Creating a System for Data-Driven Decision-Making: Applying the Principal-Agent Framework

This study used principal-agent theory to inform understanding of how systems (districts) can promote data-driven decision making. The study is based on case studies in four urban school systems and focuses on elementary schools’ data use.  Study authors highlight three major study findings:  First, school level educators need not only systemic support for data use but also enough decision-making autonomy to make site-level decisions on the basis of data. Second, building school site level expertise for data-driven decision-making is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for success. Finally, the design of accountability systems must accommodate the imbalance in information available at central office and the schools.  The article discusses implications for further research and policy.

All four systems set a strong foundation for data-driven decision-making by aligning goals, curriculum and assessment, and by creating a culture of data use. Importantly, the implementation of data-driven decision-making was not treated in isolation but rather was a part of a strategy for system-wide change. The systems and the schools co-created similar objectives and values to combat key challenges, as described below (see also Table 3 in article for succinct summary of strategies and how they were implemented): 

  • Divergent objectives by aligning goals and curriculum and assessment across the system and establishing a common language and culture for data use.

  • Information asymmetry between districts and schools by establishing a structure for the bottom up flow of information and investing in training and data management personnel to support schools

  • Weak incentives by linking data use with federal and state accountability, school improvement plans, and performance-based compensation systems

  • Limited local site decision rights by balancing school-site decision making power with cross system consistency, for example by making clear school leaders’ decision authority and providing educator autonomy in instruction even with system-wide curriculum and assessment.

  • Adverse selection by hiring agents with data capacity and commitment, providing targeting professional development and structuring time and opportunity for collaboration over data within and across schools.

Content Comments 

Although the study examines data use practices across a variety of data types, study conclusions speak to system-level foundations that may be necessary to promote the productive use of interim assessments:

  • Cultivate shared objectives with schools by aligning goals, curriculum, and assessment across schools and a culture of data use by creating explicit norms and expectations with regard to data use. Involve school level educators in establishing these policies.

  • Reduce information asymmetry (i.e., the relative capacity and access to data between schools and central offices) by assessment school level needs and strengths with regards to data use and building capacity building plans accordingly. System leaders recognized that schools had the most detailed and accurate information about students but needed to support data use with information management systems, training and personnel dedicated to data use, and collaboration of educators within and across schools.

  • Create incentives for data use and continuous improvement.

  • Provide school leaders and teachers with autonomy in decision making even as curricula, assessment, instructional materials and data management are centralized.

  • Recognize the varying data use competency and commitment across schools and create implementation plans accordingly.