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Reflections on How to Lead RtI: Data-Based Decision Making

By: Dawn Miller, Ph.D.Published: April 3, 2012
Topics: Data-based Decision Making, Implementation Planning and Evaluation, Leadership, Professional Development


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Pick up any journal, pamphlet, or presentation that introduces people to RtI and one of the cornerstones that will be mentioned is data. While perusing the internet, I came across a quote that read “Culture eats change for breakfast” (James Hunt). Our education system has not demonstrated the strongest practices related to data-based decision making. I often say that when data have been used, it has been used “against us,” which makes it difficult to create a culture that embraces data.

When I think about the promises of RtI practices and the role of data, it is that we individually become more reflective of our practices and decisions based on data, that we collectively use data to stimulate important dialogue, and that we use the data to make important educational decisions. As the quote I share above suggests, we have a big tide to turn as it relates to data-based decision making. Part of turning the tide is to think through the messages we send and respond to concerns people have with the critical messages that are opportunities to turn the tide.

For this blog, I thought it would be helpful to share a small sample of things I’ve heard and messages I think need to be heard as we all have a part in leading RtI efforts. I’ve selected three “phases” of data as a framework. These include (a) understanding data, (b) using data, and (c) embracing data.

Understanding Data


One of the challenges with understanding data is to ensure that people understand the purpose for which the data are being collected. Within a RtI framework, we talk about four essential decisions: (a) screening, (b) diagnostic, (c) progress monitoring, and (d) outcome decisions. Further, when we make decisions about the data that will be collected, we have as a non-negotiable that the data system will have sufficient technical adequacy for the decision at hand. Over the years, here are some of the things I’ve heard (or continue to hear) and some of the things I think need to be heard related to understanding data:

What You Heard... What Needs to be Heard...
So, my experience doesn’t matter when it comes to the decisions now because it is all about hard data…
  • Your experience does matter.
  • The data we collect does matter.
  • It is our responsibility to create a solid understanding of both in order to know how to proceed.
Our curriculum doesn’t teach _________, but that is what seems to matter – does that mean I change what I teach?
  • With our screening and progress monitoring tools, the alignment is by the big idea, not individual questions or the format of the test.
When do I have time to teach?
  • The data we are collecting help us with our teaching.
  • Revisit required assessments versus those we choose to do.

Using Data


Creating a culture that has routines for using data is a great accomplishment. It is no easy feat to have an entire building at a comfortable level with describing and correctly interpreting data. Some districts and buildings have focused resources in this area and find that time and support is essential for this happen. Leading the judicious use of data involves creating and supporting well crafted decision rules and investing and respecting in the data review process. I have shared tools and experience related to facilitating data reviews in previous blogs. Leadership messages to reflect on, or discuss related to data use include:

What You Heard... What Needs to be Heard...
Those (DIBELS/AIMSweb…) scores just aren’t right – we haven’t even taught all those sounds yet...
  • Our screening measures aren’t mastery assessments.
  • Our screening measures should help us identify who needs additional assistance - are the students who you are concerned about identified as needing help?
So... if our oral reading fluency (ORF) scores are low, we should all talk about how to improve student’s rate of reading – yes?
  • With our screening and progress monitoring tools, the alignment is by the big idea, ORF is a tricky measure. Yes, we should be instructing on all components of fluency in our core – along with phonics, vocabulary, comprehension, and phonemic awareness.
  • Don’t confuse how we assess with what it represents.
What happened to just trusting our professional judgment?
  • Our professional judgments vary. “Trusting” one means not trusting another.
  • We are positioned to make stronger decisions when we seek to understand our judgments and our data.

Embracing Data


When breakthroughs happen with data, it is a beautiful day! When individuals or teams allow data to “be their friend,” some of the most powerful discussions and subsequent decisions provide me such hope and optimism in education. It is almost as if it becomes a turning point where people have a hard time being at the table moving forward with discussions when the data aren’t present, just aren’t clear, or are not telling the whole story. To me, embracing data positions individuals or teams to truly engage in problem solving. Yes, I’ve been in countless team meetings where we’ve problem solved, pretty decently, but it felt more like watching the first episode of Dancing With the Stars versus the final episode...yes, the couple worked hard to put a dance together that was decent, but it came nowhere close to looking like the grand finale.

What You Heard... What Needs to be Heard...
Let’s just keep the same goal as last year.
  • Setting a goal and reviewing the data is an opportunity for us, as a grade level or building, to share with each other what our aspirations are for the year and problem-solve systemic issues.
  • Going through the motions of a review won’t be very valuable or beneficial.
We haven’t included students with IEP’s in our groups because “Rosemary” [for example] wasn’t at the table...
  • The expectation is that all students in the building are included in the sorting process.
  • Why isn’t “Rosemary” at the table? How can this be accomplished?
I’m wondering what would happen if we didn’t do the data board, but put the groups on a PowerPoint slide to show on the screen – it sure would be easier!
  • Teams should be supported to try different ways to accomplish their goal.
  • Talk through “what’s gained” and “what’s lost”

My intent with this blog is that it may be used at your building or district level to engage in a productive discussion about what you hear and what needs to be heard. In order for the culture to change, we all need to recognize the part we play and we need to be comfortable and prepared to talk about the issues that are represented in those comments we hear.
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Read what others had to say...

Data, data...
Thanks for the blog. I have been meaning to advocate some changes in my school and I guess one way to start RtI is to first get cultivate a habit of collecting and using data for decision-making.


Progress Monitoring
My colleagues and I are currently RtI Coordinators for our locality. We are investigating two progress monitoring tools--AIMSweb and Auto Skills.

We are interested in practitioner feedback on both.






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