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Research Questions

  1. During the 2018–2019 school year, what kinds of student data did principals have access to through an electronic data management system(s)? Were the data disaggregated by student race, ethnicity, and income (e.g., free and reduced-price lunch)?
  2. During the 2018–2019 school year, for which purposes did principals use these data?
  3. Did principals look at data in collaboration with other schools with the aim to improve together?
  4. Did principals use a continuous improvement framework with the data that they shared with other schools?

Schools and districts across the United States have invested heavily in data management systems to facilitate educators' access to data that can inform their work. School principals, in particular, make countless decisions that could benefit from access to data in these systems. Principals also help create cultures of data use within their schools, providing guidance and supporting the conditions that enable other school staff to use data effectively and appropriately. Using results from a nationally representative survey of principals from the RAND Corporation's American Educator Panels, the authors examine middle and high school principals' access to several types of data about their students' outcomes and experiences, along with the ways in which principals report using those data. The authors also explore principals' reports regarding collaborations with leaders of other schools around data use because this type of collaboration can provide useful professional learning opportunities.

Key Findings

Principals have data access, but lack access to disaggregated data and collaboration

  • Most principals were able to use electronic systems to obtain academic data on their students, but many lacked access to these data in disaggregated form.
  • Access to data — both aggregated and disaggregated — was reported as lowest for social and emotional competency data and postsecondary outcome data.
  • Principals' use of data sources to support instructional leadership was common, but not universal.
  • Principals were most likely to use data to select curricula, programs, and practices.
  • Fewer than half of principals reported reviewing data with leaders from other schools.


  • More access to disaggregated information on student progress and outcomes is crucial for enabling principals and other school staff to monitor disparities and promote equity.
  • Education agencies or other support providers should help school leaders access and monitor social and emotional and postsecondary outcome data, given their importance for ensuring students' readiness for college, careers, and civic life.
  • Support providers could help principals understand the value of existing data to inform instructional leadership and to identify new sources of data that might be better suited to that purpose.
  • Districts should consider providing more opportunities for principals to participate in data collaborations that allow them to learn from one another and share ideas about how to use data effectively.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was conducted by RAND Education and Labor and supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, and the Overdeck Family Foundation.

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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