Getting More Excited About Using Data


Edie L. Holcomb

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  • Copyright


    This book is dedicated to my husband Lee Olsen, because he is totally dedicated to me.

    List of Figures


    Data! Data!! Data!!

    Few leaders and teachers in schools, and administrators at district office, have not been besieged for several decades by the topic of data and its use in district, school, and classroom improvement efforts. Nonetheless, the matter of educators using data with meaningful knowledge and effective efficiency and skills remains another matter. Developing such content and skills requires more than the typical daylong workshop or a faculty meeting devoted to the topic.

    More recently, schools have been pushed in the direction of standardization and one size fits all. Most assuredly, if performance data are collected from and about individual teachers and students, we become aware of the vast differences across these populations—and the levels to which they are able to perform well in their respective roles. Employing the use of data to this problem is widely understood but not so well demonstrated.

    Fortuitously, yet again Edie Holcomb in her third edition has engaged her exemplary skills in creating a significant new volume—Getting MORE Excited About USING Data. This third volume conveys for us rich new ideas, understandings, and insights in providing the culture, content, and processes that lead our data use to increased teaching quality and enhanced or expanded outcomes for our students. We have a moral imperative to use data tools and strategies well, to powerfully support improved classroom practice.

    There is no one more critical of a body of work than the author herself. In the years since the second edition on the topic, Holcomb has given the scissors to some of the earlier strategies for engaging data for improvement purposes, while expanding and introducing more current topics and their applications.

    She has given us a rich array of new ideas, materials, and activities whereby district and classroom data practice are more powerful and productive. I am particularly, but not exclusively, drawn to a number of these:

    • New material on issues of morale such as teacher sense of efficacy, individually and collectively across the school, and cultures of trust, critically important for adults and connected by evidence to student learning. This links directly to the next four:
    • More inclusive leadership and its various models, including descriptions of Shared Leadership Teams, Data Teams, and use of data in these groups
    • Increased attention to the role of students, and engaging them with their own data
    • Identification of technological advances that facilitate use of data
    • Use of data to differentiate professional learning and development among and within schools

    These are but a few of the new additions. Like all new ideas, processes, and practices, they are of no value unless carefully planned and consistently implemented. To emphasize this issue, a few findings from change process research can inform us.

    A simple axiom frames this work: improvement requires change learning. Improvement (of any kind, whether it is increased competency in teaching “new math,” singing a newly published hymn, computing long division, throwing complete passes on the football field, making a yummy chocolate angel food cake) requires change of some feature or factor that is not contributing to a factor potentially more effective and learning what the new factor is and how to use it.

    This means that much learning about data use will be required, including its multiple kinds for multiple purposes, when and how it is collected, and other related issues. Research on implementation identifies six strategies (Hord & Roussin, 2013) required for successful implementation:

    • Create a shared vision of the change (in this case, using data) when it has been integrated into practice in a high-quality way. This means knowing with precision and being able to articulate what the use of data will look like in its desired environments. Holcomb provides multiple real-life examples in words and figures so readers can envision powerful data work.
    • Plan for implementation and its required resources based on the vision. This plan provides clear, explicit, and orderly steps for reaching implementation. Budgets, time, staffing, material, and human resources will be considered. Collaborative planning conversations with staff are done by wise leaders. This third edition adds protocols and guiding questions for those critical conversations.
    • Invest in professional learning. The enormous value of this learning is reflected in the term invest. This learning is provided on an ongoing basis as novice implementers develop expertise in using the innovation, the new way of doing things. Getting MORE Excited About USING Data describes skills and concepts needed by data users as they shift their focus from compliance to commitment.
    • Monitor progress. Learning facilitators (coaches) will observe and interact with each implementer to determine his or her status in implementing the vision (noted in strategy 1). Holcomb emphasizes the need for proactive identification of sources that will generate evidence of both implementation by the responsible adults and impact on the learning environment and learning results for students.
    • Provide ongoing support and assistance. Monitoring and supporting are like the proverbial hand in glove. There is little reason to monitor without addressing what the implementer needs as revealed in the monitoring. Holcomb provides useful guidance about appropriate support for skills, time, technological resources, and professional learning provided by building and district administrators.
    • Create a context conducive to change. While the first five of these six strategies are implicitly sequential, this strategy covers all and should be present before implementation begins. If this culture or climate reflected in the five strategies already cited is not present, it must assuredly be cultivated and developed as new practices are being implemented. Getting MORE Excited About USING Data can be useful for diagnosing cultural factors such as beliefs and structures and creating readiness for attention to data that leads to change.

    In this context conducive to change, participants must celebrate—in large and small ways, publicly and privately, both individual and collective progress. This action is so often forgotten but is a powerful “intervention” and motivation for the implementers.

