Going Beyond Data: 10 Tips for Building a Culture Around Numbers

high school students

There’s been a lot of buzz about data in just about every industry, and the world of education is no different. That buzz has been getting louder over several years as we navigate privacy, interoperability, and ways to use data to personalize and improve learning for students and teaching for educators.

While data-based decision making helps inform instruction and diagnose student needs, more and more educators are seeing the benefits of creating and nurturing a larger district-wide culture in which data informs strategy and actions at every level.

A strong data culture sets the stage for optimal learning, supporting stronger relationships between teachers and students. Drawing from accessible data, educators and students can have real conversations about the nuances of student learning and areas of challenge and connect more deeply. Tools that provide more meaningful data also give teachers more time to teach, minimizing redundant testing and helping teachers maximize learning time based on students’ strengths and needs.

Inspired by the success of the students and educators in Miami-Dade County Public Schools, Curriculum Associates recently released a case study on the district’s data culture. This piece lays out the ways in which building and maintaining a strong data culture has driven success for students and created environments in which educators get to spend time doing what they do best – teaching.

Miami-Dade’s results underscore the importance of creating a culture around data that personalizes classrooms and strengthens home-school connections to support better learning outcomes. As this paper emphasizes, there are no magic beans, and implementing a strong data culture certainly doesn’t happen overnight. It begins with small steps focused on your district’s vision.

Powerful Data-Driven Learning in Miami

Miami-Dade County Public School District (MDCPS) is the fourth largest school district in the United States, with 392 schools serving over 345,000 students who speak over 56 languages and represent 160 countries.

The district has been on a remarkable upward trajectory over the years, moving from 26 F-rated schools in 1999 to zero in 2017. Most recently in 2018, the district celebrated its first-ever districtwide “A” rating. Thanks to dedicated and innovative leadership, MDCPS has become one of the nation’s highest-performing urban school systems and been honored with numerous awards such as the Broad Prize for Urban Education.

While there are many factors contributing to the district’s success, one important element is a strong data culture that pervades the district’s classrooms and administrative offices. Ms. Gisela Feild, Administrative Director for Assessment, Research, and Data Analysis, commented on the power of this culture, saying, “By knowing kids’ weaknesses and what they are struggling with, we can be more targeted with interventions. A strong data culture exposes information to everyone, giving them notice and putting them on alert. They are more aware of everything that is going on with our students and how they can take action.”

Ms. Marie Izquierdo, the Chief Academic Officer for the Office of Academics and Transformation believes that data has enabled the district to provide more freedom to their teachers. “We need teachers to be the artists of their craft. We don’t want them to be spending their days disaggregating data, we want them to use their time to meet their kids where they are. We want to create systems that provide more freedom for them to practice their art.”

In building their data culture, MDCPS made a commitment to several thoughtful, foundation-laying investments including:

  • Optimizing technology and tools to ensure they are user-friendly for learners and educators
  • Initiating a districtwide commitment to the practice of data-driven instruction
  • Adopting technologies like i-Ready Diagnostic and Instruction tools that provides rapid access to and distribution of data (think data dashboards and portals)

Miami-Dade has built these systems and structures to gather, process, and analyze data,

allowing teachers and administrators to better understand their students’ and schools’

needs, and structure interventions accordingly without having to spend additional time

disaggregating data.

Data culture isn’t about driving up test scores. Data culture is about effectively and efficiently using data to drive personalized, powerful instruction for students to help them grow and succeed, and Miami sets a shining example.

Using Data to Drive Student-Centered Learning in California

Lindsay Unified School School district is located north of San Diego, and its Deputy Superintendent Lana Brown believes that “data-centered” and “student-centered” values go hand in hand. Brown also believes in the power of giving students agency over their data so they’re able to see what has been mastered and what is yet to be learned. Students who own their data are more likely to become invested in their learning, and intrinsic motivation can be leveraged by learners knowing their data and setting goals.

As discussed above, a true data culture means setting goals using data points in order to create urgency for progress and ensure learners buy into the plan to get there. In Lindsay, leaders credit this approach for removing the fear students once felt about taking on personal goals and embracing college after high school. It has increased learner readiness to take on a challenge.

A data-centered culture does support the student-centered focus, encouraging adults to make data transparent and make instructional plans for proper pacing. Brown and her team have found that when students are involved with their data, they want to have more voice and choice in how their learning happens and are empowered to seek out more learning options and ways to demonstrate their knowledge.

Where are you in building your school’s data culture? How do the tools you use support a focus on data to inform instruction? Here are some considerations to help frame your thinking:

10 Steps Towards Building a Data Culture at Your School

  1. Start with a few data champions. Focus on a small number of schools or staff members who are already comfortable with data or are using it in their daily instruction.
  2. Create a shared vision for your data culture and post it every time you meet. How will the data you’re using/collecting contribute to your goals? Challenge your team often to examine decisions, “Is [XYZ] working towards our shared vision?”
  3. Implement a technology infrastructure that has the capabilities necessary based on your vision, such as ensuring real-time data access. Read more about the supportive infrastructure created in Miami Dade in this case study.
  4. Check current privacy policies, ensuring data sharing procedures safeguard student privacy.
  5. Identify key questions data should be answering, such as student growth measures, proficiency in key subject areas, completion rates, etc.
  6. Create expectations for teachers and leaders to establish consistency across the district. What types of data should they be monitoring? When should they have regular meetings? What information should be shared with learners and their families?
  7. Provide professional development from the top down. Building a culture around data will require some staff to build new “muscles.” Support them by providing training on tools and infrastructures. Set them up with their school or district’s champion and encourage PLNs within your district.
  8. Leverage teacher leaders to help standardize usage, expectations and training. These leaders can inspire and encourage their peers to get on board, providing real examples of data culture in action and showcasing the ways in which it has improved their classrooms.
  9. Create data dashboard templates that school leaders can modify to meet their specific needs. This will help with “Where do I begin?” guidance and help establish standards as to which data sets to track and why.
  10. Ensure teachers have time and resources to conduct regular data chats at all levels. This can happen in a variety of ways including with the PLNs. As all educators know, we’re better together, and the opportunity to bounce ideas and talk about what’s working or not working will be crucial in the development of your school’s data culture.

For more, see:

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Jessica Slusser

Jessica is the Senior Director of Impact at Getting Smart. She leads business development and growth of advocacy campaigns, advisory services, product development, marketing, and Getting Smart's blog. As part of her role, Jessica also oversees team events, conferences, and speaking engagements.

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