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How Principals Can Use Data to Inform School Improvement

Schools across the country are increasingly investing in data collection and analysis tools to drive improvement. Accurate, targeted data can shape improvement plans for school and district leadership, teachers, students and families.

As central members of school leadership teams, principals can benefit from data-informed decision-making. Principals make decisions that shape a school’s culture, support the staff and improve student learning outcomes. School principals trained in effective data use for school improvement can provide data use guidance to school staff and collaborate with others to improve their schools.  

Given a principal’s central role in shaping school improvement, the national standards outlined by the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) require principals to lead schools using knowledge and data. Data can help principals plan and execute school improvements in many ways, and there are several different approaches to vision-driven school leadership. According to the NAESP, data can aid in a range of meaningful ways, including measurement of student progress, program effectiveness, allocating resources and maintaining educational focus.

Using data to guide improvement of schools has been a mandate for more than fifteen years. Yet, surprisingly few pre-service or in-service programs focus on building the necessary skills to use data strategically.

The online Master of Education in Educational Leadership – Professional Track from Southeastern Oklahoma State University focuses on applying and understanding data to inform a leader’s vision for school improvement.

Establishing New Best Practices

The program offers a course focused entirely on principal leadership that allows future principals to gain experience in data-informed school improvement. EDAD 5483: The School Principal course uses the framework of a school improvement plan to train candidates in administering, developing, evaluating, implementing, communicating and planning data-informed approaches to guide and collaboratively share their vision as they lead their schools and seek improvement. This course familiarizes students with targeted improvement based on focused data collection and analysis.

Data-informed approaches to leadership need to be targeted, focused, valid and reliable. If data isn’t valid and reliable, or if school leaders aren’t asking the right questions, data is significantly less helpful in shaping school improvements.

To collect the right data and ask the right questions, principals need a variety of vision-driven, data-informed leadership approaches and techniques. Dr. Alex Bowers of Teachers College at Columbia University argues that principals need graduate programs offering courses that focus more specifically on current methods in data analysis and application of data to facilitate school improvement.

According to research on usage of data to improve schools, one of the most influential factors in principals’ choice of leadership approaches is familiarity. Leaders are simply more likely to use data in ways they already understand.

Therefore, principals need training and experience in multiple areas of data-informed decision-making, especially since a 2017 study found that less than 19% of principals surveyed indicated high levels of focused professional development opportunities in their districts. Programs like SOSU’s online Master of Education in Educational Leadership offer potential principals the knowledge they need to bring vision-driven, data-informed approaches to school improvement.

Learn more about Southeastern Oklahoma State University’s Master of Education in Educational Leadership – Professional Track online program.


Academic Commons: Quantitative Research Methods Training in Education Leadership and Administration Preparation Programs as Disciplined Inquiry for Building School Improvement Capacity

ACT: Principals’ Use of Data: An Executive Summary

Illuminated Education: Six Steps for School Leaders to Use Data Effectively

National Association of Elementary School Principals: Professional Standards

Variquest: How to Analyze Student Data and Drive Growth

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