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Creating a District-Wide Culture of “Data Literacy” to Achieve Equity in Education

How to Map a Path to Your Equity Goals Tomorrow by Understanding Where Your District Stands Today

By Peter Solar and Mike Geers

A version of this article originally appeared on District Administration magazine.

As educators everywhere place an increasing focus and emphasis on achieving equity and equality in education—working to address historical inequities and increase opportunities for all students—a new challenge has emerged to present an even greater hurdle: not knowing what we don’t know. This is especially critical as stakeholders work together to specifically address the equity piece of equity and equality, as equity should be regarded as a destination, or something demonstrably achievable, as opposed to a mere goal of ambiguous “improvement.”

As the trope goes, there are things that we know, things that we don’t know, and things we don’t know that we don’t know—and it’s in that last category where lies a danger that, gone unaddressed, could result in well-meaning intentions causing purpose-defeating ends. 

With so much at stake, at a time in which so many are uniting in common purpose and resolve, it’s critical to get this initiative right, for current students and for future generations to come. 

Our secret weapon in this cause is something districts have at their ready disposal, but which has historically presented difficulty harnessing: data. It’s not that districts and educators don’t have access to data—quite the contrary. Data is everywhere: public databases, district-owned systems, spreadsheets, census bureaus, government entities…even desk drawers and computer hard drives! 

Yes, districts are data-rich. But they’re knowledge-poor.

Start with a Clear Picture

It’s one thing to set generalized standards for what a better future might look like—greater equity, more equitable access, etc.—but quite another to set definitive metrics for what improvement looks like, and what the final destination might be. The latter are hard numbers, and they’re specific, measurable milestones.

But to achieve progress toward a goal, you must have a clear picture of where your district stands today. What, precisely, is the current reality when it comes to existing equity gaps—social, emotional, educational and financial? The only way to truly understand the disparities (and the degree/extent of disparity) is to look at hard data. Numbers don’t lie, and there are numbers everywhere.

If there were ever a critical time and clear justification for the modernization of school districts’ data management systems, this is it. No longer is it enough to have data storage systems. We must get the numbers off of the paper, out of the spreadsheets, unlocked and out of disparate systems that house our data, and get them all into one system, where they can be analyzed and cross-analyzed, aggregated and disaggregated, compared, contrasted and shared.

“Using data to inform all of our practices in K12 education—from budget management to student instruction—is more important than ever,” says Paul Liabenow, Executive Director with The Michigan Elementary and Middle School Principals Association (MEMSPA). “We must analyze the data that we find at our fingertips to make timely course corrections if our desired outcomes are not being met. Most importantly, we must use data to expose and correct inequities in our systems and immediately make changes for the benefit of our marginalized students.”

Making the Invisible Visible

As districts and educators, and as the cornerstones of the communities we serve, we should be cross-pollinating and overlaying publicly available census data, district financial and modeling data, student achievement and educator evaluation data, population demographics and economic data, student migration and graduation data, grant and budget-forecasting data…all of it. And more. We should be working with our partners (public and private) in the communities we serve to harness as much information as possible. 

Only then will we truly understand the equity gaps that exist in our buildings and in our communities. And only then will we be able to conceive of and implement data-driven strategies, plans and programs to overcome them. Anything less, and we risk applying a well-meaning solution to the wrong problem, thereby missing the opportunity to achieve the end itself, or worse, exacerbating the problem.

A complete data set has the effect of “making the invisible, visible.” That danger of not knowing what we don’t know is very real. What if a root cause of a given inequity is presumed to be financial in nature, but in reality, is socio-political? Will throwing more money at this particular situation address root causes, or will it merely present the illusion of effort? And can you even measure progress toward a goal if you’re addressing the wrong underlying cause? Given that scenario, will your efforts be rewarded and applauded, or be met with cynicism and demands for greater transparency or compliance, when reporting demonstrates lack of progress?

If we truly want to address the drivers of inequity, we must first see them, later make sure we understand them, and finally show our work in overcoming them. By tapping into all available data sources, and enabling the data points to talk to each other, we can determine if a particular gap is driven by economics, demographics, geography, educator experience, or geopolitics.

You simply can’t see the invisible by looking at spreadsheets, one at a time.

Create a Culture of Data Literacy to Measure Everything—Even the Invisible

The challenges that educators face when it comes to equity—as well as equality—in education are similar in nature to all of the other myriad challenges confronting district personnel:

  1. Understanding the issue, problem, challenge or opportunity;
  2. Understanding what steps to take to overcome the shortcoming or achieve the aspiration; and
  3. Reporting out to the various stakeholders and compliance officers that action is being taken, and to what effect.

