The Morris school district is in northern New Jersey, about an hour northwest of New York City, depending on the traffic. Serving just over 5,700 kids in 10 schools, we’re small but diverse: More than 50 percent of our students are minorities, and we have a 41 percent free and reduced-price lunch rate. For us, “equity and inclusion” is not just some phrase on our website; it is deeply personal and shapes everything we do, including our technology initiatives. For instance, even before the pandemic hit, we were at nearly 100 percent access for our students to high-speed internet and devices, well ahead of the majority of schools. This history of maximizing access means we have data over a longer time period than most, but it also underscores that commitment to equity. Here’s how we use data to support our mission.
What Is Catalytic Data?
The belief that data can drive better outcomes is not unique to our district. In fact, most districts are awash with data. But insight by itself is really useless. To drive real change and support an equity-driven mission, the data has to result in action at a systemic level.
The pandemic was hugely disruptive to schools. It upended so many well-intentioned and well-planned initiatives, but the shift to online learning also came with some great benefits. We now have access to real-time insights into where students and staff were spending time and what tools and platforms they prefer to facilitate learning. For us, the data from online learning accelerated our insight—it’s what we refer to as catalytic data—and got us to move faster toward our equity-driven instructional goals. So what insights did we glean that other districts can leverage to ensure that ed-tech is delivering the data to support real learning for all students?
Paring Down the Platforms
Even as recently as eight years ago, our district was the Wild Wild West of digital platforms. Every school was using a different platform—we had a total of more than 240. There was no talking to each other and there was no flow of analytics or data upward.
Now, we actually use a 22-point rubric to decide whether to purchase any new platform. Even though we’re very careful in choosing those ed-tech platforms, that doesn’t mean they’re going to get us to where we want to be. So administrators must also be flexible and responsive to student and staff needs.
We monitor trending applications in the district. Occasionally, we’ll see an application that’s not approved, and so we have to ask why everyone is using it. Why are teachers going to this platform? Why are students going to it? Is it something that we should look into? Being intentional about ed-tech is key.
Engagement Doesn’t Equal Learning
There are many platforms and tools that give you engagement data. How many students logged on? How long did they stay in the application? Is it being used properly? But just because something is being used does not mean that students are actually engaged. These are questions we’ve always struggled with in education.
Using a learning analytics platform like CatchOn, we can dig into when something is being used, how it’s being used, and what programs within it are being used. We take that engagement data and map that over student growth. We compare it against standardized state testing and AP scores, as well as longitudinal studies with i-Ready.
We don’t just want to entertain students. Our objective is for students to learn in accordance with the standards. So we looked at academic performance over the past five years and we overlaid the student- and class-level engagement data to really understand how engagement was impacting student growth along those standards. And for us, we were able to see a correlation with increases across all areas in testing scores and across every single type of student as well.
Democratizing the Data
Any organization that wants to thrive has to be a learning organization, and certainly school districts should be learning organizations. To be a learning organization, you have to have a feedback loop based on data. There’s so much out there, though, that you have to make sure you’re looking at the right data. For us, the critical question to ask is, “Does our ideal of what should be happening in the classroom match the reality of what is actually happening in the classroom?”
If there is a gap between your values and what you intend to happen and what’s actually happening, the data should reflect and inform that conversation. But those conversations can only happen if you can produce the data in a format that is digestible. You can’t just share 10 pages of spreadsheets with teachers. They don’t have the time to make sense of them.
Democratizing data is the process of making it digestible so that everybody can look at it and share their perspective on it. As part of democratizing our data, we do regular data walks in which we hang up posters of data and everyone in the building walks around and gives their perspective. We ask one another questions about the data and engage in meaningful conversations. For a lot of folks, looking at data is scary, so it’s critical to build a culture where it’s OK to not know, where you’re expected to ask questions. With this approach, we’re able to understand and empathize with what parents are thinking; what students are thinking; what teachers, nurses, or custodians are thinking. Everyone matters when it comes to data, and all of their viewpoints and perceptions of the data are really important.
Appointing a Data Steward
If you want data to effectively drive instruction, it cannot exist in silos. There has to be cross-communication, and it should come from the district level. We created the role of data steward to make sure there is connective tissue between the technology and the instruction. Bureaucracies don’t reform themselves, so district leaders have to make sure that the time is built in. It’s a significant challenge for all of us at the moment, but it’s critical.
The data steward is the person who manages all of the data. They decide how to standardize our data, how it flows from one platform to another, and how we export it—all those things that are very uncool and dirty but absolutely necessary. They ensure that our data is clean, centralized, and in coherent formats.
That position also acts as the gatekeeper of the data. We want to ensure that we are protecting our student data and privacy. That’s something that all districts are thinking about, but if you don’t have someone in charge of it, no one is in charge.
As district leaders, we tend to develop systems that help us create reports for board meetings or state departments. It can become easy and convenient to forget that the data we collect should always be in service of teaching and learning. Ed-tech, and the data it produces, is just a tool we use to build equitable access to high-quality learning.
The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.