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Light touch, heavy hand: principals and data-use PLCs

Alice Huguet (School of Education and Social Policy, Northwestern University, Evanstan, Illinois, USA)
Caitlin C. Farrell (University of Colorado Boulder, Boulder, Colorado, USA)
Julie A. Marsh (University of Southern California, Los Angeles, California, USA)

Journal of Educational Administration

ISSN: 0957-8234

Article publication date: 3 July 2017




The use of data for instructional improvement is prevalent in today’s educational landscape, yet policies calling for data use may result in significant variation at the school level. The purpose of this paper is to focus on tools and routines as mechanisms of principal influence on data-use professional learning communities (PLCs).


Data were collected through a comparative case study of two low-income, low-performing schools in one district. The data set included interview and focus group transcripts, observation field notes and documents, and was iteratively coded.


The two principals in the study employed tools and routines differently to influence ways that teachers interacted with data in their PLCs. Teachers who were given leeway to co-construct data-use tools found them to be more beneficial to their work. Findings also suggest that teachers’ data use may benefit from more flexibility in their day-to-day PLC routines.

Research limitations/implications

Closer examination of how tools are designed and time is spent in data-use PLCs may help the authors further understand the influence of the principal’s role.


Previous research has demonstrated that data use can improve teacher instruction, yet the varied implementation of data-use PLCs in this district illustrates that not all students have an equal opportunity to learn from teachers who meaningfully engage with data.



The authors gratefully acknowledge support for this research from the Spencer Foundation (Grant No. 201100106). The authors also greatly appreciate the cooperation of educators in our case schools and district, as well as contributions from other members of our research team, including Melanie Bertrand, Jennifer McCombs, Beth Katz, and Brian McInnis. In addition, the authors benefited greatly from helpful feedback from Judith Warren Little, Gina Biancarosa, Ellen Mandinach, Edith Gummer, and Martin Orland.


Huguet, A., Farrell, C.C. and Marsh, J.A. (2017), "Light touch, heavy hand: principals and data-use PLCs", Journal of Educational Administration, Vol. 55 No. 4, pp. 376-389.



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