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Education, Fiscal Health, Municipal, Opinion

Be Not Afraid: Data Can Be Your Greatest Ally and Easiest Path to a Post-Pandemic Recovery

GovTech’s March magazine’s article, Data-Driven Ways to Maximize City Budgets Post-Pandemic, authored by Harvard-Kennedy Professor of Innovations in Government Stephen Goldsmith, was almost genius in the way it broke down the benefits of data use into simple components. Former government appointee and thought leader Jane Wiseman co-authored the piece, and collectively, they hit the nail on the head.

I have long held that the word data is one of the most oft-used but least understood words in government today. What exactly is data, anyway? It means different things to different people. And to almost everyone, the word can suggest an intimidating reference to sophisticated technology and informational analytics.

But for an archeologist, an unearthed piece of broken clay is a data point. A cardiologist would find blood pressure or heart rate data useful. For a police chief, crimes per capita per geographic square mile are significant data points. Certainly any police chief would understand those measures and their importance, but making an assumption that everybody shares that ability would be a mistake. The point is, data must be presented in a manner in which anybody can understand—especially public-sector data, which is often lacking in structure and availability.

Adopting a Culture of Data Literacy to Combat Data Intimidation

As both a data analyst and an office-holding policymaker, I can say with certainty that many public sector stakeholders who have limited exposure to technology, finance or analytics often shy away from asking questions for fear of embarrassment. This is particularly concerning with policymakers, who may be tasked with making decisions on information they may not completely comprehend.

Goldsmith and Wiseman suggest, “The best strategy is to use data as a tool—to identify what works and find operational efficiencies and identify the areas in the greatest need.” One with a technical or analytical background might infer he’s referring to the Pareto Principle, also referred to as the “80/20 Rule”, which implies that 80% of outputs are driven from just 20% of inputs.

Using data, a city discovered it was spending considerably more on its police department on a per-capita basis than any of the other 17 cities in the region. Blue bars represent region averages, red represent the city’s actual spend. By addressing the imbalance in its next contract, the city saved $2 million over the new contract term.

But not every municipality can afford to have a Business Analyst on staff, nor do they need to. Investing in a simple-to-use analytics platform, and with minimal training, a “culture of data literacy” can take root, and eventually erode away the intimidation that the typical lay person harbors when it comes to data and technology. Given the right inputs (the 20% Pareto references), technology can be leveraged to provide a prescriptive set of outputs, in an intuitive, dashboard-like visualization that even the broader community-at-large can understand, with no prior training at all!  

In one real-world example, a community in Michigan found that they were spending considerably less than the 11 other cities in its region by reviewing just such graphic outputs. When expanding their search/analysis to cities across the state of like size (budget, taxable value, population, e.g.), it emphasized the finding was truer than they even realized. In one sense, community officials could be proud of their cost controls, but the question that remained was, How does this relate to the quality of service we are delivering at that budget, and was it appropriate and sufficient?  

Another community found that it was spending considerably less than the 11 other cities in their region (middle chart), and when expanding their search to cities across the state of like size (budget, taxable value, population, shown at right) it emphasized the finding was true.

When they looked at their reported crime data, they realized that the money saved was not benefiting the residents, since they were near the top in every one of the four major categories of crime reporting data.

Aha. A more complete data set reveals a much different takeaway. And nobody needed an advanced degree to read the digital tea leaves. This community clearly and confidently recognized that it needed to invest more in their police department, and made the decision to do so almost immediately. 

Survey Says!

The authors cite a recent survey they conducted in 2020 with the Chief Data Officers of 20 cities. They report that the responses were contradictory, in that many cited the need for massive increases in data use, but anticipated less funding would be available for the infrastructure that creates value from data. One respondent said, “The appetite for data has tremendously increased, and data insights are becoming the norm.” 

One concern is that as data needs increase, budget reductions “will eliminate new initiatives and impact some ongoing operations,” according to Philadelphia CIO Mark Wheeler. The other concern confronting them is the loss of experienced staff due to the boomers hitting retirement eligibility and a shortage of qualified or interested talent coming into the public domain.

According to the article, consulting firm McKinsey estimated that globally, “Government could capture $1 trillion of value by using data analytics, both to identify revenue not collected and to recoup payments made in error, and estimates that using data analytics to eliminate waste, fraud and abuse in government can have returns as high as 10 to 15 times the cost.”

