What Does it Mean to be a Data-Informed Board?
By Ari Betof & Kelsey Vrooman
Greenbrier School, a PreK — Grade 8 school in Tennessee, had weathered several head transitions over the past decade but the board knew they finally found the right fit in Kate Thompson. Kate has served as head for the last two years. One of her first goals was to bring more transparency to the board in terms of school data. Working closely with her administrative team and board chair, she was excited to unveil a data dashboard for the trustees, including a section on the “Admissions Pipeline.” As she handed out the new dashboard, Bob Collins, a two-term trustee on the Finance committee, quickly noted the decrease in applications from 2020 to 2021. “Well, this isn’t good,” Bob declared, setting down his paper. “We can’t be losing students at a time like this. Clearly, we need to do more marketing…and the sooner the better!” Other trustees nodded their heads in agreement. “I heard Wentworth Academy just created a digital Viewbook. Maybe we could do something similar?” asked Carol Denney, Chair of the Governance committee. Other trustees began to chime in, offering examples of marketing strategies employed by other area schools. Before Kate could intervene, the board requested the admissions director provide a detailed enrollment and marketing update at the next meeting with ample time available for trustees to share their ideas.
The board was making a decision based on data, right? Not quite. Step back a bit and ask yourself: What data-derived PROBLEM is the board solving with their solution? Having observed a single, albeit troubling data point, do they know WHY the data appears troubling? And what other data might best inform them on this issue (for instance, admission yield rather than application numbers)?
While the concept of data-informed may seem simple, the process is actually quite complex. And as you will see below, the most vital part of mission-driven, data-informed decision making is seldom the data — it is the questioning derived from the data and the sensemaking conversation that results.
What is Data-Informed Decision Making?
The core purpose behind data-informed decision making is organizational growth. In order for organizations to continually improve, they must assess progress towards their stated goals. And to do that, they need evidence — something schools have in abundance, actually, but could learn to use much more wisely.
Input, process, outcome, and satisfaction data can all be used to determine an institution’s effectiveness. Input data might include school expenditures or student demographics, while process data could encompass financial operations, retention efforts, or the quality of the academic program. Outcome data may include student test scores, while satisfaction data might comprise the opinions of teachers, students, parents, and the community on school climate (Marsh, Pane, & Hamilton, 2006).
“[B]oards are already pivotal in the data-informed decision making process, whether they are aware of this or not. This is true because the north star of any such process starts with the mission, vision, and goals of the independent school.”
The push for schools to utilize data-informed decision-making in the public sector came from accountability measures such as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), Race to the Top (RTTT) and the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). When implemented well, data-informed decision making shifts the work of the organization from being reactive to engaging in a proactive process of development. At the classroom level, many teachers examine assessment data to identify student strengths and areas of growth in order to improve their own instructional practice. But how does this apply to independent school boards?
It may surprise you to realize that boards are already pivotal in the data-informed decision making process, whether they are aware of this or not. This is true because the north star of any such process starts with the mission, vision, and goals of the independent school. Data-informed decision making has no meaning unless done in connection with these aspirations — without them, we would be examining and evaluating data in relation to…what? Being driven by mission and goals, is the key to effective decision making.
“What is difficult for heads and boards to remember is that not all data is relevant. Without taking the time to first agree on the purpose … the information will not be as useful in decision making.
Assuming that your goals and objectives are clear, timely, and relevant, the next step is for boards to fully understand the value of mission-driven, data-informed decision making and how it can guide their work. The board must provide the necessary resources, such as professional development, to their heads of school and admin teams to prioritize and cultivate the skills of data sensemaking and reflection in their progress towards stated goals and objectives. The board should also model this mindset, using the mission as a guidepost for data collection, data analysis, strategic planning, and generative discussions. Continual improvement, learning, and accountability must be part of the board’s culture if it is to be reflected schoolwide.
What is difficult for heads and boards to remember is that not all data is relevant. Without taking the time to first agree on the purpose — what problem do we hope to solve and how will this data inform our plan of action? — the information will not be as useful in decision making. A key is to be intentional during the data gathering process in advance of needing to answer questions and then in how we make sense of the data related to school improvement efforts.
Let’s take a look at the case study above. Imagine that a head of school creates a data dashboard that includes student demographics, school financials, admissions, attrition, and family satisfaction. Most trustees would agree this is all important data for the board to have. But without a clear purpose or goal, trustees are left to create their own meaning of the data, and in many cases, look for problems and challenges that should be addressed. In this case, Bob quickly determined that declining enrollment is the problem to be solved, and increased marketing is the solution. But without taking the time to make sense of the enrollment data and the variables that impact it, the board has lost a critical learning opportunity and more importantly, the ability to make a well-informed decision. Quite often, the appropriate reaction to new data-informed knowledge is better questions, not solutions, and this also may involve bringing new voices to the conversation to apply available expertise strategically.
