Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Data Competency

Periodically in higher education there are "movements" that drive behavior.  For example, I frequently hear from higher education professionals that they are working on being more "collaborative" with other institutions of higher education.  These "movements" often include terms that represent the focus of the "movement".  For example, assessment and evaluation are terms that are frequently uttered by professional in higher education.  Recently the term pathways , guided pathways, intrusive advising and data literacy have emerged as terms to represent the latest "movements".  

These movements and terms are frequently based upon research that identifies best practice.  These are important movements that administrators need to attune to and consider.  However, I have found that for administrators, faculty and staff who have been a part of higher education for many years, the terminology becomes challenging.  Why?  Because often these terms have been around equally as long and have been used in previous movements.  Consequently, the use of terminology and being very clear about what the terms mean within the current context of higher education and at one's institution is particularly important for ensuring clear communication.

"Data-driven decision making" is a term that has been around quite some time in higher education. The focus and use of data in higher education administration is not a new movement, but one that is a bit more timeless than some of the other fads of the day.  That is why the utilization of data by administrators is one of the leadership principles.  I do not see it becoming one of the fads that will ebb and flow like other movements in higher education.  Because of the timeless nature of "data-driven decision making" you may assume you are deeply familiar with its use and application.  However, have you ever stopped to contemplate what that means for your organization or what that looks like at your organization?

Prior to becoming a president at a community college I served as a professor of education at a university.  As part of my responsibilities I was to conduct research and engage in creative activities. In research there is a debate about the value qualitative versus quantitative data.  As a young instructor in higher education is was clear to me that there was a greater value place on quantitative data. Consequently, when I moved into administrative roles it was almost a natural for me to begin to use data to help inform my decisions.  However, just like research, there is a limit to what quantitative data provides. Consequently, the the discussion about the value of quantitative for qualitative data remained.  Other questions surfaced as well.  Questions about validity and reliability, distribution, and post-hoc analysis.  Rarely is a data strategy developed prior to the surfacing of a question or decisions.  Consequently, my research experiences only carried me so far in helping me figure out how best to approach data-driven decisions.

Using data to inform decisions as an administrator has taught me a more realistic approach.  It is not a matter of qualitative versus quantitative data, it is about data literacy.  "Data literacy is the ability to collect, manage, evaluate, and apply data, in a critical manner". (1)  Data literate educators:
  • know the different kinds of data that exist and which kind of data to use for which decision
  • evaluate the accuracy and sufficiency of each kind of data they will use
  • transform data from a variety of sources (classroom, school, district, state) into actionable information to guide decisions
  • hold themselves accountable for ethical generation, interpretation, and application of assessment data (2)
I have found that utilizing data to inform decisions is valuable, but even more valuable when the data is examined by a team.  Consequently, I find that I share data with my executive team when we are considering an institutional wide decision.  The multiple perspectives looking at the data provide a rich conversation that leads to an informed critique of the data.  This critique coupled with the multiple perspectives about the decision or issue at hand more often than not leads to a better decision than when the decision is made in isolation or the data is examined in isolation.  

Consequently, when I hire for positions, I often assess one's experience and comfort with data. Generally someone's comfort or experience with data isn't a hire or don't hire skill, but it is a skill I want to know about.  If someone doesn't have the experience with data I want to know about their comfort with data.  Understanding these perspectives help me understand how a prospective hire will fit with a team that does have a high commitment to data-driven decision making.  


(1) Ridsdale, C., Rothwell, J., Smit, M., et.al. "Strategies and Best Practices for Data Literacy Education".  http://www.mikesmit.com/wp-content/papercite-data/pdf/data_literacy.pdf.  Accessed, May 29, 2017.
(2) Dyer, K. (2014). "Data Literacy - What it is and How it Differs from Assessment Literacy". https://www.nwea.org/blog/2014/data-literacy-differs-assessment-literacy/. Accessed, May 29, 2017.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Know and Follow Policy

I recall a conversation from a time when I was teaching middle school students.  One student was acting up in class and I had to discipline the student.  When I walked over to him I quietly asked him to settle down and focus on the class material.  He complied.  After class he came over to apologize and then casually mentioned that he couldn't wait until he was the teacher because they he could do "whatever he wanted when he wanted".  I asked him why he thought teachers could do whatever they wanted.  He responded by saying, "Because they are in charge."  I reminded him that my boss was the principal.  He then replied, "Well, then I want to be the principal because then I can do what I want to do."  With that he left for recess.

The leadership principle of "knowing and following policy" applies to everyone in the organization whether they are the individuals at the lowest level of the organization or like me, the president.  Policy and related administrative rules and procedures are important for guiding the processes, making them predicable, fair and objective.  The creates a more transparent organization as well.

Policy and procedures function both as an empowering force and a restraining force.  Policy and procedure often include a clear delineation of authority and scope of responsibility around an issue. Further the policy or procedure includes a retraining factor.  For example, in matters of personnel an administrative rule can include the steps of progressive discipline.  These steps allow an individual the authority to discipline while at the same time define what level of discipline should be followed thereby restraining someone from being overly punitive for a minor infraction.

The importance of this leadership principle is often lost in the common sense of the principle.  However, over time people begin to assume that their behavior is consistent with policy and procedure and the "we've always done it this way" syndrome sets in causing routine behavior to be synonymous with procedure.  Eventually a person or event will challenge the assumption that previous practice had been synonymous with an administrative rule or procedure.  These moments are healthy for an organization and administrator because they allow for a pause to assess whether or not routine is consistent with administrative policy and procedures.

As a leader, it is important to regularly review your decisions along side policy and procedure to ensure that bad habits don't set in or routine becomes sloppy.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Solve Problems at the Lowest Level Possible

Problem solving is a daily task of a community college president.  Rarely are the problems solved in just one day.  The complexity of leading a multi-layered, multimillion dollar organization is a given. The growing accountability movement adds a pressure of constant monitoring and accountability. Consequently, the need to resolve problems and challenges in an effective and efficient manner is vital.

As the president I often think of myself as the "first among equals".  Certainly, the president has the responsibility to ensure that the organization is effective and efficient.  To be successful one needs a team.  That team needs to be empowered to resolve issues at the lowest level possible.  Managers within an organization need to know that they are expected to recognize problems and resolve them. They need to know that they are empowered to make those decisions and that they will get the support of their supervisors when solving those problems.

I reinforce this expectation as often as possible.  For example, students frequently e-mail me or contact me when they have concerns at the end of the semester pertaining to their grades.  Unless they have affirmed for me that they have first worked with the faculty member and/or department chair, I don't get involved, but rather send them back to the department.  I always explain to the student that the issues are best handled at the department level and that for the quickest possible review they need to begin with the department chair or dean depending upon who they have first talked with before e-mailing me.

Student concerns and issues are not the only way to reinforce the expectation of resolution at the lowest level possible.  I expect that individuals who see a problem on campus to report the problem to the person who can resolve the problem. Managers and leaders at all levels of the organization need to have the tools necessary to do their jobs and meet expectations.  This includes information as well as tangible resources.  Often these individuals see problems that people at the executive level of the organization can not see or know about.

In addition to reinforcing the expectation of resolving problems at the lowest level possible, one needs to recognize individuals who do resolve problems.  Problem solving skills are crucial in the workplace.  Consequently, I believe it is important to assess a candidates problem solving skills when looking to hire for positions on campus.  Problem solving as a skill is transferable.  It is also a skill that we must instill in our students.