At Munetrix, we’ve seen this in situations as simple as analyzing an Accounts Payable report.  Why pay a single vendor 50-70 times per year when payment terms of once per month can be easily established?  If we calculate the cost of processing a payment, order to bank reconciliation, transactions costs range from $35 to almost $150 based on estimates from governments of different types and sizes. If 50 payments using an average of $50 were eliminated, we could free up $2,500 for other operational purposes. Multiply that by dozens of vendors and we’re talking real money.

Simple, intuitive and rich data visualizations have the ability to turn the invisible into the visible.

Looking at data visually can provide insights to trends or anomalies that may otherwise be left undiscovered.

Removing Uncertainty, Instilling Confidence in Decision Making

Goldsmith-Wiseman’s article concludes by saying that public officials should be able to check the following five boxes if they are interested in fostering a culture that respects the power of data to unlock insight. Does your community…

  1. Use public scorecards to show returns on investment measured in terms of customer service and dollars saved.  
  2. Use a predictive analytics program.
  3. Make widespread use of layered data and spatial analytics to identify trends and relationships.
  4. Use data to identify revenue opportunities in service areas or with examining unpaid fees. 
  5. Establish an internal “culture of data literacy” initiative with employees. 

And I would recommend a #6 be added: Don’t be afraid of data, and don’t be afraid to ask for help! There is nothing to fear in making more informed decisions and more confidently prescribing solutions to today’s challenges as we continue to recover from the effects of a global pandemic.

When data is Reliable, Timely, Relevant, Useful, Comparable and Consistent—the six qualitative characteristics of data per the Government Accounting Standard Board (GASB)—the invisible becomes visible; and added clarity will ultimately improve decisions, outcomes and literacy.

Education, K-12, News, Opinion, Uncategorized

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.

school assessment data
Education, K-12, Opinion

Addressing Inequities and Assessment Challenges Facing Educators, Students and Families Amid Imperfect Educational Environments

How Adopting Emerging Technologies Facilitates Learning, Simplifies Progress Monitoring, and Improves Student Outcomes

A version of this article originally appeared in District Administration Magazine.

As we approach the midpoint of this school year, students are learning via a variety of instructional modalities, including face-to-face, virtual and hybrid instruction.  As COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths are rising again, schools are shifting between instructional models to flex with changing health safety guidelines and local community dynamics. Educational pedagogy such as “synchronous” and “asynchronous learning” are becoming household terms. And, educators at all levels are making Herculean efforts to keep up with these challenges and to provide the best possible instruction for students.

In this oscillating climate, educators must pivot quickly to adapt—guided by data—to have the greatest impact on student learning. The ability to rapidly access, analyze and evaluate data—across multiple assessments and platforms (along with other types of data)—is critical to making decisions about instruction, programming and interventions.

The Continuing Impact COVID-19 Will Have on Students this Fall

A recent study conducted in partnership between NWEA, Brown University and University of Virginia (EdWorkingPaper 20-226) projects that “Students are likely to return in fall 2020 with approximately 63-68% of the learning gains in reading relative to a typical school year, and with 37-50% of the learning gains in math.” The study goes on further to state, “We estimate that losing ground during the COVID-19 school closures would not be universal, with the top third of students potentially making gains in reading.” 

In short, not every student will be impacted in the same way, nor to the same degree. Equity plays a large role in the learning gaps between individual students resulting from a variety of elements including prior achievement, socioeconomic factors, access to technology and internet, teacher training on virtual instruction, support within the home, and more. 

Dynamic reporting tools can help educators to look at trends, past and present, and disaggregate trends easily by filtering at various levels.

Why is Data-Driven Instruction More Important Than Ever?

While assessments can be powerful tools to identify student needs or monitor student progress/growth, assessments are only powerful when the data is analyzed and applied to drive instruction, programming and interventions. Educators must use data to take action for data to have any utility. Otherwise, it’s just more test data.

In Paul Bambrick Santayo’s book, Driven by Data, he writes that schools need to change their focus from, “what is taught” to “what is learned.”  The impact of the pandemic on student learning and the ongoing transitioning of learning environments escalates the necessity of this shift in focus.

