Data-Driven Decision-Making: Mission Accomplished
Two districts, one goal: to use data to drive decision-making.
Returning to them nearly a year after our
last visit, we find both have achieved breakthroughs,
discovering new ways to draw insights from student
performance, and then step in to better it.
WHEN WE LAST LEFT Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and Texas' Plano
Independent School District in April 2008, both school districts were immersed in the
long and labored advance toward becoming a fully matured data-driven operation, one that
uses sophisticated technologies to gather data, sort and interpret it, and ultimately use it to pursue
actions that bear higher academic achievement.
We noted then that each district was certain to "face new challenges discerning what
data is relevant, addressing tolerance for change among users, and figuring out how to
respond now that data is driving its decision-making." Coming back to them now, we find
that in the past year both have broken through to a more developed, thoughtful, and consequential
use of data by uncovering fresh ways to look at data that they had not considered
before, and using technologies that allow them those capabilities.
Both districts have found the starts and stops along the way to be not setbacks, but learning
opportunities, enabling them to fill holes in their data with additional variables that
create a more accurate portrait of students' abilities and needs.
As the two districts press ahead with the business of translating data into action, evaluating
the effects of those actions will determine a new set of best practices-- as well as
a new set of failed ones. But what's important is the fundamental change the use of data
has brought to the school culture. "Our conversations have changed," CPS CIO Bob Runcie
says. "There's no longer speculation and guesswork about what works and what doesn't.
Now stakeholders look at the facts."
Plano: Three Easy Pieces
The way Jim Hirsch, Plano's associate superintendent for
academic and technology services, explains it, the stages of a
data-driven decision-making project are not linear, but oval,
always leading back around to the start. Even as his own district
has reached the end game-- taking action-- of a DDDM
initiative that began in earnest in 2005 with the launch of its
data management tool from SAS, it has always kept a foot in the
preceding stages, determining new data points to collect and
how to best use them to drive student achievement. "Our new
learning comes from asking new questions," Hirsch says.
As the initiative evolves, Plano continues to find more
passageways in the data, incorporating new metrics into the SAS
tool to both broaden and deepen the picture the system delivers
of the individual student, classroom, and school. "In each of the
last three years, we've had a significant new component brought
into our conversation about student performance," Hirsch says.
In the first two of
those three years,
the district began providing
glimpses of their students
they had never
had before. A key discovery
was that long-used
demographic variables such as economic status had less to
tell educators about a student than a newer metric the district was
gathering: cognitive ability. Plano began administering the
Cognitive Abilities Test (CogAT), from Riverside Publishing, to
its students to test their reasoning skills. "We started talking
about student performance beyond just a state test," Hirsch says.
"Our teachers [know] what a student's learning
needs are, besides just, ‘Here are last year's results
on a state test and here are their grades from last year.'"
The district now had a new angle on its students, as they associated
the CogAT scores with scores on the state's high-stakes
test, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS),
which Hirsch says are not always in sync. It allowed the district
to identify a student with a low cognitive level but who scored
at proficiency on the state test. "You start putting those two
pieces together, and you [realize] this is a student we want to
make certain that we are paying attention to," he says, "because
right now they're being successful, but they're being successful
for a variety of reasons, one of which may be just pure hard
work, but the other one may be by accident we were giving them
the right instructional program without realizing it."
Still, Hirsch says, more pieces were needed. The district
wanted to be able to estimate learning growth going forward, not
just chart it in the past. So Plano added a third measure to the
SAS tool, a formative testing element: the Measures of Academic
Progress (MAP), from the Northwest Evaluation Association,
which is given periodically throughout the school year to track
student learning over time.
Armed with the data from the three assessment measures,
the district was able to derive yet another statistical metric that
it could provide in a visual format to teachers and principals:
"projected learning growth," as it relates to achievement in core
content areas for each student. The new metric was launched
last spring and made available to parents through a newly
created SAS parent portal. Hirsch explains that principals must
use it to identify in early fall students who are at risk for not
meeting proficiency standards on the state test. Interventions
are expected to be put in place, for which the principals are held
accountable during the evaluation process: Did they work, or
did they show no quantifiable benefit?
"Once the state assessment is finished, now you can compare:
Here were the projections, here were our interventions,
here are the results," Hirsch says. "If the results are better than
the projections, then you were applying the right interventions.
If the results are equal to the projection, nothing you
did seemed to help that much. And obviously if the results are
worse than the projections, then the interventions you selected
The evidence thus far says the actions Plano educators have
made in response to data have been a distinct success. The
district attributes the dramatic rise in proficiency scores on the
state test in the last two years to personalizing instructional
strategies for students whom the data showed had grade-level
cognitive skills but were scoring below grade level on the TAKS.
That group of students in the eighth grade, for example, had
passing rates of 54.3 percent in math and 61.3 percent in English
on the 2006 assessment. On the 2008 TAKS, those proficiency
levels were up to 82.6 and 93.6 percent, respectively.
"We're moving in the right direction," Hirsch says. "Our teachers
say they feel more confident in their classrooms, knowing what
a student's learning needs are besides just, ‘Here are last year's
results on a state test and here are their grades from last year.'"
