Data Driven versus Deficit-Focused School Leadership

by | Feb 24, 2019


When you are responsible for improving your school, there are two major approaches you can take to achieve your goals. Many school leaders think that the best way to approach a problem is by focusing on the deficits (or whatever isn’t working), while others argue that you should take a data-driven approach to empower you to make high-quality improvements. There are arguments to be made for either side, but the fact is that data-driven approaches give you a lot more information to help you achieve the best possible results.

The Problem with Deficit-Focused School Leadership

Before discussing why data-driven methods are the best approach to school leadership, it is important to understand the specific problems with deficit-focused leadership styles. There is a belief in education that students who are underachievers or underserved simply need to work harder than other students, but research has clearly shown that placing low expectations on students is detrimental to their success. On the contrary, placing high expectations on students shows them that you believe in them. This helps students gain the confidence they need to achieve whatever goals you have set for them, but this is just part of the problem.

When school leaders collect data about their school’s performance, many only see it in the simplest terms. If test scores are too low, it is often incorrectly believed that test scores need to improve at the expense of everything else. More math is taught and the focus is solely on “teaching to the test” to ensure that the students pass. To be the most effective leader, however, one needs to understand the “why” of the situation. The why is always more important than the result. The problem can be bandaged, but it won’t be fixed until the cause is known. Focusing on the deficit just expresses that a child is not performing, but it does not provide the all-important why. In the end, data-driven methods provide more valuable information.

Data-Driven Methods Offer Results

Data can tell where your school is underperforming, but there is much more that can be learned from it. For instance, one can learn all about the strengths of the school. Understanding your strengths can be an essential piece of the puzzle when it comes to improving your school, because you can use these strengths to establish a growth mindset that will help you tailor specific improvements.

How can you make assessments that give you the information you need? For example, a principal can use assessments based on these three critical metrics to analyze data using grade level content standards, student focused formative assessments of learning, and various types of questioning techniques. This data, when studied closely, can provide you with information that helps you learn answers to the most important questions: why and how. When these important questions are answered, you get actionable information that allows you to come up with the best improvement plan for your school. In turn, this plan should play to the school’s strengths in order to find solutions.

Data-driven analysis requires more than just test scores to get information. A variety of different areas can be covered, such as content and the depth of knowledge in that content. One can see what critical thinking skills need to be developed to ensure the success of each student. It is important to focus on the high-leverage courses, especially in the first year of the assessments. For instance, if there is mandatory testing that needs to be passed in order to graduate, courses that are linked to these tests should be the primary focus.

It is important that high-quality assessments are administered. This is the only way that you can get the valuable data needed to make a difference. Professional development should include how to create these assessments.

What’s Next?

Now that you know the best approach to developing a plan for your school, what’s the next step? Teachers can help you with the assessments, and should be a part of this process—this can even be part of their professional development training. The results should be closely analyzed using grade level content standards, student focused formative assessments of learning, and various types of questioning techniques. After the analysis, these results should be discussed with the teachers and staff in great detail. A regular 30-minute discussion should cover not only the analysis, but also any strategies that will help students meet or even exceed the standards.

After you come up with ideas to implement that will help your students achieve their goals, your job is not over. There needs to be continual follow-up on the reteaching process to discuss and unpack your observations. At the very least, these meetings should cover three essential questions:

  • Did the new approach work?
  • Is this the approach you are going to use from the outset?
  • Is there anything that your students still do not understand?

Regularly reflecting on these questions and on the data can empower you to make adjustments quickly and as needed. By having the knowledge and ability to change your approach on the fly, you can watch your model thrive. This will create a snowball effect of success. Your teachers and students will notice how effective their efforts are, which will make them work even harder to achieve their goals.


Data-driven analysis is a much more effective approach than a deficit-focused approach. With a deficit-focused approach, you’re focusing on the failures and dwelling on them. With a data-driven approach, you are learning the strengths of your students and staff, and then utilizing these strengths to make the necessary improvements to your school. Your school has its own challenges and strengths, so there is no cookie-cutter approach that is going to work for everyone. This is exactly why you need to create your own assessments to gauge the needs and strengths of your school. Data-driven approaches give you the valuable information you need to solve the problems rather than just paper over the cracks.

Is your school data-driven or deficit focused?

Does your school have access to assessments that provide information on the why and how?  Do you feel like your school or district is making enough progress in creating equitable opportunities for all of your students?

At CSAS, our knowledgeable experts can provide high quality training and coaching supports on how to effectively use assessment results and various types of achievement data to plan for student success.  Learn more  about our services on our website, or schedule a free consultation phone call  with us to talk about how we can improve your educational excellence.