The Superheroes Behind the Monitor: An Introduction to School Data Management
When you sit back and think about it, school data managers are like superheroes. Just look at Professor X or Tony Stark. Both superheroes rely heavily on computers to do good in the world – Cerebro and Jarvis, respectively. But it’s Xavier and Stark that figure out what to do with the information their machines churn out.
Putting a data manager in a school has many parallels to these Marvel men, although school data managers (SDMs) don’t bear the onus of having to stop mutants and super-criminals from destroying the planet.
Let’s look at what SDMs do do with an assist from Sarah Stern, the data manager at Harriet Tubman Charter School, a K-8 school in New Orleans. Not only will we cover why schools need a data manager to ensure student achievement, but also what that role adds to a school’s goals, some real-life perspective on what life as a data manager is like, and what to look for when hiring a SDM.
Do you really NEED a school data manager? Yes!
Some may wonder why a data manager is necessary for a given school. Chances are if you’re reading this then you have an inkling of how to answer this question. But as schools, and the assessment of students and teachers alike becomes increasingly data-informed, a SDM has never been more important.
In fact, Stern noted that for schools that do, or are starting to embrace a data-informed approach, an in-house data manager is critical. One of the primary goals of using data in schools is to close the achievement gap. Teachers, however, are so busy teaching that they don’t always have the time to do dig into the numbers and look for trends. They’re more concerned with fine-tuning their next lesson plan. And rightly so! Having a dedicated person to comb through the data and spot those trends – the things that will help teachers improve those lessons – helps to close the gap more than saddling teachers with even more responsibilities.
It’s important to remember that not every teacher, or administrator for that matter, is created equally when it comes to comfort level with technology. Some embrace it and jump at the chance to try out new features. Meanwhile, others might not even be able (or willing) to log in to their email account on a consistent basis. Let’s just say there’s a “tech-savvy spectrum” in every school that creates a need for a consistent presence to deal with all of a school’s data.
All of this begs the question: “Just what, exactly, does a school data manager do?” The thing is that every school uses data a little differently. And that’s ok! But that also means that the people who oversee a school’s data need to be flexible and quick on their feet in order to accommodate the needs of their faculty.
Data managers keep track of and analyze the myriad types of data generated in schools. This can include everything from grades to behavior, from curriculum to degree requirements, from assessment to teaching and learning development, and more. Stern notes that between institutional and state requirements, schools generate a lot of data. This can lead to the fabled “analysis paralysis” for the unprepared.
SDMs laugh in the face of this diagnosis (more research needs to be done to determine whether this is a maniacal cackle or not). With so much disparate data occupying a given student information system (SIS), it takes a SDM to be able to sift through that information, pull out the relevant data, and present it in a way that students, parents, faculty, and administrators can all understand. This is no simple feat. It requires the SDM to have an innate understanding of each of these different groups, and to package their analysis in a way that serves the needs of each one.
How does a data manager drive school success?
For the school committed to using data as the bedrock that contributes to and informs its instructional approach, the SDM is a stonemason, sculptor, and architect all rolled into one.
Stern notes that at her school, data takes the guesswork out of instructional and institutional changes. Diving into the numbers is a great way to reveal whether or not the status quo is working. If it’s not, data can not only indicate that change is necessary, it can also highlight which areas, specifically, require a new approach, while relating just how far off the mark things currently are.
No doubt everyone has heard a student lament that they’re no good at math, or spelling, or [fill in the blank] discipline. A data manager most likely considers such sweeping generalizations to be hogwash. Let’s say that drilling down into the numbers reveals that 30% of students are struggling with a specific math standard, like long division, but 80% are crushing another one, like fractions.
Clearly these students can do math because they’re doing so well with fractions. But seeing that long division is a trouble area means that teachers can circle back and give it some extra attention before moving on.
For example, Stern points out that they have “Data Days” at her school. Typically four to five times per year the school gives students tests to assess their academic progress. Of course the data manager oversees the organization of these tests and the analysis of the data, but more on that in a minute. The value of a process like this is that it enables schools to benchmark progress and assess goal achievement. Similarly, it allows teachers to use empirical evidence to make adjustments in their teaching plans. There’s no room for “gut feelings” here. Those are just as dangerous as those sweeping generalizations we mentioned earlier.
Armed with this information, teachers at Harriet Tubman Charter School spend the next week after Data Day re-teaching – that is, going back over the areas where students showed a need for more attention.
In short, if we accept the idea that closing the achievement gap is a critical pursuit of education, then SDMs empower schools to measure that gap. After establishing a baseline, continued analysis and reporting allow schools and teachers to gauge their progress toward closing that gap at almost any point in time.
Not only does this help to simultaneously understand the status quo, drive change, and evaluate institutional effectiveness, but when schools also make the effort to ensure that everyone in the educational community (including parents) has access to this information, it generates transparency in the educational process.
Of course, these same principles extend beyond the classroom as well. Schools keep track of more data than just grades. Spotting anomalies in attendance and behavior can reveal important trends as well. The fact that SDMs are on the lookout for these types of things demonstrates how they impact the entire educational experience. Assuming that factors beyond the classroom do not affect performance in the classroom is done at one’s own peril.
What types of analyses can you expect from your school data manager?
The majority of work that school data managers do falls under one of two headings: cyclical tasks and daily tasks. As we’ll see, a lot of a SDM’s work is project-based.
Fortunately, some elements of a SDM’s job are fairly structured because, like the seasons, they occur around the same time every year. For example, Stern commented that in addition to her school’s self-imposed interim testing and Data Days, she also has to comply with state data reporting three to four times per year, administer report cards at the end of every term, and oversee state testing at the end of every year.
