School Data
Community perspective
By | Camille Driver

Data is often talked about in quantitative terms: “65% of Americans voted for….” or “1 in 5 children are…” You can spot quantitative data as it centers around a number. However, quantitative data needs context, which can be accomplished through qualitative data. Qualitative data helps to tell the story through more in-depth questions and conversations. Neither type of data (quantitative or qualitative) should – or can – stand alone when addressing complex issues found in systems, like schools. 

The importance of these two data types working in tandem can be seen at all levels of decision-making–even with something as simple and small as negotiations amongst siblings. I have two sisters, Angela and Melissa, and growing up we’d often share clothes. If Angela asked to borrow a top, it was imperative that she tell me which one, where she was going, and when she was planning on returning it. My sister’s answers (quantitative data) to my questions would help me make my decision to let her borrow the top or not, but there were also other factors that I would take into consideration: was I mad at her? had she returned the last item she borrowed? did I wake up on the wrong side of the bed that morning? All of these answers (qualitative data) would provide necessary context and play a role in my decision. We ask and answer these types of questions daily, and the data we collect contributes to the decisions we make. The bigger the question, the more extensive the data collection process becomes.

Schools track a host of quantitative data points, which are an important piece of the puzzle, from attendance to test scores to IEPs. However, schools often lack qualitative data points to help give context to these numbers. As a result, these numbers stand alone and can often act as the end-all-be-all for determining which schools are “good” and which are “bad.” A secondary, adverse outcome is that in the absence of qualitative data points, anecdotal stories are often generalized, and one person’s lived experience is used to speak on behalf of an entire community. This could be remedied by collecting qualitative data, which would allow for lived experiences to be reported and then aggregated to more accurately reflect how the school is performing. One way that this could be accomplished is through surveying students, educators, and staff on topics such as resources, equity and accessibility. 

Quantitative data is often touted as the gold standard in decisions made about schools, and decisions made by those within schools.  This might sound like: “our school offers 5 more AP courses than the school down the street” or “our students are more likely to come to class than other schools in the area.”  Qualitative data can add necessary and useful context; maybe the 5 AP courses resulted from years of students advocating to the school’s administration for more course offerings or the attendance rates are skewed due to bus shortages or inconsistencies in school based attendance policies. 

Understanding data means understanding its abilities as well as its limitations. Encouraging schools to collect qualitative data could be beneficial for their own decision-making processes as well as their community members, students, parents, educators and staff. 

Alone, quantitative data gives incomplete information on school performance and places less value on human experiences. By using qualitative and quantitative data in tandem, a more holistic picture of school performance could be accomplished.


Camille is a co-owner of 3015 Policy Center here in Denver, CO. Prior to her work in public policy, she worked in research at the University of Colorado Anschutz in the Maternal Fetal Medicine department. She loves spending time with her family and her dog, Tucker.