Becoming a Data Savvy Board Member

By Dave Steele, Director of School Partnerships

The ultimate responsibility of a board member or leader of an independent school is to safeguard one of the most critical functions of our society: the quality education of our children. What does this mean in practice for board members, who are often not education experts, but who nonetheless bring their own unique perspective and expertise? Board members of schools must work in close partnership with executive and instructional leadership to ensure that resources are being used with the end goal of quality in mind. This partnership must be based on transparency and trust, and, above all, informed by good data.

The system by which school leaders, board members, parents and citizens get data on how well schools are educating kids has been in place since the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. This system has seen changes over the years, most notably in the academic standards we expect our kids to achieve, and, by extension, the tests that we give to measure whether our students are meeting them. But by and large, it’s been the same system for 14 years. The Federal government incentivizes States to give standardized tests to all students, to disaggregate all that data by subgroups, to see, for instance, how kids whose first language is not English do on the test, or how low-income kids do, or how members of different ethnic and racial groups perform. Then, states are expected to make policy decisions based on those findings to drive toward a goal of all kids being proficient on the test. The Federal government has deployed a wide variety of carrots and sticks to incentivize States to drive changes in the classroom. Few would argue that this system has been successful in terms of measurable outcomes.

Recent changes in Wisconsin law, the adoption of new, tougher academic standards, and a potential revision at the national level of the No Child Left Behind Act, serve to change this well-established system. This has ramifications for all schools in all communities, including independent Charter schools and private schools that educate students using public vouchers.

On November 4, 2015, PAVE convened a panel of some of the state’s top experts in assessment and the national and state systems of accountability, a panel that included: Jeff Pertl of the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction; Joe Yeado of the Public Policy Forum; and Bill Hughes of Schools that Can Milwaukee and Alverno College. A packed house of board members and school leaders came to hear the latest on the changes to the accountability system and what these changes mean for how schools measure and achieve their missions. The purpose of the panel discussion was to demystify the assessment and accountability system, beyond the bright lights of politics, and to help school board members and leaders ask the right questions and sift through the reams of data available to them, to best drive quality in the classroom.

Joe Yeado of the Public Policy Forum opened the discussion with a brief overview the Federal role in education, from the original Education and Secondary Education Act, through No Child Left Behind. He also briefly touched on the national and local shift to the Common Core State Standards.

Jeff Pertl then dove head first into the State’s policies on education improvement and the use of assessments to frame and drive this work. Wisconsin’s statewide student population is becoming more diverse, more economically challenged, and focused in fewer school districts. In developing an assessment and reporting system for an entire state, comprised of rural, suburban and urban school districts, the State government must balance between reports that are rich and meaningful, yet not overly complicated or obtuse. In a state with such varied communities, and so many distinctive schools, this is a tall order.

“No one likes testing,” Pertl said, “but without it, we wouldn’t know we have the widest achievement gap in the country.” We must provide parents, school leaders and the public with usable, transparent data on how each school is performing, but the more transparent a reporting mechanism is (that is, the more information it contains) the less usable it becomes, and the less meaningful the comparisons between schools and districts. The State has addressed this balance through several reiterations of the State’s Report Card. The latest version will be released in 2017 and based on the latest State assessments aligned with the Common Core State Standards. For the first time, private schools educating students with public vouchers will be included in these Report Cards.

The presentations and panel discussion highlighted that while school leaders, teachers, board members and parents have access to more meaningful data on student performance than ever before, oftentimes there is a disconnect between the “big data” collected for the purposes of accountability to the State and the “small data” collected at the classroom level. Board members must strike the right balance between “big data” and “small data” when shaping policy.

Bill Hughes emphasized that the Report Card, and the wealth of data therein, can be a powerful tool to communicate to teachers and parents where a school is succeeding and places where it needs additional work.

But board members must go beyond the “big data” of the Report Card and understand what happens day to day in the classrooms of the schools they serve so that they allocate resources to ensure quality instruction. Board members must start with understating the school’s unique instructional vision, the population it serves and the value the school brings.

As board members and leaders of schools, we all seek to answer the critical question: are our kids learning as they should? It’s a simple question with an answer that can be quite complicated. And it’s a question that can be answered with a wealth of data, some of it useful, some of it not as much. We should stay out of the politicized debates about whether our kids are being tested too much or too little, and familiarize ourselves with the assessment data, understand what it can and cannot tell us, and determine which data is most meaningful, so that we can set policies that drive quality in the classroom.

Good governance of schools starts with asking the right questions. Questions include:

  • What is the school’s instructional vision and how do the school’s assessments align with that vision?
  • Do we know the assessments measure what they should, and that the school’s educators can use these assessments to shape instruction?
  • What are the key indicators, beyond test scores, that indicate the school is successfully carrying out its instructional vision?
  • What are the environmental factors (poverty, race, ethnicity and dominant language of students) that might factor into the school achieving its instructional vision? How are these environmental factors measured? How is the school meeting the unique needs of its environment?
  • What are the potential threats to the school’s viability? Are there any regulatory or financial threats?

Stay tuned for future blog posts where I will dive into greater detail about these critical questions and about the variety and usefulness of the data available, including a full review of the State’s revised Report Card.

As board members of schools, we must “get into the weeds,” to understand our schools and how well they are achieving their missions. We must strike the right balance of governance vs. management and work within a spirit of trust and transparency with the schools’ leader. We must not be afraid of “bad” data, and we must learn from “good” data to build quality. It’s a daunting task, but the students and families we serve deserve no less.