Administrators: Questions to ask of your data

Forget visionquests. What you really want to do is go on a dataquest.

We hear you. We like to dataquest too.

You’ve got all the data your heart could desire, and you’re just itching to dive deep in like Scrooge McDuck into his moneystacks. Except you’re not quite Scrooge-like – you’re eager to dig in there and find the real nuggets of gold – actionable insights that you can share with your staff and use to make their life, your life, and the students’ lives better.

Because you’re a school administrator. And (you hope) a damn good one at that, you know that looking at the story behind the scenes is a key step on your journey to student – and consequently school – success.

There are so many different factors for administrators to consider when evaluating the progress of a student, school, district, or network. Administrators are responsible for bringing together all aspects of school operations – from setting instructional objectives to training staff to engaging with students and their families. They can also work hard sifting through their data for clues, making informed decisions based on the trends they see occurring both on the individual student level and on the school/district/network level.

Finding out what your data has to tell you can be an engaging and enlightening process at its best, and difficult and overwhelming at its worst. One way to set yourself up for success is to start by making sure you have all your data points in one place. This can be easy enough if you have an all-in-one school management system that tracks student, staff, school, and district information. If your data lives in different places, make sure you start off by gathering everything you need and familiarizing yourself with it (and the different formats, if necessary).

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Before you start asking anything of your data, start by asking yourself a few things first.

What are my goals? What am I looking for? What problem am I trying to solve? What do I need more information on?

If you’re not sure what you’re looking for, you can always start off with a high-level observation and then dig down into the details to get a better picture. Maybe you scan through your data and notice that students in Mr. Menerke’s math class seem to be struggling. You don’t know what’s going on or why, but you’d like to learn more about it.

Once you have a clear idea of what it is you want to learn, ask yourself one more question:

How impactful to my students is the problem I’m examining?

What will solving this problem do for you, your staff, your students, your school, your district as a whole? Will it save staff members time? Will it improve student outcomes? If you can clearly see the positive impact that solving this issue will have on the kiddos – who, at the end of the day are the reason behind everything you do, including even reading this post – then you’ll know you’re barking up the right tree.

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Think of your data as an undercover storyteller, a wise old digital grandma full of interesting insights, facts, and observations that can help guide you on your dataquest to lead your school down the path to success. You just have to know what you’re looking for and know how to ask. Then you can start putting the pieces together to form the story that has been there all along, waiting for you to find it and tease it out in its entirety.

Analyzing different types of information requires the ability to read between the lines, the presence of mind to keep an open mind, and a good dose of critical thinking skills. As you start to drill down through your data sets, looking for facts, clues, breadcrumbs, and stories, keeping the following questions in mind throughout the process can help you be more effective in sussing out exactly what you need to know.

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How does this relate to my original question/s?

Having a mountain of data points can be a really great thing, but not all of them will necessarily contribute to helpful insights. Approaching each new data set with this question hovering in the wings can be a great way to cull out the shiny nuggets and save yourself loads of precious time.

Once you’ve put together the relevant data sets, give yourself a moment to review and reflect. Scan all the information you have, keeping in mind all the bases you feel need to get covered before you can move forward. If you’re satisfied that you have all the relevant data you need, feel free to go forth and take the plunge!

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At Schoolrunner, our partner school and district administrators have shared some of the things they look for when they’re assessing their schools’ and students’ progress, along with peeks at the kinds of reports they like to draw from the system to get the information they need. Here are a few questions many of our schools ask in common:

Which students are at risk?

‘At-risk’ is a term that can be interpreted in many different ways, and can cover anything from failure, dropout, and truancy to physical, social, and emotional health. At the end of the day it’s up to you to make the judgment call on what ‘at-risk’ means in your schools. However you see it, make sure you clearly define what it means to you and what the the key determining factors are.

What are possible causes for this?

This can apply to any broad question you start out with, and sometimes the answers may lie in unexpected places. Look for patterns and/or disruptions of patterns, and keep drilling down in different areas to see what kinds of insights you come up with. One question many of our schools like to ask with respect to struggling students is:

What does attendance data look like?