Even if the purpose of data collection is determined in advance, this does not guarantee effective or practical use. Data must also be analyzed and communicated in a way that is clear and comprehensible to trustees who often have limited understanding of the independent school context; this is a skill which needs to be developed and refined with practice. Ample time and support must be provided to develop a shared understanding among trustees of what the data actually means and what narrative is being revealed about the school. Too often, boards receive data and then jump straight to decision-making, rather than taking a step back to make sense of the data within the school’s context. Knowing this, board chairs and heads of school must ensure board agendas allow for these rich and complex conversations to occur.
It is important to remember that mission-driven, data-informed decision making is an iterative process. In their article Making Sense of Data-Driven Decision Making in Education, Marsh, Pane, and Hamilton (2006) explain, “Once the decision to act has been made, new data can be collected to begin assessing the effectiveness of those actions, leading to a continuous cycle of collection, organization, and synthesis of data in support of decision making.” Although we would advocate a pivot from a “data-driven” to “data-informed” lens, the takeaway remains similar. Mission-driven, data-informed decision making is not a singular or yearly event. It is a mindset, an enduring commitment to growth and development that will help ensure the long term sustainability of the school.
Key Considerations for Heads and Boards
1) Define the purpose for data collection — What progress are we trying to understand (i.e., what goals are we examining)? What problem are we trying to solve? What question are we trying to answer? Or what issue do we need to learn more about? Will the data we have available help us answer the question in front of us? What data do we need to collect to answer the next questions we will want to ask?
2) Remember, not all data is relevant.
3) However, data can help us identify trends over time that can inform both strategic and scenario planning, as well as generative discussions.
4) Have a plan to gather and analyze data. Data is more than just numbers; it can include qualitative sources such as interviews, focus groups, meeting minutes, and agendas.
5) Not all data are created equally, and some may be misleading. Particular consideration needs to be given to accuracy, precision, and bias (including unconscious bias). Data needs to be understood in context. Researchers use the term “triangulation” to describe the value of looking at more than one data source to promote trustworthiness of the data. It is necessary to examine more than one source of data to gain a deep understanding of a problem or challenge.
6) Trustees need to learn how to analyze and make sense of the data together, in order to form a shared understanding of what it means for the school.
7) Finally, recognize that mission-driven, data-informed decision making isn’t an event, it’s a disciplined way of making quality decisions. It is necessary to have regular assessment practices in place to determine how the board uses data to make decisions and if those decisions are effective.
Mission & Data, LLC specializes in supporting independent schools in developing or strengthening their mission-driven, data-informed decision making capacity. We coach and consult with school leaders and boards of trustees to make sense of the input, process, outcome, and satisfaction data that is available through existing channels and generate rich and generative new data sources such as stakeholder interviews and surveys. If you would like to know more about how Mission & Data, LLC can help your school, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Ari Betof, Ed.D is the Co-Founder and Partner of Mission & Data and a nationally recognized expert in independent school financial sustainability and organizational effectiveness. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Ari has been a sought after facilitator, including a featured panelist for Independent Schools on the Brink, a collaborative webinar co-hosted by 33 member associations across the country and guest on EMA’s Enrollment Spectrum podcast. He has served as an independent school trustee, head of school, director of institutional advancement, director of enrollment management, director of strategic planning, and faculty member. Ari has been an instructor in University of Pennsylvania’s PennGSE Mid-Career Doctoral Program in Educational Leadership and Leadership Master’s Program, a mentor in Harvard University’s School Leadership Program, and a faculty member in the NAIS School Leadership Institute. Ari earned his doctorate in educational leadership from the University of Pennsylvania and focused his doctoraI dissertation on financial and organizational sustainability of independent schools during the Great Recession. Ari is an executive MBA candidate in Cornell University’s Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management where he is an Emerging Markets Institute Fellow.
Kelsey Vrooman is the Co-Founder and Partner of Mission & Data and a skilled leader on the use of quantitative and qualitative data to improve practice in nonprofit organizations. Her data models and integrated dashboarding systems have been implemented in membership organizations, independent schools, and international schools. In her previous director role at the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), Kelsey led the implementation of the Jobs to be Done innovation framework, managed the design of Market View, a market data visualization tool, oversaw NAIS’s online professional development program, and partnered with the E.E. Ford Foundation and the National Business Officers Association (NBOA) on the Composite Financial Index. Kelsey is the co-founder of the Association of Technology Leaders in Independent Schools (ATLIS), the national association supporting school leaders on technology, data, and innovation. Kelsey has been a trustee and board officer for independent schools and organizations that serve the community, a director of educational technology, an instructional coach, and a faculty member. She received the Emerging Leader Award by the International Society of Technology in Education, was recognized as an NAIS Teacher of the Future, and holds degrees from Trinity University and Columbia University.