    Powerful also describes Holcomb’s current gift to us, Getting MORE Excited About USING Data, which is so helpful for us in learning about this topic. Such learning can be accelerated through employing this volume, so well developed and presented. Engage your team with this book so that your data use becomes a powerful means to improved practice and successful student learning.

    —Shirley Hord, PhDScholar LaureateLearning Forward


    In the seventeen years since the first edition of Getting Excited About Data, I’ve heard the word data described in various ways as dangerous, threatening, “the dreaded D,” and even “the four-letter D word.” I’ve found two other words to be far more risky: always and never. I eventually learned to avoid always because as sure I would say “I always use data,” someone—usually a friend or family member and in jest—would say something like “Then why do you always buy red cars even when you know the data about odds of being pulled over?” (Because candy apple red makes me happy and I like to beat the odds.) I’ve had more trouble avoiding the word never. There was “I’ll never leave the classroom [to be a principal] because I care too much about the kids” and “I’ll never leave the building level [for central office] because I don’t want to lose touch with kids” and “I’ll never work at a university because it’s too far from kids.”

    More recently, working with a school leadership team, a teacher leader who was checking something on the Internet blurted out, “What?! You’ve written these books? When are you doing the next one?” “I’m done writing . . . (aka never).” Two days later, in another school, a team member said, “This was a classic example. You should put us in your next book.” “I’m not writing books anymore . . . (aka never).” Before the day was out, I got an e-mail from Corwin asking me to consider writing a third edition. The idea kept growing on me, so when I talked with editor Arnis Burvikovs on the phone, I agreed to at least pull my thoughts together on what I would change if I did revise the second edition. During that “think about it” time, I accidentally went to the wrong file cabinet looking for some tax information and found my hand on a folder labeled “If Data 3e.” So at some point, I must have already been thinking about things I might want to add—or subtract. And I began.

    Why Another Book

    So why this third edition? For one thing, in the past year, professors preparing principals and principals leading schools have said, “My students reference you” and “I still use your book to help me.” It seems there’s still value in a simple, straightforward approach to the challenges of sharpening our practice by checking the facts about our realities and our results. For another, over the last decade of working with professionals at the district, school, and classroom level, I’ve come across unintended negative consequences of a few of my earlier recommendations, and I value the chance to set the record straight. As a third reason, I’ve struggled alongside educators bombarded by external mandates that have actually detoured them from the most important work and mission of our schools. The expectations I set for professionals are just as high as they have been for two decades, but my empathy for their reality is even higher. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has been replaced, and I want to reflect on its impact—leaving most, but not all, of it behind. Finally, as I reread the two previous editions, they seem aimed mostly at administrators, though that was not the intent. I am a passionate believer in shared or distributed leadership as the only way new practices can be implemented and sustained. I am reviewing and rewriting portions of earlier work and adding new content with a deep desire to convey that and how it is critical for individuals at all levels of an organization to kindle the excitement for continuous improvement based on real evidence of results.

    What’s New Here in the Third

    The most enjoyable part of rewriting this book was the chance to delete so many passages that reflected the increasing sanctions of NCLB and replace them with newer, more exciting, more educator-friendly material. Connections are made to ESSA, the Every Student Succeeds Act, and its potential to restore energy for the real mission of our schools. But it has left its scars, and one of my greatest hopes in writing anew is to help educators heal and renew hope. To that end, here is what this edition provides:

    • Frequent references to changes in the law and their potential to redirect our focus and improve our outlook
    • Realities of how NCLB affected teachers—from fears of sanctions on their schools to use of test scores to evaluate their performance and in turn threaten their employment, which for most is also their mission in life
    • New material on tender morale issues—teacher sense of efficacy individually, collective sense of efficacy throughout a school, and cultures of trust—critically important for the adults and linked by evidence to student learning
    • Identification of technological advances that facilitate use of data, along with needed steps to counter the realities of threats to privacy and security
    • A more inclusive approach to discussions of leadership—shared, distributed at all levels, drawing on personal influence as well as position power
    • Refined descriptions of the work of Shared Leadership Teams and Data Teams, with an entire new section on the use of data in Teaching Teams
    • Attention to the concepts and balance of formative, benchmark, and summative assessments and their appropriate uses in schoolwide planning and instructional design
    • Increased attention to the role of students—resurrecting other sources of data that reflect the whole child and engaging students with their own data
    • Updated sources of best (evidence-based) practices
    • Redefined roles of the central office in support of schools
    • Use of data to differentiate professional development among schools and individual teachers and the positive impact that teacher evaluation rubrics could provide
    • New tools for team productivity, including the use of norms and protocols
    • Current case studies from a diverse set of schools not present in former editions
    What This Book Is Not

    Even with the new material, there are still a number of things this book is not.

