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Being Brian: Nine questions to guide decision-makers

Posted Date: 02/08/2022

Being Brian: Nine questions to guide decision-makers

When I was a young principal, I remember collaborating with a veteran superintendent from another district. He made the statement, “In God We Trust, all others bring your data.” He was referencing the importance of data-driven decision-making. 

How can educational leaders use data with the upcoming decisions and challenges our school districts face? We know data is important. Our staff often discusses establishing district-level priorities through the strategic planning process with board members. Priorities establish a direction and key areas around which resources should be aligned. Part of establishing priorities is defining the metrics or data used to assess progress towards accomplishing outcomes defined within the priorities.  

Consider these nine questions to help make data-informed decisions. 

1. Who are the students we serve? 

Boards who understand the students they serve and educate are better equipped to achieve their goals. Demographic shifts influence the types of teachers needed and shape the programming offered or support developed.  

Your trends can reprioritize where you place resources or shift current policies and procedures. The following data sources can be used as you and your team work to develop a deeper understanding of your student population: 

  • Behavioral referrals within the district, and the demographics of students receiving these referrals – check with your district staff 

  • Percentage of students on Individual Education Plans, and the demographics of the students on these plans – check with your district staff 

2.  What are the implications of enrollment changes over the past five to ten years? 

Enrollment in a district must be viewed from multiple angles. Enrollment shapes programs, staffing, facilities and operations. Educational leaders can look at enrollment through “bubbles,” school site and courses. “Bubbles” or cohort groups may be a larger, or smaller grade level and move through your school system. Looking at enrollment by school site shows trends emerging or projected to emerge. Enrollment in courses can inform program offerings and staffing.  

Work together as board members and directors or district admin to better understand and determine how areas of need are defined and addressed. Consider using the following data sources as you and your colleagues seek to answer these important questions: 

3.  What is being done to improve students' performance as they progress through our system? 

Did you read this question and immediately think state assessment data? Gather data beyond the broad and frequently referenced assessments. Examine local assessment scores and trends to provide insights into the impact of current education programs or potential areas of realignment. Locally defined systems of assessments measure student growth throughout each year and from year to year.  

Learn the purpose of the assessments given and how data from these assessments are used to drive changes to meet student needs. Discussions around student performance can help a community and board understand how a system is evolving to the needs of students. Look at the following to help your student-performance discussions: 

4.  What is our state assessment performance, and what has impacted it? 

State assessments get a lot of press because they are accessible to the public. The data generated from these assessments are summative. Think autopsy vs check-up in terms of medical analogies.  

One example of common misuse of state assessment data is comparing a given year’s second grade to last year’s second grade. Each second grade that takes the assessment starts at a different level. Educators receive this data after a group of students have completed a grade level. So, what can our state assessments tell us? Our state assessment data can be a good indicator of how well the curriculum and instruction of that grade level aligns with the state standards.  

Instead of viewing state assessment data as a real-time indicator of current students, view the data as a factor of growth of grade levels of students throughout their education. Districts should see a larger percentage of students progressing to higher levels of performance if their intervention programs are successful with groups of students that have underperformed in the previous year.  

State assessment data is one piece of a larger puzzle of student performance data. Focus on the performance of grade levels over time, the performance of groups of students, and the growth of groups of students that have underperformed.   


5.  What are we doing to prepare students for life after high school? 

We want our students to feel prepared for whatever they choose to do next. The Kansas State Board of Education requires every student entering high school to have an individual plan of study (IPS) which includes interests, career-goals, and a map for their high school curriculum to support their strengths and assist in personal growth. In the Kansas State Report Card, each school district receives their post-secondary success data showing students pursuing career or technical opportunities after graduating from high school.  

Individual plan of study and post-secondary success data can be resources to align systems and programs centered around our students. Data generated from the IPS process can be used as a leading indicator to align pathways or courses of study to students’ needs. The post-secondary success data shows how well the system provided the necessary support.  

6.  How are the culture and climate supportive of student success? 

We’ve heard the anecdote that we only hear from stakeholders upset about a decision. How can we work together with our students, staff, school families and communities to determine if we are positive and supportive? A proactive approach to gauging the culture and climate of a school district is to utilize a broadly distributed culture and climate survey administered annually. The goal is to distribute this survey and follow up with transparent reporting and action steps to address any negative trends.  

Both positive and negative perceptions happen in any given year, so it is recommended the survey be administered at a consistent time each year, over many years to monitor improvement efforts. 

7.  What are we doing to support staff development? 

Improving the quality of instruction while reducing the variability in quality between classrooms is one of the quickest ways to improve student success. Ask questions about how quality is defined as well as how the staff is trained, evaluated, and supported to meet high-quality expectations.  

Syncing the needs of the staff with adequate time to collaborate and integrate new learning are the best ways to improve quality. Consider staff schedule, resources and needs when planning professional development. Use student data and information generated within school systems to help allocate the resources necessary in this area. 

8.  What are the staffing trends? 

One challenge many boards are facing is the recruitment and retention of staff. There are shortages across all areas of the education system. How can you address your staffing trends? Discuss information related to annual percent turnover and the stage of the career of staff. This helps define what could be addressed or to identify upcoming challenges. Data should be discussed at the district and building level if there are multiple attendance centers within a district.   

For example, if you see a building consistently hiring new staff due to transfers to other “desirable” schools within the district, revisit policies to address the situation. Churn at one building makes it difficult to develop and sustain consistent systems for supporting students.    

Other areas of discussion include reviewing comparison data related to salary, benefits, calendars, professional development opportunities, and other incentives. Around some board tables, the belief is just paying staff more will increase recruitment and retention like a magic wand. Compensation is important, but it is far from the only thing of high value for staff.  Feeling valued, having a voice, collaboration time, affordable housing, commute time and manageable job duties all factor into a person’s choice to work and stay with your district. 

9.  What are the capital investments necessary to provide the desired education? 

School districts are a multimillion-dollar investment by your community. The board of education has a responsibility to ensure this investment is well maintained and adequately equipped to provide the best educational experience possible. All the items that fall into this category have a life cycle. These life cycles are known, so planning should be done to account for the end of life associated with any given investments.  

Include continuous discussion on facility improvement plans, technology plans, transportation plans, and general costs of operation. Ongoing discussion surrounding funding, operations, implementation and maintenance demonstrate to the public that these expenses are the cost of operating a multimillion-dollar operation and avoid surprises to staff, boards and your community. 

Conversations centered around these nine questions provide clear priorities for your spring and summer budget conversations and strategic planning process. Click here for KASB data or contact Ted Carter at with questions. Contact KASB for support for your data-informed conversations.