One great way to start seeing a bigger picture of struggling students is to drill down a little deeper into your data, and analyzing attendance information is a great place to start. Last week our own Beth Samek shared a few tips on how to spot at-risk students, one of which was monitoring attendance. Consider the following questions when analyzing attendance data:

Which grades are doing well with attendance? Which days of the week are students absent the most? Which days are the most students in school? Which days are they coming in late?

Then remember to relate what you find to your original question. Let’s go back to our earlier example of students struggling in Mr. Menerke’s math class. Say you find that more students are late and tardy on Fridays than on any other day. You take a look at his schedule and maybe you see that his math class is the first of the day on Fridays. Maybe now you can start to form a hypothesis for you story as to why students are struggling in this particular class.

Where are the gaps?

Scan again, step back, and see if there are any gaps – first, within your own process. Do you have all the data you need? Or do you need to introduce new data sets? Maybe you need to speak with one of the students or staff members involved to collect more information. Maybe you need to access your school management system’s API in order to extract exactly the information you need. Whatever the case – that’s great – now you know what you need, and you can start to put in motion a plan to get it.

Now take a look at the data itself and see where the gaps lie here. Maybe the gap you discover is in teacher training, or student resources. Maybe you drill all the way down and find that the reason some students are having trouble is that they don’t have access to the technology they need outside of the classroom. Or maybe you take a look at your staff data and see that Mr. Menerke has been absent 6 out of the last 10 weeks. Or, maybe you scan your student behavior data and find that kids in Mr. Menerke’s math class are getting more demerits during that period than in any other classes, which could mean that there’s a classroom behavior management issue to consider.

How can I use this to help?

This is one of the most important questions you can ask. What kind of strategy can I develop based on this information? What actions can I take based on this data?

Because, let’s face it – the whole point of this dataquest is to make a positive difference. Only you can answer what the best course of action is for your school, but remember that the smarter your approach to your data, the better chance you have of making solid informed decisions.

Where’s a good place to start?

Whether you’re new to the data game and not sure where to begin, or an old hand who could use a fresh approach to your quest, here are a few examples of how our partner schools approach their data – let these give you some new ideas or serve as inspirations on your own data-informed journey.

Aside from academic data, one of our partner schools (Tennessee Achievement School District) analyzes attendance data, suspension information, and records of communications made home to students’ families in order to round out their picture of student health. They scrutinize communications to find out a) if they’re making enough touchpoints with parents overall, and b) if these touchpoints are having the necessary impact on student achievement that they’re seeking. When they drill down far enough, they can start to see what kinds of needs students have that they can help out with in order to keep their kids on track.

For example, one student may be missing school simply because he doesn’t have a regular ride, while another may have untreated asthma, which leads to frequent illness and absenteeism. Once these details come to light, staff members can then go about arranging the rides one student needs, or ensuring the other student has access to the necessary medication to manage her asthma so she can make it to school.

Our partners love to use our reports feature to pull up infinitely configurable troves of information on all kinds of topics. Some schools regularly check on the amount of merits and demerits each staff member is doling out, while others look at what types of assessments each teacher is administering.

Other schools are interested in which kids have detention and what the contributing behaviors were. Many of our schools attach a core value to each behavior (merit/demerit) assigned, and then they drill down and examine which values students are doing well with overall, and which they could improve on more. These valuable discoveries pave the way for creating new incentive programs and updated school policies that reflect the changing needs of the students. On a broader level, administrators often look at negative behaviors by grade or advisory, and even by school.

And last, but certainly not least:

Our last post in this series looked at questions teachers should be asking of their data, and the underlying leitmotif our guest blogger (Joe Ten Brook, of Austin Achieve) expounded upon had to do with the concept of self-examination.

What does your data tell you about your practice? And how can you get better based on what you’ve learned?

These questions sound fairly straightforward, but there’s a wealth of personal and professional growth to be discovered when approaching them thoughtfully.

The dataquest can be a long (but rewarding!) journey, and it’s one that you’ll return to time and time again as you continue your work to ensure the highest level of student achievement possible at your school. Make sure you set yourself up to succeed by asking all the right questions along the way.

And good luck on your journey! May the (data)force be with you!

by 

Schoolrunner

Every day is data day!

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