Below is a reflection on part 3 of Margaret J. McLaughlin’s book called, What Every Principal Needs to Know about Special Education as an assignment for my EDL 277 course, Current Issues in Special Education Administration, at Drake University.
In section 3 of McLaughlin’s book, McLaughlin begins by reminding the reader about the importance of making educational decisions based upon sound research and empirical data. This desired state is in stark contrast to the current reality of educational decision-making found in many of our school systems today.
Given the sheer volume of decisions that educators make on a daily basis, collecting data prior to every decision would be time-consuming and inefficient. Instead, systemic constraints force us to rely on our intuition and previous experiences to make quick decisions best serve the interests of our students and stakeholders. As we gain experience, we are able to more capably make these decisions. This is why experience is so invaluable in education, whether it is in the classroom working with students or in leading and managing a system of education as an administrator.
However, we must not completely abdicate our responsibilities as educators. Some decisions are simply more important than others. These critical decisions ultimately shape the course of our entire system; therefore, they must be made on the basis of sound science as opposed anecdotal hunches and best guesses. The loudest voice in the room should come from the data, not the person.
Often, our data tell a story and reveal a path forward we hadn’t considered. However, discovering this path requires discipline and a refusal to let emotion and ego be the sole drivers our decision-making. By remaining unbiased, objective, and open-minded, we empower our data to inform and drive our decisions. In doing so, we can identify areas of leverage that act as key drivers in our system. If we can improve in these leverage areas, our entire system will become stronger.
Making sense of our data is also important. Too many people receive too little training on how to properly analyze and interpret empirical data. In addition, often fail to consider how reliable the data really are. There are so many factors that influence the legitimacy of the data. For example, to what extent are the sample data representative of the entire population? Were the samples randomized? Were the proper variables controlled? Was the sample size large enough? Are the differences statistically significant? Are the data repeatable? Were the researchers unbiased in their data collection? How variable are the data?
It can be easy to be data-rich, but we must not overlook the value of quality over quantity. It’s not about how much data are collected. Instead, it is really about how well the data can be used to inform our decisions. Decisions based on invalid data are just as bad as ones made with no data at all.
Lastly, assuming we have reliable and valid data, what then will we do with it? The decision may be obvious at times; however; sound decisions made on the basis of quality data often suffer from poor implementation. Leaders cannot overlook that value of building consensus and engaging diverse stakeholder in collective decision-making. No one person can do it alone and often more voices can shape better ideas. When people are a part of an objective decision-making process that happens with them instead of to them, they are much more likely to share a collective commitment and sense of urgency regarding the decision itself. This will ensure that the implementation of the decision is just as great as the decision itself.
- McLaughlin, M.J. (2009). What every principal needs to know about special education. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.