Now some of the preparations that go into ensuring these milestones are successfully met can be similar in a broad sense, but each project has granular details that data managers must identify and accommodate. These will no doubt differ from one school to another, but being aware of them is certainly important.
Much like our consistent circles around the sun, here are some examples of the types of projects SDMs engage with regularly.
At Stern’s school they do interim testing, which typically lasts for about a week, four to five times per year. It’s up to her, as the school’s data manager, to set up and organize all the backend materials for this testing. This means ensuring that the SIS is properly set up for the current cohorts, that students with accommodations will have what they need to take their tests, and that students are grouped together correctly for their tests.
Once the data from these tests comes back, she spends a few days on analysis before compiling it all and presenting a report to her principal. Stern notes that the operations side of things takes up a lot more time than the reporting and analysis functions. Going in, most people think that the majority of the work that SDMs do is analysis and reporting, but that’s not always the case.
Three to four times per year, Stern has to update her school’s information for the state. This consists of double-checking the school’s SIS to ensure that all student data is accurate, e.g. census numbers, demographic data, etc.
Because it’s almost inevitable that a state’s SIS won’t play nice with a given school or school district’s SIS, there’s always some data cleanup to do after uploading the student data. It’s up to the SDM to work through these errors and make sure that everything is accurate.
Stern highlights the importance of this process because this information is what states use to allocate funding to schools. Therefore, errors in census numbers, for example, could cost an individual school thousands of dollars in annual funding. To say attention to detail is important in state data reporting is an understatement of epic proportions.
One would think that getting report cards out would be a pretty straightforward process for a SDM, considering the wealth of information they have at their disposal. There’s more to the process than simply running a report and hitting Print, though.
For example, before the end of each term Stern prepares a checklist for teachers so that when it comes time to enter grades they have everything they need to make the process go as smoothly as possible. She also spends time auditing grades to make sure that everything is accurate. This includes cross-checking any anomalies with teachers.
After the audit, Stern issues report cards. She then helps to organize conferences between parents and teachers. Her school uses standards-based grades, which differ from the traditional letter grades that most people are used to seeing. These provide a ranking for individual skills within a discipline. Stern helps to translate these results to students and their families.
For Stern, state testing occurs once per year, and the backend processes that go into organizing these tests are very similar to the school’s internal interim tests. One of the biggest differences is that she is also responsible for test security and security protocols. But the same attention to student accommodations, testing groups, etc., applies to state testing.
When the results of these tests come back, she is responsible for analysis and reporting of that data to her school’s faculty and administration.
There are also daily tasks that data managers need to perform to keep things running smoothly in their school and with their SIS. Managing attendance, for instance, is a daily task that includes aggregating data and producing reports for individual teachers and administrators.
One of the advantages to having a data manager in an individual school rather than having two or three responsible for an entire network or district of schools is that the in-house person can be much more responsive to the needs of staff. And it’s inevitable that items will come across the SDM’s desk on a daily business that need prompt attention.
There are also ad-hoc processes that SDMs undertake. For instance, when a new student matriculates it’s necessary to get them set up with a schedule, update class rosters, and handle all the other minutiae that go into starting at a new school. This even includes making sure that the school’s census numbers reflect the change in student population. And the same process works in reverse when a student leaves the school.
What should schools look for when hiring a data manager?
By this point it should be pretty obvious how useful and important a data manager is to a school. These positions include a lot of very detailed and technical work.
Prior to her current role, Stern taught at the high school level and confessed to being “into” data. Still, she cautions both applicants and principals looking to hire a data manager that “data-aware” teachers aren’t always a shoo-in for a data manager role.
You don’t have to have a background in education to be a successful SDM. It certainly helps, but as with any profession or industry, new hires can glean many of the cultural aspects on the job. Individuals with prior work experience in professions that require extensive manipulation and analysis of data, such as business analysts or accountants, can all make good candidates.
If going out and finding a mid-career professional and getting them to switch to the education sphere isn’t feasible, try graduates with degrees in number-heavy disciplines. For instance, someone with a degree in business, statistics, information systems, (applied) mathematics, or computer science is a good place to start. Of course, there are always those unicorns that combine both. These people have experience in one of these disciplines as well as training in the humanities or social sciences. That combination of technical skill, critical thinking, and problem-solving ability is well served in data manager-type roles.
That said, SDMs pretty much have to be Excel power users. We’re not just talking about V-Lookups or pivot tables, either. Put it this way – if you were the SDM at Hogwarts your Patronus would be the Excel desktop icon.
On a related technical note, there isn’t always a blueprint for how to do the job of a SDM. This is especially true as more and more schools switch to a data-inspired approach. At times this requires SDMs to translate analog processes to the digital realm. Therefore, understanding your SIS and what its capabilities and limitations are is critical. Because the answer isn’t always in the user manual, SDMs need to have ample reserves of initiative and perseverance to create or adapt processes and see those projects through to a logical end.
Success in a data management role is not about technical skills exclusively, although those are certainly necessary. Having an “insane attention to detail – almost obsessive” as Stern notes, is just as important.
With so much data floating around, SDMs need to be hyper-organized. This position bears the responsibility of many high-stakes projects, and failure to comply with established guidelines can be costly. This is especially true when dealing with state reporting that’s tied to funding.
SDMs also require critical-reasoning skills. The wishes of one’s principal may not always align with state requirements, for example, so navigating these situations takes a good amount of judgment and tact. Having the bandwidth to cope with high-stress situations dovetails with this concept as well.
Many people go into education to help improve the lives of others. Stern notes that for SDMs, when you’re buried up to your eyeballs in data, it can be difficult to correlate the work you’re doing with the ultimate goal of closing the achievement gap. In this sense, SDMs also need perspective; the ability to step back from the granular details and view the composite whole, and to recognize that the data they manage is the proverbial mortar the holds the bricks of education together.