Evidence-Based Practice: The New Language of Leadership

Prior to the enactment of the federal No Child Left Behind ACT (NCLB) school boards and the broader school community defined the superintendency narrowly by the leader’s ability to manage fiscal, physical, and personnel resources.  NCLB’s emphasis on academic achievement and school accountability began shaping a broader definition of school leadership that was far more student-outcomes focused.   The more recent educational reform efforts such as the federal Race to The Top (RTTP) initiative broadened the definition of school leadership further by promoting research-based and continuous quality improvement practices. This trend continues to shape the role of the superintendent as the chief facilitator of school system practices to ensure alignment toward what truly matters for students.

Information as Evidence

Evidence-based practice requires access to meaningful and credible information about a system’s performance. Information is among leadership’s most effective tools, and when used strategically, can be a catalyst for productive and lasting change. Effective leaders must rely on accurate and relevant information to raise important questions and promote an evidence-based culture to support decision making. Despite wide acceptance among school leaders as to the importance of accurate information, many leaders still describe their organizations as data rich and information poor®.

A Disciplined Approach

Evidence-based practice is a disciplined and scientific approach to generating information in the form of evidence about an organization, its performance, and even its future. By systemically connecting and aligning the school systems data, its methods of inquiry, and its reporting, leadership can focus an organization’s energy by aligning information and knowledge to the strategic goals and objectives of the school system.

Systemic information that connects boards of education, administrators, and teachers aligns classroom instruction, school improvement, and district priorities, and can have a profound impact on student outcomes.  Yet, in an era where school systems are digesting more data, leadership continues to starve for the right information needed to build an evidence-based culture and to drive student outcomes.

Systems Thinking

Just as the food we eat shapes our bodies, the data and information we focus on shapes our thinking. Evidence-based leadership requires moving beyond data disaggregation, discouraging digging down in the data, and promoting a more systemic perspective more akin to flying above the data so that patterns and relationships emerge, and productive dialogue over the influences of larger systems can take place.

The key to evidence-based leadership is asking the right questions. Instead of asking “What are our areas of weakness in grade 5 reading?” ask “What do the relationships among our achievement, program, financial and stakeholder data tell us about the effectiveness of our structures to deliver and sustain high reading performance?

Evidence-based Practice

Creating an evidence-based culture requires a commitment at all levels of the school system, but most importantly from the CEO or Superintendent.  Only the Superintendent can align the board of education, the various administrative offices, and the teachers in the classroom and challenge the system to answer difficult questions and to test its assumptions. Superintendents must align the district’s data and information infrastructure to the district’s strategic plan, and focus the dissemination of information so that:

  • Boards of education review evidence on the impact of the strategic plan and evidence of return on investment;
  • Administrators review evidence of the impact of school improvement goals, programs and personnel;
  • Teachers review evidence of student learning related to their student;
  • Students and parents review evidence of individual student progress.

Connecting and aligning various pieces of information under a common evidence-based framework promotes performance excellence and supports accountability.