Achieving a district-wide commitment to what we call a “culture of data literacy” is a district’s best opportunity to check all three boxes, including for today’s equity and equality initiatives. This means having a very real, very consistent commitment to optimal data-use practices in order to facilitate better data-driven decisions. Enough of the invisible; enough of not knowing what we don’t know. There are easily implemented and easily understood systems that take all of the time and labor we used to devote to the administrative headaches of keeping data systems current and execute it all for us…way better and faster than we humans ever could.

Take these actions as a district, and yours will be well on its way to achieving this culture of data literacy, and making measurable, demonstrable progress toward greater equity and equality:

Understand the whole community. Know the district you serve, and not just its students and parents. What portion of the population rents versus owns? What is the size and nature of its homeless population? What about its percentage of single-parent households? What is the district’s complete demographics picture, from ethnicity to income, and everything in between? What are the geographic boundaries, anomalies and trends? All of these data points are potential contributors to inequality. But until you see them all, overlaid against one another, it’s difficult to discern which are the drivers, and which are the resultant outcomes.

Follow the money. Do you truly and completely know your financial spend at a district level, and at a building-to-building level? Do you know which schools have more active and more successful grant writing initiatives, and do those (or lack thereof) have an impact on financial gaps or inequities? What are the tax revenues, as well as state and federal funding sources, relative to your neighboring districts and statewide peers? “More money” is one solution, yes. But if a district doesn’t know how the money is spent now, how can it make a better plan to more efficiently allocate resources to greater effect, equity and equality, so that the new good money doesn’t go out with the old, bad?

Evaluate personnel. Consider cross-referencing student achievement data with financial data sets and educator evaluations. Are the higher-income areas of the district being served by teachers with more experience, and is that contributing to (or working against) student achievement metrics and educator outcome inequities?

Quantify the gaps and articulate the needs. With some $54 billion coming to schools in the second federal stimulus, a significant portion of that will be earmarked to address learning loss and student well-being (social, emotional and learning deficiencies). If you can’t quantify your district’s needs with hard numbers, it will be difficult (if not impossible) to demonstrate measurable progress toward closing the gaps, which will be a reporting requirement to be eligible for those funds. For example, can you demonstrate that your Title-I population experienced greater learning loss than the general population? Start this analysis now so you can expedite access to much needed federal funding and assistance to come as it becomes available.

Make it a team effort. Collaborate with district leaders, local office holders and city councils, police departments, and other entities that share your commitment to addressing community-wide inequities, and invite these stakeholders into the tent. Ask them to share their available data. Consider forming a task force with each entity represented at the table, and create a project workflow with assignable tasks and accountability, so that the entire community can share in the progress the district makes.

Get it together. Most importantly, get all available data sets into one, centralized, intelligent system, so that you can start with a clear picture of today, conceive of a measured plan for demonstrable progress, and implement that plan with purpose. With all of the data in one place, and with all stakeholders working together, reporting out to state and federal agencies will be easier, more transparent, and more accurate than ever before.

As with any important initiative, one cannot address such a critical goal of achieving equity in education by “going a mile wide and an inch deep.” There are so many interdependent forces at work—both historical and current, both plainly visible and subtly latent— that to make presumptions based on limited information or intuition does a disservice not only to the challenge before us, but to the requisite remedies as well.

Mike Geers

Peter Solar (left) is Director of Client Partnerships with Munetrix. He can be reached at peter@munetrix.com. Mike Geers is Client Partnership Manager with Munetrix, and he can be reached at mike@munetrix.com.

Fiscal Health, K-12, Municipal

What Can We Learn from this Forced New Reality?

Municipalities and School Districts Finding Need to Modernize Systems, Processes and Technology to Cope, Collaborate and Conquer Uncertainty

By and large, municipal governments and public school systems are doing admiral and applaudable work during this crisis that was suddenly thrust upon us all. From communicating to constituents with timely updates and critical announcements to establishing remote, virtual working and learning environments, what many have been able to achieve in such a short, compressed time frame is nothing short of amazing.

Of course, things haven’t been perfect. And some communities are coping more easily than others. But considering the circumstances, the early returns for most are encouraging, even as they are dispiriting. “We’re all in this together,” is a mantra we keep hearing, and it’s an important one to keep in mind as events continue to unfold.