Hirsch says that the desire to add more metrics to the tool, or
to mix and match existing variables in new and untried ways, is
sparked by each fresh batch of results.
"As you begin to learn your tools and your data more completely,
you begin to realize questions that you hadn't thought of
earlier are legitimate questions," he says, "because you're now
combining variables and you now have access to variables that
you didn't realize before."
Even now, Hirsch is imagining new ways to mine the data for
the sake of students and teachers. He thinks the next frontier is
connecting students' summative and formative test scores. "Can
we bring this into the tool and begin modeling something that
would make sense and be beneficial to our teachers?" he asks.
"Those are the kinds of questions that continually come up
each year as we look at, here's what we now know, but boy,
wouldn't it be nice if we could..." He lets the sentence fall off,
as if running through the many possibilities for completing it,
he's unable to land on just one.
CPS: Slicing and Dicing
"I just clicked on one," says Runcie,
Chicago's CIO, diving feet first
into a data point on the district's
dashboard. "I'm looking at the attendance rate for a particular
week. I see it's 96 percent. I can go in here, student by student,
by grade level, and see the number of days absent since the start
of school. That's something I may want to track, because if kids
aren't in school, it's a problem."
One click begets second and third clicks, as Runcie drills
down deeper into the data to demonstrate how granular it gets,
revealing different aspects of a school's attendance rate.
The unveiling of the dashboard last January was a milestone
in Chicago's DDDM initiative, which had begun five years
earlier as an effort to modernize the critical systems-- student
information, human resources, payroll-- of the nation's third largest
district. A massive overhauling was in order, one that
would integrate the operations of 600 schools and bring all the
data produced by those campuses under one roof-- and one language.
As Runcie explained last year, there was no consistency
to the data. In the early planning stages, it took CPS months to
formally define the distinction between a tardy and an absence.
Nor was the data clean, which is to say reliable. In the world
of data, cleanliness is next to timeliness. "You can't have a
kindergartener who was born in 1950," Runcie says. The release
of the new dashboard remedied those ills, broke down the silos,
and pulled the data into one location. "It's one-stop shopping for
folks to get to the core data they need to look at to figure out
what to do to drive performance."
But even as it propelled CPS to the next stage of its data
operations, the new tool had its shortcomings. The metrics it
showed were too few in number, narrowing the window the tool
provided on student performance. It was back to the dashboard
for the district, for more strategy meetings and focus groups to
help select new data points to incorporate. "It was a lot of work,"
Runcie says. "Well over 100 metrics were identified."
The result is a revamped tool set for launch this month, whose
functionality is underpinned by Microsoft technology. The
company's Office PerformancePoint Server provides users with
metrics "that matter most to the organization and users in terms
of driving performance toward specified goals," Runcie says.
"Last year, you had data points that showed you where you are
today, but not how you have progressed in relation to the last
couple of years, or compared to other schools. This year you're
able to make those kinds of comparisons. You see more graphics,
more trending." The expanded dashboard is more able, he says,
"to slice and dice information," one piece opening onto the next.
"One of the things we can do now is show the number of freshmen
who are not on track to graduate. If you drill down, we can
also show you how many students have D's and F's. If you click
on that, it will identify the specific students in your school, and
their teachers. That's a metric we didn't have before."
The enhanced granularity of the data provides administrators
with actionable data. And that, Runcie says, is where the difficulty
arises. "The most challenging piece of working with data
is figuring out what to do with it.
What kinds of interventions will
you put in place to improve the outcomes
in your schools?"
A key step is making sure the tool gets used, which Runcie
says, requires some sensitivity. "We went to great lengths to
position it not as a performance evaluation tool, but as a resource
that principals can go to for information to help them better
manage their schools. We're advising AIOs [area instruction
officers], don't look at the dashboard and call the principal and
say, ‘Hey, what's going on with this metric here?' or base their
evaluation on it. We're trying to be careful about the kinds of
conversations that exist around it." The district's latest research
shows that more than 90 percent of principals have used the dashboard;
70 to 80 percent view the data at least once a week.
Runcie says the system hasn't been in place long enough to
judge its impact, but he believes its success is dependent on the
users. "Improving student achievement is going to be a function
of how teachers and principals at the school level who work with
the students utilize that data."
The release of the tuned-up dashboard this month doesn't
signify a culmination of CPS' DDDM project, says Runcie. Like
Hirsch, he says that any district interested in positive outcomes
is constantly cycling back to Stage 1: determining what questions
it wants the data to answer. "You never finish that stage," he
says. "If you're a learning organization, you're always looking
at the data from different perspectives and gleaning new insights
into what you need to do. We continue to add new metrics to the
tool every quarter as we build and continue on."
Going forward, Runcie hopes to take measures to ensure the
data his educators are using is pure. "How clean and timely and
accurate is the information that's being input at the source? I'm
working on developing a measure that can capture that, and then
feed that information back to the principals.
"No organization is ever going to be able to survive and be
effective without having good data to guide its journey and what
it's doing. We have provided that. Now how we actually use that
information is going to be the big question."
For more information on data-driven decision-making,
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Enter the keywords Data Management.
Jeff Weinstock is executive editor of T.H.E. Journal.
This article originally appeared in the 02/01/2009 issue of THE Journal.