Leaders of Osseo Area Schools in Minnesota have been working for years to put a greater emphasis on data literacy, Technology Director Anthony Padrnos says.

Oct 19 2020

K–12 Schools Build Culture and Community Around Data

Data-driven insights help districts elevate conversations, optimize ROI and improve outcomes.

As data transforms educational processes, it’s easy to forget what the alternative looks like. Without data — and a culture that facilitates data-driven insights — decisions may be based on opinion, assumption or speculation.

Data supports decision-making by ensuring that insights are accurate and actionable, says Jennifer Bell-Ellwanger, president and CEO of the Data Quality Campaign, a nonprofit organization that advocates for data policy and use. That’s especially important as schools seek to provide academic continuity amid current remote learning challenges of the pandemic.

“Data is going to be that thread that allows school leaders and teachers to plan for what kids need,” she says.

Districts of all sizes are using data-oriented processes and solutions to personalize instruction, manage IT and educational resources, and support operations. The experiences of three districts — the School District of Palm Beach County in Florida, Osseo Area Schools in Minnesota and Saugus Union School District in California — demonstrate the diversity of data initiatives and the importance of building a culture around them.

Gathering and Using Data at All Levels

The Palm Beach district is the 10th largest in the country, with more than 197,000 students and 180 locations. It collects and generates a massive amount of data, much of which flows into an on-premises data warehouse that recently migrated to a Microsoft SQL server platform and IBM’s Cognos Analytics 11.

Data is imperative for a district like Palm Beach County’s, which serves students across the socioeconomic spectrum, Superintendent Donald Fennoy II says. For instance, “you need data ­systems to be able to capture kids who may be falling behind in a school that, overall, is doing exceptionally well,” he says. “We use data to make sure we can drill down to every student and every other facet of the organization.”

A critical component of the district’s data program is its team of report designers and reporting solution specialists, says Mark Howard, chief of performance accountability. The latter spend most of their time training and supporting schools in the use of data-driven reports — a primary tool for translating data into actionable insights.

“Their full-time job is to be in the field, getting feedback and bringing back suggestions, so it’s a continuous improvement process,” Howard says.

Soliciting users’ input is an important part of the data culture, he says. “When your users have a voice in the data and the design of the report, there is shared ownership,” Howard says.

A principal, for instance, might suggest a way to enhance a report — or even develop a new one — and a report designer and solution specialist will work together to figure out the best approach. The district further empowers school-level decision-makers with its integrated assessment and analytics platform. Role-based access allows teachers and principals to create assessment reports, for example, without delay.

“That has moved us forward, to have that type of real-time, flexible, custom reporting in the hands of our principals and teachers,” Howard says.

READ MORE: How can IT leaders support data-driven education?

With Better Data, Better Conversations Emerge

Data literacy has been integral to Osseo’s culture for years, says Anthony Padrnos, executive director of technology. He attributes that to a leadership emphasis on leveraging data in the classroom and in operations, strong collaboration among schools and superintendents, and professional learning communities (PLCs) for teachers. Together, these strategies have made data a part of the conversation, he says. “We have been striving for years to build the capacity of all our employees, but particularly our teachers, around data literacy and how to put data at the core of their decision-making,” Padrnos says.

Osseo is in its third year with Lightspeed Systems’ Relay, a platform that helps districts analyze and manage device, website and application use. The district recently expanded its one-to-one program to all of its 21,000 students (tablet computers for younger grades and Dell and Acer Chromebooks for older students) and increased its Lightspeed licenses accordingly.

DISCOVER: Learn how data analytics can make remote learning safer.

Osseo also relies on Hoonuit, a data warehousing solution, to track metrics such as attendance and academic performance. Role-based dashboards give teachers access to classroom data, which they can then bring into PLC conversations.

PLCs centered on data-driven instruction are a priority for the Saugus district, which enrolls about 10,100 students. Three years ago, SUSD launched its PLC program, including a new curriculum and assessment structure. Today, PLCs lead to rich insights among educators who gather to discuss their findings, says Mary Mann, principal of SUSD’s Cedarcreek Elementary School.

Anthony Padrnos
We used the whole lake of data that we collected this summer to really drive components of what we’re going to provide this fall.”

Anthony Padrnos Technology Director, Osseo Area Schools

“The conversations are completely different,” Mann says. “They’re less about the latest place to go on a field trip or what culminating project we’re going to do and more about ‘My students learned this, and I know it because the data shows it.’”

Creating a culture has succeeded in part because SUSD principals emphasize trust and a shared vision, Mann says. By focusing on results, data-driven conversations encourage colleagues to share best practices.

Those successes can be the engine that makes culture even stronger, says Carin Fractor, principal of SUSD’s Bridgeport Elementary School. “When teachers see how students are learning, then design interventions based on the data and see the growth, that’s what hooks them,” she says.

Timing also matters. At SUSD, educators circle around data several times a year, rather than focus on end-of-year assessments. “That’s an autopsy,” says Fractor. “The data that is the closest and the most recent is what we want to spend our time analyzing.”

MORE ON EDTECH: Find out how to best use data in remote learning.

Data Management and Security Insights for IT

When Padrnos joined the Osseo district, he wanted to empower his staff with efficient, user-friendly tools. Lightspeed, for example, replaced cumbersome processes with streamlined data access. That means his team can support their colleagues faster and more easily. “We’re able to quickly provide data that they can take action on in a timely fashion,” he says.

Lightspeed also helps Osseo optimize ROI and deploy the tools that will best serve users. Insight into software use, for instance, revealed that elementary school staff and teachers were shying away from Schoology, the district’s learning management system, in favor of Seesaw, which they found better suited to their needs. That enabled the district to adapt: It now uses both LMSs, depending on grade level.

Such insights also allow Padrnos’s team to tighten data security and privacy controls. As users discover free tools and bring them into the classroom, Lightspeed allows IT staff to keep tabs on them and, when necessary, take steps to curtail their use or work with vendors to address security concerns, he says.

No. 3

The rank of data-driven instruction and decision-making among IT leaders’ technology priorities, after cybersecurity and cost-effective budgeting

Source: Source: CoSN, 2019 K–12 IT Leadership Survey Report, April 2019

Keeping Students on Track with Data

The coronavirus pandemic has made data even more valuable, giving administrators a way to monitor and support students, no matter where they are learning. In March, as the pandemic pushed schools to remote learning, Palm Beach’s data and IT staff partnered to build a distance learning dashboard, Howard says. In addition to tracking students’ activity on the education portal, staff can monitor their use of district-provided computers.

The ability to parse data analysis by various measures — such as school, ZIP code or demographics — let administrators see trends and patterns, says Howard. Staff also used data to identify students who were underengaging, then partnered with teachers and staff to figure out why and how the district might help. Similarly, Osseo leveraged its analytics platform and one-to-one program to understand students’ remote learning experiences.

“We could really demonstrate, through Lightspeed, that the majority of students’ engagement on district-issued devices was on educational websites and our educational tools that we were pushing out,” Padrnos says.

Osseo has also relied on data, ranging from software-supported analyses to parent surveys, to develop near-term instructional plans, Padrnos says. “We used the whole lake of data that we collected this summer to really drive components of what we’re going to provide this fall.”

Photography By Chris Bohnhoff