Bambrick-Santayo goes on to identify that there are four fundamental building blocks to data driven instruction: assessment, analysis, action and culture.

  • Assessments must be standards-aligned, with varying levels of questions for depth of knowledge and understanding and provide data that not only informs instruction but helps to compare students with their peers. 
  • Analysis is the key to using the data to identify areas of student need so that action can be taken. 
  • Educators must understand how to apply the conclusions from their data analysis to take appropriate actions that have the greatest impact.
  • Finally, educational leaders must create a culture in which data-driven instruction will thrive.  This includes providing and following an assessment calendar, providing time for deep data analysis and discussion, and encouraging/supporting educators in using the data to guide actions taken.
Dynamic reporting tools in data analytics systems allow educators to quickly analyze trends over multiple assessment periods, and aggregate/disaggregate data using filters.

The greatest barrier to moving from assessment to action is the deep and meaningful analysis of assessment data. Analysis requires the “systematic examination of assessment data to thoroughly determine students’ strengths and weaknesses, then taking the necessary steps to address their needs,” states Bambrick-Santayo.

How to Optimally Get from Assessment to Action

According to Bambrick-Santayo, the first core driver of analysis includes “user-friendly reports.” Time is the new premium. There isn’t the time, nor resources, available to build complex spreadsheets to facilitate comparing data across multiple assessment platforms. The skill level at which educators can analyze data varies as greatly as the instructional levels among students, and many educators may not have the technical skills to create and manage the elaborate spreadsheets needed for meaningful data analysis. Time to teach these new skills is severely limited or not available.  Furthermore, safety protocols, preparation for virtual learning classes, and the new logistics/daily routines of instruction have removed any “extra” time that was once nominally available.

Educators need tools that help analyze data across multiple platforms—quickly, easily and seamlessly. They want tools that provide easy-to-read reports, where computerized systems “crunch the numbers for them.” These tools should rapidly disaggregate or aggregate student assessment data at the student, class, grade, building or district level—by subject, standard or objective—all within a few clicks…not hours or days.

Dynamic reporting tools can help educators easily group students by proficiency and skill/goal area for targeted instruction/intervention.

Dynamic platforms empower educators to change views rapidly in order to identify trends, gaps and areas of need. They help educators filter different types of student data, including achievement, attendance, behavior, demographic and perception data, so that schools and districts are able to analyze the needs of the whole child. In a perfect world, this should be available in one online platform (not multiple systems with different logins that require manual massaging of data between platforms). Data must be accessible anytime, anywhere, to adapt to changing school environments.

Dynamic reporting tools can help educators easily identify significant gaps among different groups of students, help drive data-based decisions on interventions, programming and resource allocation.

A “New Normal” Guided by Data

Perhaps COVID-19 will accelerate the implementation of data-driven instruction to permeate more substantially in everyday educational practice. The easier data analysis is, the more it frees educators to spend their time taking meaningful action with students. For Data Driven practices to take root, educational leaders must also purposefully set aside time to infuse deep and meaningful data analysis, planning and action into the school culture. 

It’s not that educators don’t have enough access to data. It’s that educators need to easily convert that data into intelligence…and intelligence into action. Only then, can educators focus their time, energy, expertise and passion on what they do best—educating and developing today’s learners!

Linda Kraft is Director of Customer Experience with Munetrix, a Michigan-based data analytics and management firm serving school districts and municipalities across the country. She can be reached at linda@munetrix.com. Learn more at munetrix.com.

References 

Bambrick-Santayo, Paul.  Driven by Data 2.0: A Practical Guide to Improve Instruction.  Jossey-Bass, 2019.

