As a result of the pandemic and recovery efforts, unprecedented funding has flowed into districts over the last several years. According to a May 2022 report by the Association of School Business Officials, which reflects a survey of 154 districts across 35 states, 47% of respondents are investing Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds in increasing access to broadband and digital technology tools. As a result of this increased investment in technology, schools are now generating more data than ever—but much of that data isn’t readily available and actionable, because it’s siloed in systems that aren’t connected to each other.
Another side effect of the pandemic has been a heightened awareness of inequities within school systems. Districts are trying to understand the scope of these inequities as well as their root causes. “Why are certain groups of students overrepresented in our remedial and special education programs? Why are certain groups underrepresented in advanced courses? What’s the relationship between our students’ sense of engagement and belonging and their academic performance?” These are just a few of the questions districts are trying to answer but can’t due to a lack of interoperability.
Over the last five years, Digital Promise has supported districts in working toward data interoperability—the seamless, secure, and controlled exchange of data between applications. In 2020, we launched the Data Ready Playbook, a comprehensive collection of resources and activities that help districts move from awareness of interoperability to readiness for implementation. We supported a cohort of districts in establishing data governance structures, conducting needs assessments, defining and scoping use cases, and investigating possible solutions. In 2021, in response to the fact that the majority of use cases focused on addressing inequities, we led another cohort with the added focus on data equity, which refers to applying an equity lens and mindset to the ways in which data is collected, analyzed, interpreted, communicated, and used to make decisions, with the goals of acknowledging and addressing historic and systemic bias and building more equitable policies, practices, and systems.
Our Data Equity cohort included 15 school districts. The districts ranged in size, geography, demographics, and funding, but they all were passionate about improving their ability to make their data work for their students and staff. During the nine-month cohort experience, districts worked with peer coaches, an equity coach, and a technical advisor to advance their understanding of data equity and interoperability and to develop competencies within the areas of data governance, needs assessment, and project planning.
Against the backdrop of the pandemic, progress was sometimes slow and halting, but 12 districts sustained their efforts over the duration of the cohort and made measurable progress toward their goals. Our work with districts emphasized and helped us to recognize some significant trends:
Entering the 2021-2022 school year, Abington School District (Pennsylvania) noted disproportionality in middle school students who were enrolled in advanced/honors courses, as well as those who received disciplinary referrals. Using data, they hoped to create a tool and/or report that could deliver more accurate and timely evaluation of overall student academic potential. Through their participation in the cohort, they were able to create a predictive algorithm and dashboard to identify a significant number of students with academic potential for advancement into advanced/honors middle school ELA and math courses—with the ultimate goal of providing greater access for students of color and reducing disciplinary referrals and exclusionary practices.
Following a comprehensive equity audit, the Pennsbury School District (Pennsylvania) found persistent disparities in opportunity and access for historically marginalized student populations—namely, an overrepresentation of students of color and students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds in special education and remedial programs. Similar to Abington, the Pennsbury team wanted to build their capacity to maintain data and monitor district progress toward closing gaps in student outcomes to decrease these disproportionalities. They also want to be able to communicate disciplinary, achievement, and opportunity outcome data to all stakeholders.
During the Data Equity cohort, the Pennsbury team leveraged Qualtrics to produce a district-level dashboard that is accessible to the district’s equity leadership team and building leaders. Moving forward, the district plans to integrate data from a district-wide climate/culture survey into the dashboard to ensure that students’ experiences with school climate and belonging are taken into account when considering students’ behaviors or progress, helping them identify learner variability and better provide whole child support.
At the start of the cohort, the Beaverton School District (Oregon) team set an ambitious goal: to determine the degree to which supplemental resources and funding across schools was contributing to opportunity gaps for students and impacting educational outcomes throughout the district. District leaders were aware that some schools had received significant learning and technology resources from parent organizations, while others had not. Additionally, some schools had larger menus of after-school activities available for students as a result of parent fundraising and employer contributions.
The Beaverton team identified a number of data sets to highlight in equity walks with key stakeholders, including senior leadership, school board members, principals, parents, teachers, and students, to build community awareness and buy-in around co-designing solutions to address these systemic inequities. In considering this data, they hope to build support for creating a solution that offers powerful learning experiences to all students in the district, regardless of what school that they attend.
“If districts are committed to equity, then building a strength-based data literate culture is essential,” says Dr. Rebekah Kim, a cohort coach and Executive Director of Teaching, Learning, and Leadership at Highline Public Schools (Washington), a member of the League of Innovative Schools.
Districts should collaborate with multiple stakeholders to build a vision for what data literacy means in their district. In addition to grounding the definition in research on how data literacy is defined in the field, districts should seek input from stakeholders on what it will take to become data literate; ensure educators are using a strength and asset-based mindset when analyzing and responding to data; and identify methods to support stakeholders in building knowledge and skills in the area of data literacy. Districts should also recognize the varying relationships and associations (positive and negative) that educators may have with data given the high stakes accountability of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) era, adds Dr. Kim.
“The action research that I led for my recent doctoral studies around building and fostering a data literate culture with strength- and equity-based data systems collected data from stakeholders that directly asked about the frequency of use of data, the purpose of the use of data, the best way to increase knowledge and skills and the barriers that get in the way of data use,” says Dr. Kim. “This kind of data collection from any education system with stakeholders can inform the most relevant and effective ways to prioritize data literacy into each district’s learning community.”
By sharpening their lens on how holistic data can deliver on commitment to equity across education systems, districts can ensure that data becomes an authentic and integrated part of district culture and decision making.
With many districts now spending their third round of ESSER funds to address interrupted learning and evidence that the pandemic has deepened the impact of disparities in access and opportunity facing many students of color in public schools, the need for understanding where and why inequities exist and how to effectively address them is greater than ever. Districts need data equity and interoperability to move from being “data rich and information poor” to being rich in both data and insights.
Fortunately, the Data Ready Playbook can help. Learn more about the districts from our Data Equity cohort by visiting the Use Case Library and use the learning sequence and resources in the chapters to make progress on your own journey toward data systems that work for you.