    This is not a statistics book. The uses of data recommended in this book require the ability to count, calculate averages and percentages, and construct simple graphs. Students who meet the sixth-grade Statistics and Probability standards of the Common Core State Standards would be able to assist with the data work discussed here. Regression formulas and correlation coefficients are omitted. Here, the term significance isn’t represented as p < 0.05. It refers instead to what the school defines as significant—that is, as important, relevant, and useful to know.

    This book is not comprehensive. If psychometricians describe this book as simplistic and basic, we will know we’ve been successful. There are legitimate reasons why most educators are uncomfortable with the use of data. The purpose of this book is to raise comfort and interest levels so readers will become ready, willing, and able to explore more sophisticated uses of data. My intent is simply this: to meet people where they are and help them take their next steps forward in this standards-based, data-driven age of accountability.

    This book is not bureaucratic and impersonal. Reading it and implementing its recommendations won’t turn anyone into an accountant or auditor. Its purpose is to affirm and build on the nurturing nature of teachers, adding the support of objective information to their usually accurate professional intuition. Stories from the trenches illustrate how the use of data can stimulate greater sensitivity to the needs of students, not turn them into faceless numbers.

    This book is not a quick fix for the achievement gap. Almost every chapter highlights some equity issue I have experienced myself or encountered in schools and districts—urban, rural, and suburban—in over thirty states and several countries. These experiences began over forty years ago, when I taught in an Alabama school that had just experienced forced desegregation, and my class of third graders spanned eleven reading levels. The experiences became even richer some thirty years ago, when I became principal of a school with racial and socioeconomic diversity. The state Department of Education came to conduct an audit of our Title I program, because the fall-to-spring normal curve equivalent gains we reported were suspect. The gains were validated, and state officials described our elementary school as “the best kept secret in the state.”

    More recently, I worked with urban schools in Seattle, Washington, including those with a majority of students of color, large numbers of English language learners (ELLs), and 70 percent or more qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches. I learned with pride that the best of classroom teaching and assessment most dramatically impacts challenged learners and accelerates their progress. I learned with frustration that schools most in need of stability and sophisticated instructional expertise suffered constant teacher turnover due to rigid salary schedules, seniority-based transfer policies, and the sheer enormity of the task at early career stages. I learned with humility that I needed to partner with leaders of color, because learning cognitively, listening compassionately, and becoming culturally competent are not the same as “knowing” the realities of the achievement gap. In this book, I share what I can say with confidence from my own experience and observation. And I embed findings from organizations like the Center for Educational Leadership (CEL) and the Education Trust, who relentlessly pursue the mission of gap-closing.

    This book is not written in jargon. For this book, I have intentionally chosen a casual, conversational style. My purpose is to use plain English to describe simple things that have created interest and opened doors with real people. Because these activities have helped my colleagues and clients, I hope you will find them useful also.

    What This Book Is

    The purpose of this book was captured in the subtitle added to the second edition: Combining People, Passion, and Proof to Maximize Student Achievement. Collecting more data for the sake of having more data is an exercise in futility unless it engages people by connecting to their deep and authentic passions for teaching and learning. People who work incredibly hard because they care need the proof of their efforts to encourage and sustain them and to help them gain the respect they so deserve. The goal is not to be a more research-based, data-driven school. The goal is to increase student success.

    The focus of Getting More Excited About Using Data is the human element—hopes and fears, prior knowledge, beliefs about student potential and professional practice, and current needs. This book offers a variety of tools and group activities to create active engagement with data and interaction with peers that will build more collaborative cultures with a shared sense of collective responsibility for all students’ learning.

    How This Book Is Organized

    The previous edition of Getting Excited About Data was organized sequentially. It began with a knowledge base and rationale for data use, followed by discussion of barriers to use of data that are embedded in the reality of school life. A synthesis of research on how high-performing schools use data was introduced. It is updated here in Chapter 1, and Figure 1.5 (p. 17) guides you to the chapters that provide more detail and examples. A school improvement framework was provided at the beginning, and ensuing chapters discussed how data would be used and people engaged at each significant stage in the process: creating readiness, gathering baseline data, displaying the data and interpreting the results, establishing priorities and setting goals, studying best practices that would address the goals, planning and monitoring implementation, and documenting the bottom line impact on learning.