Dorn, Emma, Bryan Hancock, Jimmy Sarakatsannis, and Ellen Virelug. (2020)., COVID-19 and student learning in the United States: The hurt could last a lifetime.  Retrieved from Fresno State University: https://fresnostate.edu/kremen/about/centers-projects/weltycenter/documents/COVID-19-and-student-learning-in-the-United-States-FINAL.pdf

Kuhfeld, Megan, James Soland, Beth Tarasawa, Angela Johnson, Erik Ruzek, and Jing Liu. (2020). Projecting the potential impacts of COVID-19 school closures on academic achievement. (EdWorkingPaper: 20-226). Retrieved from Annenberg Institute at Brown University: https://doi.org/10.26300/cdrv-yw05

Education, Municipal, News, Opinion

Munetrix Offers New COVID-19 Dashboard to Michigan Municipalities and School Districts at No Cost

Company Partners with Bloomfield Hills Schools and the Metro Bureau to Develop and Distribute Dashboard Statewide

Munetrix, in partnership with Bloomfield Hills Schools, has developed and launched a new COVID-19 dashboard and is making the dynamic dashboard available to any municipality, county or school district that wishes to embed it on its own website, at no cost to that government entity. In addition, Munetrix has partnered with the Metro Bureau to distribute dashboard embed codes to its member organizations across the state of Michigan.

First deployed on the Bloomfield Hills Schools homepage, the COVID-19 dashboard was developed initially to address the desire of Bloomfield Hills Schools administrators to provide clear communication regarding the school district’s readiness to return to face-to-face learning to parents in a way that would be as easy to understand and as readily updated as possible. In doing so, district officials approached Munetrix to develop technology that would source data from state of Michigan’s coronavirus case data and display relevant metrics to provide clear indicators as to the most current moving averages of new cases per 100,000 population, sortable by county, as well as to display each county’s rolling percent-positive data.

The dynamic dashboard draws state data that is both updated (with new cases) and refreshed (updating prior case data) daily, giving district parents the most accurate, timely and geographically relevant data available.

The two data visualizations provided on the dashboard are intended to give parents and community members an instantly intuitive snapshot regarding a given district’s readiness to return to face-to-face learning or its risk level of regressing to all-virtual learning environments using a color-coded graphic representation of moments in time, dating back to March 1, 2020. The system utilizes the Harvard Global Health Institute Model developed by Dr. Ashish Jha and others to create standards for risk factors and thresholds by which a school district can establish triggers for moving from one phase of risk tolerance to another. For example, the Bloomfield Hills Schools parameters dictate that the county remain at least 21 consecutive days in a given risk level before the district is eligible to enact predetermined protocols for moving to a next phase of learning modality.

Leveraging the standards established by the Harvard Global Health Institute Model, Munetrix displays risk ranges in the conventional red-orange-yellow-green convention, making the data intuitively accessible and visually clear, educating parents, children, district personnel and the community at large as to a district’s current state of return readiness at any given time.

Making Difficult Decisions Easy to Understand

Not only does this accessible dashboard allow for quicker, data-based decision making, it is a tool that serves to provide transparency and information to parents during a time when uncertainty and anxiety are heightened, making such information accessible on-demand, 24/7.

“We’ve heard of parents who watch the numbers on our dashboard like you might watch the stock market—three times a day!” said Patrick Watson, Superintendent of Bloomfield Hills Schools. “It also gives parents the information when and how they want it, no longer relying on answered phone calls and returned emails that may take some time to address,” he added. “The number of phone calls and emails into the office, with people looking for updates and information, has dramatically reduced, allowing our staff to focus their energy and resources on optimizing our learning environments, both virtual and in-person.”

“As a data visualization company, we continue to consider it our duty to do whatever our technology allows to deliver easy-to-understand, actionable intelligence to those who need it, and to make it simple for anyone to display, use and understand,” said Buzz Brown, Vice President of Customer Engagement and Chief Data Officer with Munetrix. “There has never been a more urgent time for accurate and timely information than during this pandemic, especially given how it’s affected our schools, educators, administrators, families and learners.”

Melissa Baker, Executive Director of the Metro Bureau, immediately recognized the value that this new dashboard provides to school districts and their constituents, offering to facilitate the distribution of free embed codes provided by Munetrix to its membership. “This is such an incredible value-add to our district members,” she said. “People are craving accurate, timely and understandable data these days, and our members are committed to providing it. Anything that makes this easier on everyone is something we as an organization are committed to broadly distributing.” 

Munetrix and the Metro Bureau receive requests for embed codes daily, with dashboards now being displayed on several district home pages across the state…east and west, north and south. 

Munetrix will provide a copy-and-paste embed code at no cost to any school district or government entity that would like to display the dashboard on its own website. Simply contact Munetrix to submit a request, or Metro Bureau members can complete this form to request a code. 