No doubt, the cracks are starting to reveal themselves. Educators are confronting and working to overcome obstacles, as local governments are rising to meet previously unforeseen challenges, many seemingly unimaginable just a few short weeks ago. And while some of these newfound hurdles must and can be immediately cleared to keep our communities and schools operating, others are larger than what can be remedied in the here and now.

And therein lies both our collective challenge and opportunity: Take stock—there are lessons to be learned, and there are future decisions to inventory.

Prioritize and Triage Your Newly Discovered Vulnerabilities

In the short term, no doubt many school and municipal administrators are struggling to keep their heads above the proverbial water. But all water eventually finds its level, and there will, at some point, be an adjustment to this new normal, if only in parts. 

Some day, believe it or not, we will all get back to the old normal, and when we do, we will emerge more aware than ever of the challenges, vulnerabilities and downright deficiencies we were once willing to live with. We should use this opportunity—and the respite we’ll receive when we get back to “business as usual”—to take stock of the most critical cracks in our armor, knowing that the next crisis may just as quickly and just as critically present itself without warning. Will we be ready next time? Only if we start preparing today!

We encourage all municipal and school district administrators to document any discoveries they make relative to challenges they suddenly face, which may not have been quite so obvious when things were closer to normal. And we further urge them to encourage their entire staffs to do the same. 

Some challenges we expect many of you are struggling with include considerations such as:

Is there a remotely accessible knowledge bank for all to leverage? Or is critical data and information locked in desktop software on a computer that is suddenly behind locked doors? Or, worse yet, is there data, information or knowledge literally locked in a desktop drawer somewhere—as in, physically? Financial, operational and analytical knowledge, if it’s not already, should be accessible to anybody who needs it, wherever work may take them (in good times or in bad).

Are there tools and resources readily available to assist in the critical decisions we need to make in times of crisis? For example, many school districts need to make nearly instantaneous decisions regarding how and where they distribute their free and reduced lunch programs. A database that can instantly cross-sect demographic data based on need is a critical resource to efficiently answer questions, provide intelligence and inform critical decisions, in a whole host of applications and use cases.

How do we manage projects and teams when we’re all working from home? Significant projects, tasks and undertakings typically require the careful coordination of assets, budgets, personnel and calendars. This isn’t nearly as challenging when teams can convene, share physical project assets, and interact fluidly. But what about now, with no two people working in any single location? Project management software should facilitate collaboration, cooperative planning and dynamic budgeting, and even allow for asynchronous, a-geographical communication and coordination. Projects that have been long in the works might need to be urgently migrated to such third-party planning tools…then migrated back once we all get to enjoy some semblance of normalcy again.

What is our organization’s level of emergency preparedness? We’re re-learning during this most recent crisis just how quickly facts on the ground can change the modus operandi. What one day seems unimaginable and draconian may tomorrow feel necessary and intuitive. Coordinating, monitoring and documenting emergency preparedness and safety drills will be increasingly critical and, likely, more widely mandated in the future. Some of us are old enough to remember a time when “active-shooter lockdown” drills weren’t deemed necessary, but nuclear fallout drills were. And today, we are sheltering in place to escape and minimize viral infection. It’s important now more than ever to ask and answer: Will our systems and resources make such compliance and transparency easier, or more difficult?

Address the Urgent. Document the Important.

While we fully expect the cracks in the foundation to be showing (who in this world is today not waking up to new vulnerabilities and challenges?), we don’t expect that they be addressed and remedied overnight. Nor should they be. Sometimes, the decisions we make in times of crisis prove to be overreaches down the road.

But we can triage. We can document everything, and we can prioritize initiatives against considerations of urgency, impact and effect. Some challenges need to be immediately overcome, such as remote learning and virtual working environments. You’ve already taken steps in those regards. There will be more to consider. But you won’t be able to plug every hole in the dam at once.

Use this time to observe, to reflect and to take stock. Eventually, there will come a time when all (or most) of these challenges can and must be addressed. If we want to optimize our operations in preparation for times of crisis, we should modernize our technology, tools and resources now—once the dust of this current crisis clears. We will all need to rethink our priorities, plans and processes, not only to avoid future pain, but to attain an evergreen optimization of data, knowledge and valuable resources that represent the lifeblood of our communities. 

We must create a roadmap for tomorrow’s success, even amid today’s pain. There’s no better time to plan for that than the present, when we are right in the middle of it.

To join a no-cost Webinar that illustrates the capabilities and applications of the Munetrix ProjectTracker app, please register today. We plan to share tips and best practices for managing projects, personnel and budgets remotely.

If you have any questions relative to your community’s preparedness or data management capabilities, please do not hesitate to contact us.

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