How a Data-Informed Leadership Network Sustains School Improvement Efforts


August 14, 2017


Anyone who has tried to get in better shape knows it can be tough—and that it can be even tougher to maintain the results.

School improvement is similar. You work hard to make positive changes, but then key leaders and staff members depart, new priorities arise, and the next thing you know, you’re slipping back into unhealthy habits.

This does not have to be the case, though, and San Jose Unified School District (SJUSD) proves it is possible to sustain ambitious school improvement efforts.

A diverse, urban district in northern California comprising roughly 33,000 students, SJUSD made significant gains in student achievement between 2007 and 2012. Yet inequities persisted in academic opportunities and performance, particularly in schools with higher concentrations of traditionally underserved students.

These gaps prompted the district to focus on equity, with an emphasis on preparing all students for college and career success. In 2013, SJUSD began to build a continuous improvement system that harnesses data, balances support and accountability and keeps a clear focus on the achievement and advancement of all students.

Since then, the superintendent and deputy in charge of the improvement process have departed, but SJUSD’s continuous improvement systems are still on track. Here are a couple of reasons why:

A data-sharing culture. SJUSD’s data-driven leadership and decision-making process, OpStat, is a nod to the district’s strategic direction, as well as its commitment to using data and statistics to guide continuous improvement.

OpStat entails regular data-driven inquiry cycles, each focused on one aspect of students’ academic performance. Every cycle begins with support sessions in which principals at the same level (elementary, middle, or high school) meet with district staff members to determine a common challenge, which is typically aligned with the district’s key performance metrics. These can include challenges such as improving third grade reading proficiency or participation in advanced mathematics in middle school, or in Advanced Placement courses in high school.

After that, principals and school teams explore root causes and develop action plans unique to each school. SJUSD also provides principals with just-in-time reports on key metrics they can use to calibrate and monitor their improvement efforts.

As a result of the OpStat approach, principals are using data to help guide improvement, and they are sharing more data with school administrators and counselors. In addition, principals can respond to trends in real time rather than waiting to receive reports from the state.

Using data to guide decision-making has become routine for SJUSD, and it has changed the way the district operates. One principal said it now “takes less work to do better work.”

A focus on student outcomes and leadership distribution. In addition to the aforementioned support sessions (which focus on school improvement implementation strategies, as well as professional development), SJUSD engages in quarterly accountability sessions that provide principals with a structured forum to report on their school plans, data and progress.

Principals also share their pressing needs with a cabinet made up of district leaders, including the superintendent. The cabinet provides principals with feedback and resources to advance their school improvement efforts.

Thanks to both the support and accountability sessions, district and building leaders regularly meet during the school year to discuss specific projects focused on improving student outcomes.

The ultimate result is a collaborative culture in which leadership and responsibility for improvement is distributed across the system—and sustainable.

Download a case study focused on this project and check out more College Readiness Indicator Systems (CRIS) resources on the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research website.