To see how this dashboard is being deployed by local school districts to make informed decisions about learning environments and communicate transparently with parents and the community in real time, watch the story that Local 4 Newscasters shared with their viewers. 

About Munetrix

Auburn Hills, Mich.-based Munetrix, among the nation’s largest aggregators of municipal and school district data, promotes municipal wellness and sustainability through its cloud-based data management tools and proprietary performance management applications. In partnering with Munetrix, municipalities and school districts are able to manage their data and access cost-effective products and advisory services to make meaningful and reliable budgets, financial projections, academic achievement metrics, trend reports and better-informed forward-looking decisions. Learn more at www.munetrix.com.

Education, Municipal, Opinion

Etiquette and Other Best Practices for the New Normal

Perfecting the Two-Dimensional Meeting in the Age of Virtual Conferences

It’s been an unusual few months, getting used to Zoom and similar technologies. Users have had fun with virtual backgrounds, emojis and other gimmicks. Guess what? Summer is almost over, and the remote collaboration environment is here to stay for many. We are hearing a significant percent of the workforce will not return to the office in any foreseeable future. The two-dimensional meeting is here to stay, and it’s important to learn how to use it.

Create a Profile

Make sure you get a presence in each app you find yourself using. Whether it’s Zoom, Teams, or GoTo meeting, get an account (even if it’s free) and create your profile. Make sure you have a proper picture to display when your video is off. Consider including your organization’s name and job title. For example, stop to consider if your meeting environment deems it acceptable to have the Millennium Falcon as your background.

Plan Your Workspace

It was fun for a while hearing your colleagues’ dogs bark, the occasional cat on the keyboard, grandkids Zoom bombing, or critiquing home decor. As I said, summer is almost over. It’s back to work or school time. Plan to have a proper location, depending on the nature of your audience. Be careful of what’s in the background. I’m sure you may be passionate about your politics, religion or other endeavors. Be mindful of your audience. They may have conflicting views and get distracted from your input as they are focused on reading book titles on your shelf.

Test the location and quality of your camera. Make sure it appears as though you are looking into the camera, otherwise you appear aloof. If you are using multiple monitors, you may need a camera that is not attached to your laptop or screen. The camera should be located behind the monitor you will be using on the call. Make sure the camera is located slightly above your face, and not below your face.

Avoid Joining with Links

Now that you have taken the time to create a profile in the app, do not lose it by joining meetings through links. Sometimes the link brings you in the meeting as a generic user. Launch your app first, log in as you, and then join the meeting with the meeting ID.

Live Etiquette

When you are live in the meeting, make sure your tile includes your name and not some generic title like “Mom’s iPad.” How many times have you been in a meeting and wondered who someone was? This is your chance to always have your name and affiliation posted for all to read. Reading body language in a meeting is important but sometimes difficult sitting around a table. The two-dimensional tiles can make it easier, as long as the cameras are on. Similarly, if you are not going to pay attention to the presenter, turn your camera off. It’s obvious when you are doing something else.

Consider having your mic muted at all times until you are ready to speak. Background noise can be distracting to others in attendance, and even disruptive to the meeting in general.

Guest Speakers

There’s been a paradigm shift in two converging directions from which you can benefit. Attendees are much more willing to attend a virtual event now with a guest speaker, and guest speakers are much more willing to stay home. Nationally known speakers that would have cost in the five-digit neighborhood with travel expenses are now willing to spend an hour on your call for $1,000 or less. Use this as an advantage to engage your audience and significantly enhance the quality of your material.

Camaraderie

Here you will need to be creative, but this part can be the most rewarding. Some of your attendees may have limited contact with other humans. New hires don’t have the option of chatting over the water cooler with colleagues in an office building. You need to create that human contact and build that team virtually.

Members of the Munetrix team were presenters at a recent association board meeting, and the Board Chair always included a team event at her meetings. She wanted to continue that tradition virtually. We used a game show app with topical trivia questions to engage all attendees. Amazon gift cards were awarded for most points.

“MASFPS board members were able to enjoy a round of Kahoot with our friends from Munetrix during our summer leadership and learning academy,” says Sara Shriver, Executive Director with MASFPS. “This was a great way to engage all members during a virtual learning event! It was fun, competitive, and a unique way to build camaraderie as an organizational team!”