    From my point of view now, the field doesn’t need another school improvement planning guide. Things are way more complicated than following a series of steps. A greater need is for an honest look at the barriers faced by committed professionals willing to courageously confront their reality and challenge themselves and their colleagues. But such people do not focus on barriers; they focus on possibilities. So the third edition has been organized around factors that help people get excited about using data—or interested anyway—or at least willing to look. For readers who are anxious to look at data use in the context of the school improvement process, it’s still here, somewhat condensed in Chapter 7, with references to related sections throughout the book. For readers who are just seeking ideas and support to ignite data use, read Chapter 1 as a foundation, and then start with any chapter that resonates with what you hear, see, and experience in your own setting. It’s easier to get excited about data when it fits your beliefs, when it feels safe, when you’re not in it alone, when you see faces in it, when it’s easy to get, when it fits a bigger picture, when it helps save resources, when you can do something about it, when you have time to deal with it, when you have appropriate support, and when it shows you’ve made a difference. There’s a chapter to help address each of those conditions. Each chapter includes related concepts and background information, activities that may engage you and your colleagues, and at least one real-life “for instance” example.

    NCLB may be replaced, but the critics of public education are not silenced. For public education to survive—and it must because it is the last, best hope for success for so many young people—all schools and districts must develop the will and skill to gather, display, analyze, interpret, make decisions, and take action with data. We must be able to tell our stories and state our case not just for the outside world but so that we can strengthen the faith, the fervor, and the force within us by focusing on our own proof that we have made a difference.


    Thank you to Shirley Hord for being my personal friend and mentor over these many years—and for impacting our entire profession through your vast body of work on the change process, professional development, effective schools, the role of central office, and professional learning communities of continuous improvement and inquiry,

    Thank you to my friends Kathy Crossley, Gloria Tuggle, Sharon Green, and June Rimmer. These brilliant, courageous African American educators have intersected my life, generously shared their journeys, and patiently forgiven my shallow understandings. You are my angels of conscience.

    Thank you to my coaches Judy Heinrich and Kathy Larson. You have both sharpened and softened my judgment and decision-making.

    Thank you to the late Dave Pedersen, who compensated for my technological inadequacies in previous editions. Through his role with instructional technology, he worked to close the digital divide for his students and initiated a scholarship fund to support others to continue his mission.

    Thank you to Beth Wallen, Cara Haney, and Emily Coleman of Panther Lake Elementary School in Kent, Washington. Your determination to make data work for your staff and students will inspire many.

    Thank you to Darren Benson, principal of Blaine Middle School in Blaine, Washington. Your journals helped chronicle a multiyear story of change for many who need to know that small steps and persistence will win the day.

    Thank you to Matt Jensen, Brenda Clarke, Amy Bessen, and Bridget Martel of Bigfork School District in Bigfork, Montana. Your voices from the district, school, and classroom speaking in harmony assure us that collective responsibility and efficacy can cross all levels.

    Thank you to Arnis Burvikovs and Desirée Bartlett at Corwin. Your patience reenergized my passion for this work.

    Thank you to countless educators—including you, the reader—who pursue equity and excellence for our students, constantly challenging and checking yourselves . . . with the data.

    Publisher’s Acknowledgments

    Corwin gratefully acknowledges the following reviewers for their editorial insight and guidance:

    • Jane Chadsey, Vice President
    • Educurious
    • Seattle, WA
    • Eva Kubinski, School Administration Consultant
    • American Indian Student Issues
    • Special Education Team
    • Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction
    • Madison, WI
    • Pamela H. Scott, Associate Professor
    • Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis
    • East Tennessee State University
    • Johnson City, TN
    • Megan Tschannen-Moran, Professor of Educational Leadership
    • College of William & Mary
    • Williamsburg, VA
    • Jennifer Wilson, Third Grade Teacher Leader
    • University Park Elementary
    • Denver, CO

    About the Author

    Edie L. Holcomb has experienced the challenges of improving student achievement from many perspectives: • From classroom teacher to university professor • From gifted education coordinator to mainstream teacher of children with multiple disabilities • From school- and district-level administration to national and international consulting • From small rural districts to the challenges of urban education She is highly regarded for her ability to link research and practice on issues related to instructional leadership and school and district change—including standards-based curriculum, instruction, assessment, supervision, and accountability. Edie has taught at all grade levels, served as a building principal and central office administrator, and assisted districts as an external facilitator for accreditation and implementation of school reform designs. As associate director of the National Center for Effective Schools, she provided training and technical support for school improvement efforts throughout the United States and in Canada, Guam, St. Lucia, Hong Kong, and the Philippines. She led development of a comprehensive standards-based learning system in the Seattle, Washington, school district and has supervised K–12 clusters of schools and evaluated principals. Edie received the Excellence in Staff Development Award from the Iowa Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) and the Paul F. Salmon Award for Outstanding Education Leadership Research from the American Association of School Administrators. She served as an elected member-at-large on the Leadership Council for ASCD International and as a mentor in Learning Forward’s Academy. Since retiring from full-time work as executive director of curriculum and instructional services for Kenosha Unified School District No. 1 in Wisconsin, Edie has served as senior consultant with the University of Washington Center for Educational Leadership. Her work also includes coaching with principals and school leadership teams. Holcomb is the author of eight previous books and numerous articles and reviews.

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