Administrator Magazine: Leadership
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You've Got the Data, Now What?

Learn how four high-achieving leaders are guiding their districts through monumental programmatic and behavioral shifts by using data wisely.

While most administrators know that getting educators to change the way they work can be a delicate maneuver, Lake Washington School District superintendent Chip Kimball had a front-row seat to the problems a new plan could bring. When Kimball was the district’s chief technology officer, it implemented a data analysis system that upset some administrators.

So now that Kimball is in charge, how does he continue the call for change while keeping the peace? The 51-school district is, like many other districts, creating professional learning communities. By introducing data analysis through these groups, Kimball thinks he can achieve what Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen refers to as “disrupting class.”

“We believe we’re going to be able to create disruption in the system without blowing the system up. And that’s the goal, to create disruption, to increase performance, without having the system implode on itself.”

But the work isn’t without setbacks. Because Washington is a union-heavy state, when the legislature started discussing possibly implementing merit pay, it nearly caused a statewide strike. “It was unbelievably caustic. We have not gotten our arms around how to do that very thoughtfully yet,” he admits.

The superintendent also says the most frequent teacher complaint he hears is about over-testing. “Part of that is because currently there is not a culture that sees assessment as a component of instruction. [They] see it as an additional activity.”

The answers in Lake Washington come in three parts: developing leadership, creating time for teachers, and giving them incentives to change. Kimball is involved with CoSN’s Empowering the 21st Century Superintendent initiative, and he takes the time to make sure his administrators and teacher leaders have the necessary tools and support to change practice through data analysis. Second, he carved out time in the teachers’ contract for early-release days so staff can meet to talk about student achievement and data use. As for incentives, Kimball says they can be carrot or stick, but he admits, “I’m a lot more effective in getting people to change behavior when I expose practice among colleagues than I am in doing some type of top-down mandate. They are embarrassed with their colleagues. That is far more of a detrimental incentive for our folks than for the superintendent to say you must or you shall or whatever.”

Changing the Culture:
Baltimore County Public Schools

If the first step toward changing the culture of your school district is knowing where you want to go, then you would quickly move Baltimore County (MD) Public Schools and its superintendent, Joe Hairston, to the second step.

“We manage performance,” Hairston states succinctly. “We do not manage attitudes and personalities. It’s all about getting results for our 104,000 children.”

While Hairston and Baltimore County have been using data to help make decisions for years, you won’t find him spending a lot of time on the nuts and bolts of gathering and refining information. While he praises his IT staff for creating a uniform set of standards across the district’s 172 schools, he knows that the real work is in using this information to improve what happens in each and every classroom within his district.

And a big part of that work is changing the culture from administrators down to teachers. Hairston says he has a mandate by his board to accomplish this change.

“When you have 104,000 students, 17,000 employees, 172 principals and there’s only one you, you’re outnumbered. So the best way to change the culture is to have those sets of standards in terms of what is expected. But more importantly, you have to involve the people who have to be part of the change.”

Hairston says during the summer principals’ retreat, designed by the principals, these leaders work to define areas for improvement in their schools. They take their goals back to their staffs and work with them to set a path to reach these goals, with professional development helping to provide a map and lots of assessments showing their progress.

It also helps that Hairston not only preaches assessment-driven change, but lives it. “We’re driven by a governor [Martin O’Malley] who uses data extensively for the manner in which he runs the state,” he says. State Superintendent of Schools Nancy Grasmick uses data to judge districts and decide if any schools need to be restructured. And Hairston’s evaluation by his board is a 14-page document that is all data-driven, based on the school system’s performance.

The district’s Blueprint for Progress lists not only eight performance goals, but also multiple indicators and strategies for each goal. The 25-page document is a clear road map for Hairston and every one else in Baltimore County schools.

Making Change Individual:
Plano (TX) ISD

Jim Hirsch knew that to reach his district’s end goal—better student performance—he had to start at the beginning and make sure Plano Independent School District’s data met the goals of all the different shareholders, from administrators to teachers, down to students and their parents.

As an early adopter of what they now call data-informed decision-making, Plano saw that its old assessment reporting system, circa 2004, had limitations that today would be fatal. Because teachers couldn’t generate reports themselves, they had to let the assessment group know what report type they wanted. And in an effort to be accommodating, the assessment group created a list of 650 kinds of reports teachers could choose from. “It had grown very far out of hand,” admits Hirsch, the district’s associate superintendent for academic and technology services.

But the problems with the old system made it clear what was needed in a new reporting tool. Hirsch wanted an open framework so information could be shared among various Plano databases. He wanted it to be portal-based, to take advantage of the best of the current Web 2.0 technologies. He wanted it not only to recognize each user, from a parent to an administrator, but to automatically unlock what information they had permission to view.

Unfortunately, Hirsch found that his specs didn’t match with any products on the market, so he set about creating the system in-house using a mix of SAS business analytic tools and add-ons from the New Zealand–based company Futrix.

The result is not just a system that can tell teachers where their students are, but one that can provide models of where they should be, allowing teachers to create learning-trajectory growth charts for each child. The growth charts are exactly what they sound like, a visual representation that includes the typical growth of an average student from K–12 in the core subjects, overlaid with how the specific child in question is matching up. That all leads to the district creating what it calls the Plano Effects Score, where the academic growth of each student can be measured from the beginning of the year to the end.

Hirsch says this last piece has allowed for merit pay without the opposition seen in Washington state. With Plano Effects, “all of our teachers understood that they were being measured not against a state standard [but from] taking students from a starting point to an ending point. And if they could show the growth of that student would meet expectations for that student, they were in good shape.”

The modeling has achieved such success that high school teachers have asked to be included because they see the value, he adds.

Giving parents and students access to the same data has changed the conversation in Plano to where students are able to set goals for their own learning. “The game-changing piece is when the students get involved with their goal setting and the system gets individual enough to help [each] student,” Hirsch adds.

Small District, Large Analysis:
Brighton Central (NY) SD

Using data to improve students’ learning is the ultimate goal of all school districts, but sometimes taking a step back and evaluating some of a district’s largest initiatives can be even more revealing than zeroing in on each specific student’s strengths and weaknesses.

Representing the 3,600-student Brighton Central district, Deborah Baker, the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, did exactly that. Her upstate New York district studied two questions sure to cause some disagreement in any school system: How effective was its math program, and how did officials determine the value and impact technology had in the district?

Brighton Central started its math query by looking at both what it hoped students would be able to achieve before graduation as well as a public survey that asked students and parents how they thought students were achieving. Baker says the quantitative data showed students were achieving quite well in math. But she faced a hurdle as she tried to get everyone to believe the qualitative data were rigorous and valuable. Sure enough, the evaluation found many parents didn’t feel like they were an integral part of the district’s math process. The district is already setting up ways to better include parents in their students’ work, she adds.

Answering the technology question, as most administrators know, is complex and not always clear. “I explained to my board, kids aren’t corn,” she says. “We’re not going to be able to say, ‘Because they do word processing, they’re going to score higher on [a New York State] ELA test.’” Again, Baker used quantitative data, such as the district’s technology plan and its alignment to ISTE standards, as well as held focus groups to gather opinions. The expenditures of the last decade were considered, and the district was able to examine how its technology was growing, if its use was robust, or if there were areas that needed more attention.

Both studies not only showed Brighton Central where it was, but also where it was heading in the future, she says.

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