Two reasons why your team resists data.

-by Timothy (Tim) Grivois, Ed.D.

Right now, I’m working on a presentation on data for Youth On Their Own a nonprofit in Southern Arizona that supports youth without permanent homes to graduate high school. Like many of the schools, nonprofits, and government agencies I work with, data is at the heart of what Youth on Their Own’s leadership team uses to ensure that their strategies serve youth effectively.

Nevertheless, while data-based decision can support our work powerfully, many caring organizations struggle to make data part of their day-to-day conversations. In my experience, this happens when:

  1. Data triggers our inner critic.
  2. Data is disconnected from the work.

“Hello, Inner Critic”

Caring professionals possess a deep, personal commitment to those they serve. Generally, their desire to help students and clients succeed fosters an equally powerful desire to do their best work. While leaders want data to support their staff (unless that data is presented carefully), meetings about data typically have the opposite effect.

Frankly, data lacks tact. If 90% of students are supposed to be achieving some kind of goal, and only 87% of students meet expectations, data will only reveal unmet goals. This tends to trigger each staff member’s inner critic. When the inner critic has the floor, our inner dialogue tends to focus on blaming ourselves for failing our students or blaming something external for making our students’ success impossible.

Suggestions to regulate our Inner Critic:

  1. Measure growth parallel to summative outcomes. For example, if 90% of students are supposed to meet some outcome by the end of the year, report how students are growing towards that goal along with the number of students who meet the goal.
  2. Break down ambitious outcomes into manageable pieces. One way to do this is to think about how much growth different groups in your goal have to make. Arrange your data set in order and divide in half. Then divide those halves in half. Now you have four groups that your team can target more efficiently.

If your hunch is that you or your staff might be listening to their inner critic too closely, give me call and let’s talk through possible solutions. 

“Why am I tracking this?”

Teachers generally believe that team data meetings are a waste of time. School leaders typically believe that team data meetings are essential. (Gates Foundation, 2014).

The reason for this disconnect is that the data that school leaders want teachers to discuss often has little to do with what each individual teacher is working to accomplish in their classroom. If a district wants to measure how fast children can read fake words (a common assessment throughout the United States, if you can believe it), and teachers are interested in actual fluency and comprehension of text, we can’t blame teachers for their lack of enthusiasm in making instructional decisions based on word lists such as “kig,” “uz,” and “gix.”

Data matters when data connects–specifically, when data connects to the values that guide our work.

Suggestions for keeping data relevant:

  1. Replace team data meetings with individual data meetings. Right now, most PLC meetings are largely a waste of time. When teachers set their own achievable goals based on data that matters to them, they are more likely to plan instruction to help students meet their goals.
  2. Write your reasons. Whether the goal is shared or individual, each person working towards a data target should write down a) what they expect will happen when the goal is reached and b) what achieving the goal would mean to them and to those they serve. Having a vision for what happens when we achieve a goal and understanding what that goal means to us keeps data connected to our work.

One example of a data point that avoids inner critics and connects deeply and directly to each staff members purpose comes from Youth On Their Own’s Mini-mall. YOTO’s Mini-mall runs on donations from the community, and each donated food, clothing, or hygiene item is counted prior to entering the display area. Each youth visiting the Mini-mall knows they can take a certain number of donated items home, regardless of what the item is. The goal is for “items in” to equal “items out,” letting staff, board, and the community know that their donations support their intended clients. If the balance is too much one way or the other, the solution is clear: either get more stuff for youth, or get more stuff to youth. No critic needed, and the data connects directly to the day-to-day work of every staff member in the organization.

Building a healthier relationship with data begins when leaders acknowledge the presence of inner critics and work to keep data connected to the actual work. Call me or email me with your questions about data in your organization. I’m eager to help, and it’s always free to talk.

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