Stories are the primary means by which education changes. John Heintz studies the impact of stories in improving education. Based in Shanghai, John Heintz runs an education strategy consulting firm Second Rail Education. Recent interviews with Chicago educators remind us how, despite the power of data, the power of narrative continues to rule the classroom. 

On opening day every year, school heads spend more time recounting success stories than charting statistical successes. Data retreats, all the rage a decade ago, have disappeared from the landscape. Why despite the influx of data do school leaders continue to tell stories more than review data?

Teachers are down on data reviews because they see little relevance to their work responsibilities. After recent discussions with Chicago Public Schools educators, the need is coupling insights from the data with staff empowerment.  

Chicago teachers and administrators explain why most data retreats don't work. 

  • The City of Chicago doesn't establish a stable school calendar with a set number of instruction days. Fall semesters are shorter than second semester by two weeks. Ten days’ less instructional time impacts the reliability of course data for fall and spring semesters. Data reviews rarely consider actual instruction time, so even for reviews of subsequent fall semesters, without consistent instructional time, comparisons offer little additional value. 
  • Advanced Placement exams are in May on the same day every year. Schools with more instructional days before those exams have a competitive advantage over schools that start later in the fall and get two or three fewer weeks of instruction before the AP exams. Given the importance of AP, correctly setting the school year calendar is a far easier fix than finding themes in the data regarding absences, which is a typically data retreat topic. 
  • Sufficiently standardizing all sections of a course in order to gauge relative effectiveness in the data necessitates time alignment of courses offered each semester. Semesters of unequal length signal de-prioritization of course standardization. 
  • In schools making last second changes to instructional time such as the negotiated furlough days of a year ago, the impact on instructional time is even more variable making data comparisons in the relatively small data sets reviewed less meaningful. 
  • Data reviews rarely result in organizational adaptation. Policy, resource and governance changes developed in the wake of data reviews are critical signals to teachers and school leaders of commitment to systemwide improvements. 
  • Finally, one art class may have 8 students, and the same course later in the day will have 50 students. Unpredictable class numbers and structures mean more on-the-fly instructional planning. Business people understand this. Business likes predictability because you can plan for it. The same is true in schools. Teachers will tell you that Art 1 with 50 students in not the same course as Art 1 with 8 students, no matter now brilliantly teachers manage them. 

Fixing the scheduling system that creates such imbalances is, to school-based faculty and leaders, much more important than reviewing data identifying macro issues like increased or decreased test scores. Factors outside the control of building-based educators, like scheduling the school day and years calendars, are more likely to impact test scores than classroom-based factors. Data highlighting needed a student intervention, such as a math student stuck on the quadratic formula who needs, as an example, an hour with a tutor, needs the resource and support follow through to ensure those interventions happen. Teachers know they hold responsibility for children success without the budgetary and resource authority to provide needed individual interventions. 

Good school leaders know the power in changing that story. Improved faculty and administrative empowerment reaps sustained rewards. That’s why first-day-of-the-school-year meetings are usually aimed at motivation and empowerment over student growth scores or attendance rates. 

School leaders who empower teachers and administrators with the freedom to review academic challenges broadly and intervene with funded resources when necessary help students more than any data-driven measures typically on offer in most schools. 

Watching what happens on the first day of each school year is a great way to assess what school leadership values. Most schools start the year trying to motivate teachers, to get them to change the story from the previous year. Most day ones are loaded with motivational speakers, tear-jerking success stories and inspirational cheerleading. Stories predominate, and it’s the best approach for school leaders. Motivating employees works.

John Heintz and the Second Rail team provide this resource to aspiring and practicing educational leaders.