Two Nuggets on Collecting and Using Data

At the National Career Academy Coalition conference which I attended this week in balmy Houston, TX, I gathered two nuggets regarding the use of data I wanted to pass along.

You know, in education today, it is de rigueur to say “We’re a data driven organization.”  But let’s be honest, by our basic wiring some of us are drawn to data because it provides the precision we want; others of us are more intuitive by nature and don’t really see the value in data.  We “know it when we see it” and using data doesn’t come as easily.  But as in most areas of life, often both/and is better than either/or.  I think a synthesis between relying on both objective data and professional wisdom is the right approach.

But even when we see the value in objective data to help us understand results and trendlines, how do we get people to actually use it?

Who Owns the Data?

The first nugget I brought home with me was from Scott Warren with the Making Schools Work initiative of the Southern Region Education Board.  In a session on using data, he made the observation that “no one ever washes a rental car.” True enough. Why is that?  We don’t wash a rental car because we don’t OWN it.

In the same way, Scott pointed out that a lot of performance data that is supposed to drive program improvement goes unused because classroom teachers don’t own it.

This is what we often hear from teachers who don’t own the data.  “Oh, that test data? It’s from last year’s students and this year’s students are different…. It’s not really telling me anything I didn’t already know… Those assessments aren’t aligned to our new curriculum. We just take the test results and put them on the shelf.”

Scott offered the idea of asking teachers to help generate some data points, so they can own them. He also noted that we need to drive data back to actual classroom behaviors, so that teachers could work together to create ways to measure actual classroom practices that are correlated with higher achievement.

The other approach I’ve seen is what we might call “data adoption.”  That is, even though you didn’t create the data points (it’s your biological baby), you still took the data into your home and, in a sense, “adopted” it.  At NC3T, we have documented this at work in Pennsylvania where the NOCTI skills assessments are widely used.  Administrators and coaches work with teachers to unpack assessment data from multiple years, so they can see trendlines and specific areas of content that students consistently struggle with.  Then they do root cause analysis – there is typically one of three problems – the curriculum sequence, curriculum gaps, or underwhelming teaching and instruction.  Then the teacher and administrator create action plans to address the identified root causes.  This non-judgmental approach to data has helped many teachers own the data and the resulting changes in curriculum sequence, content and classroom teaching, because it actually is part of their getting better.  It is data used as a tool vs. a weapon.

Staying Connected with Students for Long-Term Data

The second nugget I found was during the same session on data, shared by Patti Smith of the National Academy Foundation (NAF). She raised the issue of how hard it is to get long-term data on high school graduates because student data systems, college data systems, and workforce data systems don’t talk to each other.  Even the excellent National Student Clearinghouse tool doesn’t provide individual data, so you can’t draw program-based conclusions, just schoolwide trends.

Because of privacy concerns and data systems that don’t connect, educators have to work at creative ways of staying connected with students to gather follow-up information on how they’re doing.  NAF is encouraging its local school partners to form alumni organizations (which many older high schools already have) as a way to keep former students socially connected.  Through these alumni associations, school leaders can administer follow-up surveys that are more likely to get acted upon, providing important data on how students are faring.  More than just creating an informal Facebook group (a platform which many young people aren’t using much these days), an alumni organization has more sustainability and direct connection to the school.  It’s a really interesting approach that I’ll be following.

Please share with me any other innovative approaches to staying connected to graduates that seem to be promising.


Hans Meeder is President of NC3T, the National Center for College and Career Transitions ( NC3T provides planning, coaching, technical assistance and tools to help community-based leadership teams plan and implement their college-career pathway systems and strengthen employer connections with education.

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