Good data can be extremely useful when making decisions, but bad data can quickly lead us down the wrong path.
In our increasingly high-tech world, the volume of information and data we have access to can be both a blessing and a curse. It has become so much easier to collect data, whether it be student records, financial results, or community surveys, but we can often become overwhelmed by the volume of information we have and therefore lose sight of how it can best be used. We can also become afraid of data. Does it make us less personal? Less concerned about our culture and mission? More like the public sphere where executives are obsessed with key performance indicators? Where “customer” experiences are standardized with formulas?
For Christian schools, data should always help accomplish three goals: achieve the school’s mission, provide the best possible experiences for stakeholders (students, staff, parents, donors), and promote long-term sustainability. Keeping these goals in mind helps inform both the types of data schools collect and how they use the data they have.
Why collect data in the first place? Isn’t it enough that we talk to our staff and students and have regular parent meetings? While personal communication with stakeholders is always important, relying solely on this type of feedback is dangerous. Unexamined assumptions based on anecdotal evidence can be costly when they lead to decisions that are not based on reality. World-renowned economist Roger Brinner famously stated, “The plural of anecdote is not data.”
Data-informed decision-making requires intentional planning and follow-through. It is important to articulate and communicate the objectives of the data collection: what challenges are we facing and what questions do we need answered to respond to those challenges? Developing a systematic approach to collecting data also ensures that accurate data is collected from the right people at the right time and in turn communicated in the appropriate way to the appropriate people.
Careful data analysis is also crucial for informed decision making. For example, the SCSBC school benchmarking reports provide an excellent source of financial performance indicators and comparisons to other schools. However, the reports come with the caution to understand the story behind the numbers before making quick decisions based simply on ratios and percentages. Once those stories have been taken into account, financial benchmarks can help schools make informed choices with respect to tuition, staffing, compensation, and other program expenditures.
Surveys also involve some important considerations: the length of the survey, the clarity of the questions, the response scales used, and the number of open-ended questions can all impact the quality of the data collected. The timing of the survey is also key. For example, sending out a 30-minute staff survey during report card time may not generate the thoughtful responses needed. Likewise, parent satisfaction and exit surveys should ideally be sent at the same time each year so the data can be analyzed for trends from year to year.
Survey data itself can be dangerous if we don’t understand how representative it is. It is important to interpret both numbers and comments carefully, looking for statistically sound conclusions from the figures and emerging themes from open-ended answers. Data should also be put into the context of current events. For example, responses to a question about tuition rates may be affected by a recent announcement of tuition increases. Lastly, we need to consider whether the survey data confirms or contradicts the information we have from other sources.
Communicating what we have done with the data is a critical final step in the process. Integrating our conclusions into the school’s decisions and practices demonstrates visible use of the information and therefore builds trust among stakeholders for future data collection. Each survey question sets an expectation that something will be done with that answer, so we shouldn’t ask questions that we don’t plan to act on.
Good data can be extremely useful when making decisions, but bad data can quickly lead us down the wrong path. Determining how to collect the right data, critically analyze it, integrate it thoughtfully into our practices, and communicate the results, are all key steps in ensuring that data is a useful tool in helping schools achieve their mission, provide excellent experiences for all stakeholders, and improve long-term financial and program sustainability.
SCSBC Director of Finance