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Developing Leadership Courses for Data Use

I recently had the pleasure of conducting a webinar for the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities (cIcu) about leadership courses in data use for potential school leaders. The audience included professors from cIcu’s partner schools who were interested in getting some ideas for their own programs or departments. I really enjoyed being paired with Dr. Lenora Boehlert of Manhattanville College, who gave a presentation based on the New York context. Dr. Boehlert is doing some really interesting things to infuse data and evidence use into her supervision course. You can hear both of our presentations here. Dr. Amy Svirsky of cIcu was the one who made this all happen.

I know a thing or two (at least, I think I do) about teaching data use courses for school leaders, having taught those for 7½ at The University of Texas at Austin. While I was there, I taught three such courses: one for prospective principals, one for prospective superintendents, and one for prospective policymakers. I even wrote a journal article on those courses a year ago for Ellen Mandinach’s special issue of The Journal of Educational Research and Policy Studies (it’s posted here if you want to read it).

There are three points from my webinar that you may find of interest:

1. The content of leadership courses should be based on research describing important aspects of effective data use. That is, if future leaders and policymakers learn the correlates of effective data use, they can begin to create processes, structures, and policies to make these things happen. For the webinar, I chose four areas for illustration: common understandings, collaboration, data systems, and professional learning. For each of these, I outlined the research and then described what that research implied for teaching a leadership course. The key – the fun part, really – is creating a graduate course that responds to these correlates in a way that makes sense to your students. Your course may look much different than mine, but both could be equally effective.

2. I think it’s more important that these courses offer content on leading for data use than it is to offer content on manipulating data. Definitely, leaders should have data skills. But there are a number of books, workshops, and other resources they can seek out to get those skills. Content on leading for data use is much more difficult to find, and at the moment, it’s unlikely they’ll ever encounter that content outside of a course such as this. For this reason, I eventually focused my courses entirely on leadership content. Students found value in that approach.

3. I don’t think these should be stand-alone courses. Instead, I think this content should be threaded into courses throughout the program. Think about it – we use data in the course of everyday work, to make everyday decisions. So why should content on leading for data use be divorced from other classes? There are some single courses where this is done well (I love what Dr. Boehlert is doing in her course), but I haven’t seen it throughout a program. I don’t think we will, for a lot of reasons: It’s much easier to create a course than to change all the courses in a program. Further, it’s easier to demonstrate (or market) that you’re offering 21st-century data leadership skills if you can point to a concrete course. And, this kind of change would require a lot of collaboration and synergy among a faculty…colleges and universities aren’t exactly known for that type of collaborative synergy.

We really can’t afford to keep turning out leaders who aren’t good at leading for data use. But this sure isn’t being taught much in colleges and universities, which is discouraging. So go create those courses. If you aren’t offering this type of preparation, you’re behind – and unfortunately, so are your students.  Thanks for reading.

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