Special Report
School & District Management

Voices of Experience

By Rhea R. Borja — May 02, 2006 3 min read

District administrators seeking to help spur student achievement and district productivity through data may feel overwhelmed with the sheer scope of the task. They may wonder, “Where do I begin?”

First, school leaders should assemble a team of educators from all levels to handle the logistics of the data system, from taking an inventory of available data to planning the system’s visual presentation, say school and data-company leaders.

Feature Stories
Delving Into Data
District Initiative

Aware of All Students

Finding the Funding

Voices of Experience

Monthly Checkups

Tip of Their Fingers

Rising to a Challenge

Risk & Reward
‘National Effort’
State Analysis
Executive Summary
Table of Contents

Districts should also make sure to build support in the community for the initiative, and organize it around the district’s strategic plan, they say. The school district’s data team can play a central role in achieving those goals, experts add.

School administrators could learn a lesson from the experience of the Poway school district in Southern California. In 1998, leaders of the 33,000-student system declared that it would be a “data-driven district.” (“District Initiative,” this report.)

That news excited Ray A. Wilson, then a school principal. But after two years, district operations and classroom teaching seemed the same, he says.

“I didn’t see anything different,” recalls Wilson, who is now Poway’s assessment director.

One event that spurred Poway to actually become a data-driven district, he says, was setting seven specific academic targets in 2002. They include reaching a 100 percent passing rate on the state high school exit exam and increasing participation in Advanced Placement courses.

“Nothing focuses you like measurable targets,” Wilson says.

Mark S. Williams, the president of Executive Intelligence Inc., a data-warehousing company based in Lakewood, Colo., agrees that unless all stakeholders focus on common goals, the data initiative will fail.

Eight Steps to the ‘Data Wise’ District

Where do school leaders start the process of becoming a data-driven district? How do they make sense of reams of student academic data and incorporate them into an action plan to improve learning? The editors of a recent book from Harvard Education Press suggest organizing the process into three phases: prepare, inquire, and act.

“Everyone [needs] to be reading off the same page,” he says. “How can you align a district when you can’t even agree on the metrics?”

If districts decide to hire outside vendors, they should designate one employee to be the main liaison with the provider, in order to streamline communication, school and company officials say.

Teacher buy-in is also crucial, say some educators and researchers. A data initiative should not be a “mandate from above,” but one promoted and encouraged by classroom instructors, says Darrell W. Brown, the assessment and accountability coordinator and adult education principal of the 6,000-student school district in Beaumont, Calif.

The Beaumont district began using data to help drive instruction in the 2004-05 school year, and this past September purchased a data-management system that warehouses student data and assesses students through district-created online benchmark tests. (“Finding the Funding,” this report.)

Brown recommends that a district first train “mavens,” tech-savvy teachers who enthusiastically embrace the concept of data-driven instruction. They can then informally train other teachers in their schools, who are more likely to trust and learn from them than from an outsider.

“We’ve learned that when you do a district directive, you get resistance to it,” says Brown. “So we trained people who want to use it, then when they see the value of [the data system], they sell it to their colleagues.”

Make Teachers Partners

In addition, teachers should be active partners in the creation of data-management systems, says Mark S. Sontag, the math- and science-curriculum coordinator for the Irvine, Calif., school district. He leads half-day training sessions of teachers and principals on the 22,000-student district’s data tool, and asks for constant feedback. (“Aware of All Students,” this report.)

Much of the data collection depends on teacher input, and since teachers will be using the data system regularly, it should cater to their specific needs, Sontag says.

One Irvine teacher, for instance, suggested that since students’ last names may not match those of their parents, the district’s data system should provide parents’ names and hyperlinked e-mail addresses. “You can have the best-looking site around, but if it doesn’t get used, then it isn’t very useful,” Sontag says. “That’s the acid test.”

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