ADA Compliance

Lastly, remember and consider the hearing and visually impaired community when conducting meetings, to make sure you are staying compliant with ADA guidelines and requirements. The Center for Hearing and Communication has issued guidance on this matter, and Zoom itself offers its own disability compliance tools and disclosures. Check out Zoom’s library of resources and documentation here, but be sure to frequently check and update your policies and procedures, as both technology and regulations change frequently.

No one can state with certainty how “normal” this “new” reality will last. But we can all take measures now to make the best out of an imperfect working, learning and collaborating environment, until such a time that we all get back to the old normal.

Buzz Brown, Co-Founder, serves as Vice President of Customer Engagement and Chief Data Officer with Munetrix. He can be reached via email at buzz@munetrix.com or by phone at 248.499.8355.

Education, Fiscal Health, K-12, Opinion

Schools Should Take a Three-Phased Approach as They Plan to Return to “Normal”

How to Adapt Today, Become Adept Tomorrow, and What to Adopt Permanently

[A version of this post originally appeared on District Administration, a national trade journal serving school district administrators and educators.]

When announcements came that states were closing schools for the remainder of this school year, in a way they brought the first semblance of clarity to the myriad spate of unknowns. Soon, we began to look ahead to the fall school year, which brings its own set of variables and unknowns. While we expect timelines and announcements to vary from district to district and state to state, one thing is becoming increasingly clear: it is unlikely that things will soon be getting “back to normal” in large measure.

With each day comes increased clarity, if only at the margins, but that clarity is often difficult to recognize in moments of urgency and quickly shifting priorities. But each day, discoveries are being made: we weren’t prepared for this or that, we hadn’t accounted for every contingency, or perhaps, maybe we’ve stumbled upon a better way to manage this particular task.

Which is why, though it may seem difficult at first, school districts and personnel at every level of education should be taking this time to reassess their systems, processes and vulnerabilities to optimize what will eventually be a return to some degree of normalcy. But it likely won’t happen overnight. In fact, we suggest that educators and administrators take a three-phased approach: take immediate remedial actions where you can in the short term, plan for an eventual transition back to a more recognizable learning environment, and document what new workflows should be permanently adopted as best practice long-term.

Phase One: Triage for Today

Literally overnight, educators and administrators were thrust into an entirely unfamiliar work and teaching environment. Technology needed to be learned and adopted without warning, nor training. Employees dispersed to millions of disconnected remote home offices in an instant. Nearly everything we took for granted, in terms of collaboration, communication and cooperation, was suddenly taken from us. And many instantly discovered the limitations and vulnerabilities that few had accounted for.

Access to systems and documents proved challenging for those who are used to keeping software and hardware under literal and figurative lock-and-key. If “it’s at my desktop at school,” it’s practically unreachable at the moment.

But work needs to get done. Meetings need to happen. Projects need to press forward, and budgets will soon be due. We cannot permanently pause. As many have discovered, time waits for no one. 

All of this underscores the need to quickly establish and document new workflows, new teams, new processes for planning, and new systems and technology that live in the cloud or are accessible to anyone who needs it, 24/7. 

Amid all of our other urgent priorities, administrators and educators should be documenting proper workflows that account for each of the following:

  • Tasks: Capture explicit documentation of all required tasks to complete a given project.
  • Teams: Make sure all tasks are assignable to ensure completion and inject accountability.
  • Timelines: Create project milestones that are clearly defined and realistically attainable.
  • Metrics: Measure progress and success against pre-established desired outcomes.
  • Prompts and Reminders: In times of uncertainty, teams will need (and respond to) built-in alerts and prompts when deadlines approach or new priorities arise.
  • Collaboration: Multiple teams may need to collaborate on overlapping projects. Create safeguards against tasks being missed due to workflow handoffs or unclear accountability.

Once decided upon and documented, leverage available technology to create one centralized knowledge base and project management tool, accessible remotely. Harnessing workflows into one centralized location will make sure nothing gets missed or skipped and can account for new workflows that might come along as priorities shift or change.

Phase Two: Transition to Tomorrow

Workflows, processes, systems and task forces will eventually need to return to a more conventional reality. The problem is, we don’t currently know when that will be. Perhaps it will be announced as suddenly as we transitioned away from our regularly scheduled programming. There will be a sense of relief, to be sure…but there will also be demanding deadlines and daunting decisions equal to those we are grappling with today. 

