Main menu:

New Understanding: The Zen of data-driven decision-making

“Leaders of the past needed to know how to tell.
Leaders of the future will need to know how to ask.” – Peter Drucker

Schools across the country are diverting their critical resources of teaching time, focus and resources to collect “data” to respond to the questions of policymakers and others outside the classroom.  The pushback that NCLB has encountered is a consequence of that externally-driven question answering process.

These “outside” learning requirements are driven by needs to make appropriate, large-scale personnel and resource decisions that must support effective teaching and learning in classrooms, buildings, or districts.  Because of their quantitative dimensions these decisions are “risky.”  So, as society tries to respond to today’s changing educational conditions, the collection of data to feed their learnings have become the focus of major unquestioned, institutionalized processes such as testing, assessment, supervision, evaluation, and accountability with major information and reporting “systems” constructed to meet these “external” needs.  Without these, they feel they have no valid ways to get information they can trust.


With the current popularity of information explosions, information superhighways, knowledge management, and learning organizations, it becomes important to consider the particular power of one type of information.  Modern America has become a feedback-driven society.  On a daily basis, political candidates adjust their strategies depending on the previous night’s polls; economists rise and fall based on their interpretation of monthly economic feedback; modern managers constantly scan their operations to gather the data to “work smarter.”

Educators, too, as feedback-driven practitioners, have similar needs for continuous self-correction, and for support to modify and adjust their actions.  Unlike the rest of society however, their organizations lack adequate means to generate, make accessible, and use functionally that critical form of information.



There is something Zen (or Akido)-like in what MCPS did.  They turned the data-sucking force coming at them by taking control of the questions.

This switched the extrinsic accountability question from “Did they do what they said they’d do?” to the intrinsic: “Did we do what we said we’d do?“…. and if not “How do we improve the doing?

In a very short time, people at all levels of the system seem to have accepted the principle that the school system’s ongoing improvement efforts are designed to address Four Essential Questions that are driven by student performance data, but which are intended to develop understanding of why there may be gaps, and then what to do about it.

  1. What do students need to know and be able to do?
  2. How will we know they have learned it?
  3. What will we do when they haven’t?
  4. What will we do when they already know it?

This core of common understanding has effectively brought “continual improvement” out of the realm of a external strategy –to be deployed down the system — and made it an intrinsic part of the district’s work from classroom to boardroom.

This common language and base of knowledge now supports a common way of understanding, not just how to “improve” the district’s work, but the management of that work itself – which is instruction.

The rapid acceptance of this thinking framework may be explained by the fact that people are intrinsically wired to learn from their own actions, and these questions focus that learning.  That’s why the PDSA concept has become part of the common language used from the classroom to the boardroom.  Interestingly, they keep calling PDSA a concept they learned from Baldrige, …but the Baldrige people say they got it from Deming, …who said he got it from a mathematician named Shewhart… who claims he got it from John Dewey — the father of learning-from-experience.

Also, if one believes that the most meaningful “answers” have to be informed by those closest to the work, then MCPS’s experiences so far illustrate how a central organization’s power lies in structuring and extending the organization’s common questions, and providing common access to the “data” needed to develop situationally-appropriate answers.

This is the essential ingredient that the Baldrige–related planning process created. Along with its tools like the PDSA that served as a question-driving engine.

For MCPS taking control of the “data” has become a key learning organization strategy.  They are accomplishing this by institutionalizing the questions in processes.  They have creatively developed or adapted tools and processes that can generate the data and information people need to answer them.  And the consequence seems to be the desired results-producing changes in sustainable practice.

(see also – LEARNING FROM TEACHING: The MCPS as a System of Learners,
Essential Questions + 4 and Systemic Governance section.)

Write a comment