Improving student performance is more dramatic when school leaders employ systemic analytics. Despite continued emphasis on systemic approaches to school improvement, schools struggle to use data and information in a manner consistent with systems thinking. Systemic thinking requires an holistic approach, one that focuses on the total school system by examining and understanding the interrelationships of school system components. This is in contrast to the typical approach to school improvement, which often focuses on “finding the broken part and fixing it”. The success of a systemic approach is demonstrated every day by schools focused on analytic processes that identify systemic strategies to drive performance.
Improving student performance requires changes in assessment practices, and adoption of more complex and systemic data analysis and decision-making tools. Currently, most schools follow “fix it” approaches to school improvement, often in the form of data team meetings or data retreats where teachers and administrators inductively slice and dice data and pore over assessment item analysis to develop a “silver bullet” in the form of a SMART goal. This approach is inherently non-systemic in that it encourages educators to focus on isolating a specific component of the district’s curriculum.
Just as the food we eat shapes our bodies, the data and information we focus on shapes our thinking. Systemic approaches to school improvement require schools to move beyond digging down in the data, and begin flying above the data so that patterns and relationships within the data emerge, and productive dialogue over the influences of larger systems can take place. Often schools drive data team meetings by focusing on isolated questions such as “What are our areas of strength and weakness in reading performance?” Instead, systemic approaches focus on questions such as “What do the relationships among our achievement, program, financial and stakeholder data tell us about the effectiveness of our structures to deliver high reading performance?
The challenges for local school districts to make this transition are both cultural and technical. Adopting systemic approaches to school improvement requires a commitment at all levels of the school system, from the board of education to teachers in the classroom. Boards of education must commit themselves to focus on macro strategic planning and governance. District level administrators must align school improvement processes and personnel evaluations to the district strategic plan, and align the district’s data and information infrastructure so that teachers and administrators continually review information that is systemic. Ensuring consistency of systemic types of information that boards of education, administrators and teachers focus on will align classroom, school and district learning targets and action plans, which can have dramatic affects on student performance.
Adopting systemic analytic models is challenging. Local Growth Models based on multiple measures provide a promising approach. Local growth models are value-added growth models built at the local school system level upon the existing assessment foundation and practices of the school district. If developed well, such models can align the information structure of school systems by providing a rigorous, defensible, yet simple model to connect and integrate student achievement, program, financial and other data. Local growth models provide a single model to identify at-risk students, establish individual student growth targets; link student performance to teacher and administrator evaluation; and document return on investment for programs and interventions.