a system of unequal opportunity in this country. Independent schools need to recognize ways that they are complicit in maintaining white privilege, a topic long discussed since Peggy McIntosh’s landmark 1996 paper on unpacking white privilege.

Privilege accumulated in service of self-preservation and maintaining hierarchies goes against the goals of a deep and engaged education. This is another area where the collection and exploration of data can help create a common body of facts that can help start difficult conversations. While data alone will not help independent schools free themselves of the awful history of segregation in this country, it should combine with the good understanding of history and commitment to taking on challenging problems at
the highest level. An intentional study and a philosophy of data will give our students a more equitable view
and context and a deeper understanding of social access, opportunity,
and responsibility.

As pathways to college, independent schools must make a commitment to steps that address issues related to socioeconomic disparities. One of those steps is the thoughtful collection of data on the academic outcomes of marginalized communities. Sharing and using that data to ask questions can help a community of engaged educators attempt innovative approaches to seemingly intractable challenges. A school that is faithfully living out its mission and diversity goals is using data to understand the context of where, when, and how it exists. It needs to relate its purpose and mission to the students and larger community by offering access and financial aid to students from every socioeconomic background. Beyond that it needs to meaningfully engage in being part of the effort to make access to opportunities more equitable for students and their families, in supporting them to learn advocacy skills to successfully and proactively navigate the independent school landscape. A thoughtful use of data can help us get there. 
Author Dialogue
Q Khan: How can we navigate the pitfalls of the larger, more public school story, where data, accountability, and testing have become the sort of hot topic that people can’t seem to navigate well? Is there a better way for us?

A Botti: I think the answer is yes. One of the advantages that a smaller or a mission-driven institution has is that a mission statement or value commitment can show you not only how data can be used but what the limits of those data are. If values help frame the story, you can say this piece of data or this choice about data isn’t really relevant to our circumstances, or actually might take us away from where we want to be. I think it’s using analytics to tell part of the story—but not the entirety of the story. If we think that one thing is going to tell us all the story, we are misunderstanding what education is, and frankly, I think, how humans experience the world.

Creating True Independence

Data is a worldview. When we say data, we should think about what this view values and what it privileges. Data is a lens through which an independent school can signal: “Here is where we are, here is what we value, and here is the area where we want to grow that will be most impactful for our learners.” In fact, the adjective “independent” in relation to school can mean unfettered and free to create healthy, meaningful, empathic relationships in a connected network that serves students, families, neighborhoods, society, and ultimately the greater good. This independence necessitates a commitment to a diversity of approaches that supports all students from every socioeconomic background, fully preparing them for their future as global citizens. Creating equitable institutions is the salient task of forward-thinking independent schools. A thoughtful collection and use of data in combination with a set of socially responsible, lived values can help us broaden the possibilities and stake a claim to authentic independence.

Background Reading

The following materials offer additional contextual information that can enhance our working knowledge of data, big and small.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Goalkeeper’s Report 

The University of Melbourne’s Pursuit, “Asking the Right Questions of Big Data in Higher Education”

From Data to Action: A Harvard Business Review Insight Report

McKinsey & Company, “How to Improve Student Educational Outcomes: New Insights from Data Analytics”

NYU’s Applied Psychology OPUS, “Positive Emotions and Academic Achievement”
Hechinger Report, “New Advances in Measuring Social Emotional Learning” 

EdSurge, “Mining Educational Data By Inventing Apps for All to Use”
Hack Education, “Student Data is the New Oil: MOOCs, Metaphor, and Money”

Saber Kahn

Saber Kahn is associate director of technology a The Browning School in New York City.

Linda Vasu

Linda Vasu is an upper school English faculty member and director of the Center for Research, Teaching & Learning at Sacred Heart Greenwich in Connecticut.