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Key Questions to Help Districts Build Data Literacy

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Tuesday, July 19, 2016

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In helping two southern Oregon school districts increase their data literacy (which I define as the ability of a district or group of people to collect and understand data and then use the data to ultimately improve student learning), I’ve developed some suggestions to share with districts starting down a similar path.

In the Medford School District, when I was the director of secondary education, I helped create a process for leaders and educators to deepen understanding of how their students were doing in order to implement the right solutions to problems impacting achievement. As a first step, we created a chart showing student data pulled by content area and grade level. For educators, looking at this kind of chart is where the journey begins. Next, we used a data analysis protocol—a process tool for examining and making observations about the data. The goal in this step is to describe the data and answer the question: What do the data reveal? The data charts showed all of the data on our subpopulations, allowing us to see if there were trends or discrepancies. The next steps included the actual analysis, asking and answering questions as simple as: What is going up? What is going down? We then moved to more complicated questions using verbs like differentiate and compare, drawn from the “analyze” stage of Bloom’s taxonomy. After that, we interpreted the data by asking: What does this information mean? Are we missing something?

When we completed that process, we started talking about what we should do based on our analysis and how the next steps fit into our continuous improvement model. We asked ourselves: What are we going to do? What does it look like?

I am now with the Grants Pass School District, working on a similar process focused on our students with special needs. For some staff working with this population, it was their first time looking this deeply at data. The questions guiding our process include:

  1. Is what we are doing working?
  2. How do we know that?
  3. What should we be doing?
  4. How do we know that?

The second and fourth questions (How do we know that?) are the hard ones to answer. However, the ability to determine if existing or proposed practices will have the desired results is important. I’ve found that working through these four questions is a great way for staff to become better consumers of research. That process, combined with a data protocol, has led to some important program changes.

For districts that want to move toward more data-driven decision making, here are three takeaways drawn from my experiences:

  1. Becoming data literate is a matter of sheer will by a district. District leadership and staff need to make a deep commitment to becoming literate, creating the time to analyze their data.
  2. Analyzing and responding to data needs to be foundational for district goals and budgeting. If a district is not able to adjust its priorities around what they are learning from data, increasing student learning and success remains random.
  3. And finally, it’s important to ask ourselves if there is anything we can stop doing. Districts are always taking on new projects and we often do not take older ones off the table. Data can help show which projects are having little or no effect.

Data analysis helps us understand why we are doing well or why we are doing poorly. Being data literate doesn’t have to be complicated, but making changes based on the analysis can be. However, in thinking about what is at stake, how can we not take the time and effort?

Todd Bloomquist has been teaching and leading in public schools for 25 years and is currently the director of special services, technology and instructional improvement with the Grants Pass School District in Southern Oregon. He holds a doctorate in education from George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon and also teaches as an adjunct faculty member for Southern Oregon University for the School of Education.