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Thursday, March 31, 2016

Predicting Rain - Building an Ark: The Importance of Data

This is one piece of a continuing series of posts on school improvement reflecting my professional experience. I had prepared this manuscript for publication but time eluded me. The blog posts advance in time and concept in book-form beginning with the Blog post on March 21.            

                                           Data Base 
“Quality is determined by the customer.” 
(David Osborne and Ted Gaebler, p. 166) 

Data Gridlock 
     The size of the population of students, together with the frequency that we administer tests and measure everything else, produce an incredible amount of data for schools. We calculate average daily attendance, identify per pupil expenditures, count the number of library books, monitor student grades, figure the ratio of students to computers, and wrestle with who knows what other potential intervening variables.  
     Pouring through the labyrinth of details to explore hypotheses can drive one to drink. Perhaps that’s why there are two different stories about drunks that come to mind whenever I think about the challenge of examining the myriad data confronting school leaders. 
Drunk with Data 
     One evening as I walked home I was startled to find a man, obviously under the influence of alcohol, down on his hands and knees scouring the ground beneath the glow of a street lamp.  
     “What are you doing?”  I asked. 
     “Looking for my keys,” he replied. “Will you help me?” 
     I accepted the invitation out of sympathy and spent the next few minutes searching in the light of the lamp. Finally, out of frustration, I asked the drunk, “Where do you think you dropped your keys?” 
     “Over there,” he said, and pointed to a spot in the darkness thirty yards away. 
     Exasperated I asked, “Then why are we looking for them here?” 
    “Because,” he said, “There’s no light over there!” (Senge, p. 61) 
Robert Waterman, in his book The Renewal Factor, summarized a common abuse of data in this statement: “We use data like a drunk uses a street lamp; for support not illumination.” (Waterman) 
Let the Mission Drive the Data 
     Data can intoxicate you with the power and strength of numbers, figures, and charts that potentially pack as big a wallop as several shots of fine whiskey. Schools need to be driven by a mission communicated in language that inspires people to pursue a commonly held vision of success associated with teaching and learning. Data should therefore be utilized to illuminate the route to the desired vision. The inability to clearly agree upon a mission results in acting on data that may not be directly related to the school's real purpose.  
Keys to the Data 
    Tom Peters refers to the process of such misguided plans as SWAG: a Scientific Wild Ass Guess. (Peters and Austin, p. 16)   
     The keys we are searching for are the keys to effectiveness in schools. And we won't find them looking in the dark. Light must be shed upon the vision and mission so an appropriate data base can be developed to create benchmarks along our journey, much like the mile markers beside long stretches of highway that inform drivers of their progress.  
     The first step in constructing an appropriate database is crafting a mission and relating it to an accepted vision. This beacon will allow us to differentiate between necessary data and confusing, inconsequential data. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once remarked "It's like drinking out of a fire hose, there's such a flood of information." (Rowan, p. 41)  
     In an environment rich and fertile with data we must conscientiously weed out extraneous, bureaucratic intangibles that grow wild with results and instead cultivate appropriate information that yields opportunities. 
Predicting Rain vs. Building an Ark 
     Louis Gerstner, as CEO of IBM, expressed his view on reforming public education as follows; “To turn our public schools around, we need to adopt that legendary Noah principle: No more prizes for predicting rain. Prizes only for building arks.” (Perry, p. 42) Educators have been consumed with wrestling with everything that can be measured in an effort to “predict rain.” It’s time to invest in building arks. The authors of Built to Last put it this way, “… visionary companies tend to be clock builders, not time tellers.” (Collins and Porras, p. 23) 
On a Journey in Search of the Right Data 
     Thus far we have talked about the importance of vision and mission. Now we begin the process of how we expect to get to our desired state. It’s not unlike the safe way to plan a vacation. Such a time for enjoyment should not be left to chance.  
     First, when planning your vacation, determine what your mission is. Do you want to relax, visit family and friends, attempt a challenge or learn something? Create a vision and imagine where you can best experience your desired activity. Reaffirm where you want to go and why you wish to go there. This is especially important if others are accompanying you. Next, schedule the trip at a time that will maximize your experience. Now, assemble your data and make sure your resources will support the trip as a viable excursion.  
    Collecting data assists in our journey. Napoleon once said, “Imagination rules the world.” (Maxims) That may be true, but without a careful plan you can experience a disappointing trip that borders on the agony Napoleon encountered on his ill fated expedition to Russia that met a chilly end during the infamous Russian winter.  
     Appropriate data serves the same purpose as mile markers along the highway of a lengthy trip. It gives you a frame of reference regarding progress toward your goal. These benchmarks are reinforcing reminders of where we are, how far we’ve gone, and how much longer we have to go.  
     We often appear to exhaust our energy analyzing facts and figures in a journey that parallels the quest for the Holy Grail. Someone once described the misdirected optimist as a person who continues to dig through a large mound of horse manure in search of the pony that must be around somewhere. This pilgrimage to piles of paper serves to placate public skepticism or satiate the appetite of state education officials but may not lead to exposing patterns that will impact our business.  
     Roy Rowan, author of The Intuitive Manager, claims that “Research is more of a confirmation tool than a discovery tool.” (Rowan, p. 97) Peter Drucker echoes this point in Managing the Non Profit Organization when he states, “Most of our current reporting systems don’t reveal opportunities; they report problems.” (Drucker, p. 13) 

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