If uncertainty can be mitigated, now is the time to do it, when it is most relevant and obvious. School districts should be encouraging administrators, educators and clerical support to document where the vulnerabilities and shortcomings emerged, so they can be addressed, not only in the long term, but to avoid a painful transition-back in the nearer term.

In the past several weeks, decisions had to be made with little warning, and new processes had to be up and running overnight. But now we do have some luxury of foresight, knowing that a return to regular education is coming, even if we don’t know when. Perhaps now is the time to plan for those workflows and processes to be updated, especially considering that each individual workflow and task force might have several sub-workflows, and perhaps even disparate teams collaborating at different points and times.

A few transitions we can anticipate now, for which workflows and centralized knowledge bases can be established:

How will we track and process the return of devices that have been assigned out, and who is assigned to each subtask?

What is the new process for building preparation and maintenance, following the sudden dispersal of maintenance personnel, including timelines and accountabilities for reopening facilities?

What updates to registration workflows might need to be made if registration for the new school year is in a compressed time frame or needs to occur remotely/digitally?

How do our teacher and student evaluations need to be addressed, given how the final weeks of this school year’s curricula were delivered?

What changes need to be made to accommodate school lunch provision, both over the summer and should another similar crisis arise—remote delivery or centralized pickup?

Many districts were preparing to roll out a new math series in the fall: Will workflows need to accommodate new realities and timelines?

How will summer school be administered?

Are there necessary changes to scheduling and processing of material assets, such as bus maintenance?

As budget deadlines approach, how can we build in scenarios, given the many unknowns?

Technology is better equipped to manage these tasks, workflows and scenarios at scale than humans, pen-and-paper, or even static spreadsheet software (like Excel or Google Sheets). In most cases, the data to make informed decisions and create optimized workflows already exists and is readily available to school districts. There’s never been a better nor more urgent time to plug in to the tools at our disposal.

Phase Three: Adopt to Adapt, and Stay Adept

What many discover during times of crisis is that processes and procedures adapted out of urgency or necessity can actually be adopted as best practices going forward. In fact, the quicker, most efficient way to accomplish priorities can be discovered then defined to make our teams more effective while reducing costs and eliminating unnecessary exposures to human error.

The first step is moving away from paper and into digital environments. Next, make sure that data and technology is universally available and accessible—from anywhere, at any time, by anyone who should rightly have access. Lastly, allow (or force) technology to do the heavy lifting of planning, coordinating and measuring successful projects and collaborating teams.

Your new workflows and systems should allow you to:

  • plan and prepare for the unknown
  • proactively put processes in place and document workflows
  • account for contingencies
  • consider various and, perhaps even unforeseen, scenarios
  • trigger alternate paths, as appropriate
  • maintain a centralized knowledge repository that can be shared, not only among existing team members, but in perpetuity, even as personnel turnover continues at pace for the foreseeable future

School district professionals may find it challenging to manage the complexity of workflows even under “normal” circumstances. Maybe “normalcy” will return soon, but in the meantime, increased urgency and shifting priorities can create or elevate margin for human error. If we can use this challenge as an opportunity to modernize and optimize workflows, we will all be better for it…both in standard operating procedures and, heaven forbid, when the next crisis presents itself.

This discipline and attention to detail in the short term will build better habits for the long run. Once we emerge from crisis mode, we should take comfort in the lessons learned and the uncertainty conquered.

Linda Kraft is Director of Customer Engagement with Munetrix, a Michigan-based data analytics and management firm serving school districts and municipalities across the country. She can be reached at linda@munetrix.com.

Education, K-12, Municipal, Opinion

The Problem with Buzzwords

Is the use of jargon actually standing in the way of progress?

“Transparency.”

“Smart cities.”

“Big data.”

Our world is littered with them. Call them “buzzwords,” call it “jargon,” call it “government speak.” Whatever you call them, it’s clear that people are using words and expressions they don’t fully understand, can’t reliably define, and, what’s worse, won’t even recognize when they actually see them executed properly.

