As a technology optimist, for years I have encouraged government and education institutions to embrace technology to unlock new efficiencies and prepare for an uncertain future. In education, there is no doubt that technology along with new instructional models, like project-based-learning (PBL), have made significant impacts in the classroom — but there’s a dangerous organizational side-effect no one wants to talk about — and it’s creating havoc in districts across the country.

The Role of The Teacher
The digital exhaust from all of the technology we put in schools is what is commonly referred to as big data. Big data has had a significant impact on the education system, it’s enabled us to extract insights in the learning process and even given rise to personalized learning systems that optimized the learning process based on a user’s own data. As far as where the data comes from, there is no shortage of tests, assessments, benchmarks, etc., used to collect this data on a regular basis — but the challenge is these data gathering systems are sometimes used as the primary system of education performance measurement. So if we assess the effectiveness of our education system and educators from quantifiable data alone, where does the teacher and their insights fit into this picture?

Today’s Data Fallacy
Today, the quantitive data collected by school districts can provide concrete, factual representations of performance, but it often lacks context or narrative for interpreting results. This requires that context and interpretation be applied at some point after the data is collected. Does it happen in the trenches of where the data is created (i.e., the classroom) or at the top of the organizational stack by the experts (i.e., superintendent or cabinet)? More often than not, today this analysis and interpretation occurs at the top (or is programmed using preferences from the top) and the changes from it are pushed down through the organization. This may seem logical, but it’s not the right setup to enable innovation to flourish. Innovation is a process that leverages the edge of an organization to become smarter and anticipate needs before they arise. The edge of a school district is where teachers interface with the school district’s product, students. The fallacy of big data today is that if a school district bases all performance on student achievement indicators and doesn’t engage its edge, then how can it possibly innovate? Imagine if a company constantly changes the features of a product due to declining sells without ever asking their sales team why it’s not selling. Maybe it’s the wrong product to begin with.

It’s All About Culture
So the real question is, what makes a school district high-performing and innovative? Is it just engaging teachers more often? Leveraging new technology? From what I’ve seen, the highest performing schools have established a culture of innovation that is built through employee empowerment. School districts that encourage employees to test new hunches — to explore new models of learning — don’t just see better outcomes with their students, they also see a more motivated workforce. Now, this is where school leadership plays the most critical role in the process because they are directly responsible for laying the foundation of their district’s culture. Setting the right foundation requires a new perspective on leadership.

Establishing a Culture of Innovation Through New Leadership
School leaders in this exponential era of change need to set a foundation of innovation by being a leader with these ingredients:

Who has vision: You must have a vision that can be shared and embraced across multiple domains in your district. Does your vision apply to teachers or just the school board? For inspiration, read Built to Last.

Who empowers: You must empower all of your employees, especially those at the edge to test their hunches, share insights and collectively work to accomplish the district’s vision. You must also embrace failures as part of the process, because if you don’t — your staff will not take risks. For inspiration on empowerment, read Mindset (thanks to my superintendent sister for the recommendation). For inspiration on rewarding failure, read how Google recognizes failure.

Who is agile and adaptive: You must operate in a continuous state of improvement and you must adapt frequently to change. For inspiration, read Lean Startup.

So now the question for those in leadership positions today: are you a leader who interprets data for your employees or are you a leader who empowers your employees and leverages their insights?