From the Blog

Using Data to Improve Your School: How to Identify Your Focus Questions

by Kate Gardoqui 

Using Data to Inform Instruction: How to Identify Your Focus Questions

The Great Schools Partnership recently published a tool called Using Data to Inform Instruction, which can help educators make sense of data and use it to inform meaningful adjustments to practice. Collecting and analyzing data is a critical part of being a reflective and evolving educator; data, whether it is in the form of student test scores, survey responses, or quotes from conversations, helps us see what realities exist for our students and help us see where changes may be needed. However, in order to know what data to collect, you need to start with focus questions. As described in the above-mentioned tool:

“It can be helpful to brainstorm some possible questions you have about student achievement, instructional practice, or classroom conditions conducive to learning. This initial brainstorm can help you to articulate a problem statement or guiding question that will help direct your data inquiry process.”

But how do you choose the right focus questions? The questions you select will ultimately determine the data you collect and the features of your school that you focus on. Well-chosen questions will ensure that the time spent analyzing data will result in valuable learning.

One of the best ways to determine what questions need to be asked: listen to the voices of students. When students describe the challenges they face in school or their vision for how schools can transform their worlds, they are providing invaluable first-hand insight into situations that are invisible to adults; by seeking to understand and address students’ concerns, school leaders can engage in transformative investigations.

Another invaluable source of information that may lead to or reveal relevant focus questions: The Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), which is one of the best sources for school leaders who are trying to determine what data would be best to collect and analyze.

The Office of Civil Rights’ website explains: “The Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) is a biennial (i.e., every other school year) survey required by the U.S. Department of Education’s (Department) Office for Civil Rights (OCR) since 1968 . . . The CRDC collects data on leading civil rights indicators related to access and barriers to educational opportunity at the early childhood through grade 12 levels.”

This extraordinary resource provides data for public schools and districts across the country. Upon accessing the website, the first thing you will see will be a search bar at the top, in which you can enter the name of any school or district. When the entry for that school is accessed, a menu appears that offers data about the school in each of the following categories:

School Characteristics and Membership

This category includes information about the demographics of the school, the kinds of schools present in the district, and chronic absenteeism (disaggregated by race, gender, and other factors).

Staffing and Finance

This category includes information about the percentage of teachers in their first or second year of teaching, annual salaries, and school expenditures.

Pathways to College and Career Readiness

This category includes information about the percentage of students in each demographic who are enrolled in 8th grade algebra or gifted and talented programs. For some districts, there is also information about pre-school enrollment.

College and Career Readiness.

This category includes disaggregated data showing the enrollment of various demographic groups in calculus, physics, chemistry, and other advanced classes. Reports are also available showing student participation in Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate programs, as well as enrollment in SAT tests.

Discipline, Restraints/Seclusion, Harassment/Bullying

This category includes information about the demographics of students who have been suspended in or out of school, have been expelled, or have experienced harassment.

Using the image below, we can see how the Civil Rights Data Collection might help schools or districts identify a focus question. Using data from a large midwestern district’s discipline statistics, this graphic compares the demographic groups that make up the school or district population, and the degree to which each demographic group is represented within the subset of students who have been suspended or expelled:

The question that needs to be asked in this district is immediately apparent: Why are Black students so disproportionately represented among the group of students receiving in-school suspensions? While the data by itself offers no answers as to why things are the way they are, or how to change them, the data can point school leaders toward the questions that need to be asked. Once those questions have been identified, our new tool (Using Data to Inform Instruction) can help schools find answers and begin the work of making change.