Heck, even the word “data” has become something of an overused, catch-all moniker being applied to virtually anything containing a fact or figure. Is a printout of a spreadsheet, tucked away in the desk drawer of a retired clerk, “data?” Is a crumpled-up, out-of-date map “data?” Is an artifact dug from an archeological site considered to be “data?”

And what makes data “big,” for that matter?

Or consider the concept of “smart cities.” What makes a city “smart?” Sure, there are definitions out there…but can you recite one? Most people can’t—even those clamoring for them (or even part of the conversation, in many instances).

Which brings us to “transparency.” Transparency is a word I’ve been hearing since the 1980s , first in the automotive world, later in the political arena , and now virtually everywhere you turn—including routine business matters with municipalities and school districts. But ask 100 people to define transparency and you’ll get 100 different answers. (I know…I’ve done it!) 

Even our old friend Noah Webster has a difficult time defining transparency: “the quality or state of being transparent.” (Not joking…look it up.) The definition of transparent per Webster is no joy either, the best of eight options being “readily understood.”  So the answer is: “the quality or state of being readily understood?” See the problem?

If we can’t even agree on definitions, how can we come to consensus as to whether we’ve achieved the outcomes we all profess to desire, such as government transparency, smart cities and the public’s understanding of available community data?

The Problem with Jargon

It’s not that they aren’t admirable and worthwhile pursuits, these commitments to transparency, the continued progress toward smarter cities, and providing universal community access to public data. They are. The problem arises when people use buzzwords as a shield from scrutiny or evaluation.

If nobody truly understands the meaning of a noble-sounding aspiration, it becomes easy to pay lip service to abstractions and hide behind actual results. Claims of transparency and “smart-ness” become easier to tout, as an unwitting public is becoming increasingly immune to their effects: We hear the words, we vaguely understand the actions people are making toward the objectives these buzzwords describe, and we assume progress is being made. It’s comforting, in a way.

But what if it’s not?

What if we end up with  the illusion of transparency, but, in reality, too few are actually achieving the intended goals of informing our public, community employees and elected officials?

Consider a hypothetical: An entity commissions a study and produces a 500-page report, then posts a PDF of that report somewhere buried deep within its website. Is this transparency? Is the PDF even data? At 500 pages, it certainly is big…but big data, it is not.

The ultimate danger that the proliferation of over-used and misapplied terminology poses to our communities is that we hear the lip service, we see activity and proposals, we witness claims of accomplishments, and we fall complacent to actually achieving measurable results and meaningful progress toward the vital ends our communities need to achieve—fiscally, scholastically, and politically.

Less Talk, More Walk

As an industry—and as a community—we can do better. As someone who works in the “data” business, I see the opportunities firsthand. We need to better educate our citizens about important initiatives we pursue on their behalf…and clearly report on the progress (or lack thereof) being made. 

Free of jargon. Free of buzzwords. Overflowing with clarity.

Let’s understand what types of information our community is truly interested in seeing, and let’s package those facts and figures in a way that is accessible and relevant to their interests. Let’s hold “Citizen 101” town halls to better educate our friends and neighbors about what they can know about, what they can care about…and what they should stay educated about…and let them tell us what “transparency” truly means to them.

It’s not that the technology isn’t there. We have all the data we need…big and small! And we look at ours daily. The types of information that people most readily click on and download just might surprise those who might be too close to the data to fully appreciate. People, school districts, and government entities may assume they’re offering data that complies with government-issued transparency mandates, and they may assume that that’s enough. But are they truly giving the people what they really care about in their everyday lives? Often not, I suspect.

There’s a standard for this already, to which I reference (and adhere to) often: the Government Accounting Standards Board’s (GASB) litmus test for the quality of data being shared. The six qualitative characteristics, as set forth in GASB’s Concepts Statement No. 1, Objectives of Financial Reporting are:

  • Relevant
  • Reliable
  • Understandable
  • Timely
  • Consistent
  • Comparable

Most of all, let’s make it simple. Let’s resolve—as an industry, as municipalities, as school districts, and as councils of government—to make it easy for elected officials and citizens alike to understand the terminology we use and the solutions we are trying to provide to achieve things like transparency and smart cities. 

An informed public is a powerful public. Let’s leave the buzzwords behind…and move our communities forward.

[To learn the one acceptable buzzword here at Munetrix, please click here.]

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