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Data Training Leads to Successful Decision-Making in Paradise

Known as America's Caribbean paradise, the U.S Virgin Islands are rich in culture and history. But unbeknownst to the millions of tourists who set foot on the pristine beaches each year, this U.S. territory faces the same school improvement issues as many struggling districts on the mainland. This two-district territory is proof your district can benefit from data—no matter its location or size—and investing in training sets the stage for success. In 2003, the USVI Department of Education was in search of a comprehensive, systemwide improvement plan. They wanted to increase student achievement, improve educator quality, engage the community in implementation, and build leadership to support continuous improvement through the use of data. Learning Point Associates and its team of coaches were brought on board to work intensively with each of the 35 schools in the territory's two districts. The intervention began by co-planning a course of action and identifying barriers with a select group of school leaders. A needs assessment was conducted to collect data, analyze conditions, and plan improvements. One of the initial steps in the plan was to provide professional development around data-driven decision-making. Learning Point Associates presented four data retreats (see April 2004 issue, p. 3) to help school leaders identify strengths and weaknesses through data and to prepare school leaders to set specific, measurable and realistic goals for the district and school improvement plans.

Strengths and weaknesses differ from school to school based on a variety of factors, including teacher training, parental and community support, academic focus in recent years, and previous preparation of students. According to Bryan Chumbley, a senior professional development associate at Learning Point Associates, conducting a data retreat early in the improvement process helped the schools examine their data history and clarify their future improvement path. "When schools examine data that tell the story of where they have been and where they are, they are better prepared to make decisions about where they want to go," Chumbley said.

One of the first challenges uncovered in a data retreat is identifying what data to collect and deciding how to organize it. Sometimes your schools might struggle because they have no data or what they have is inconsistent. In order to make the retreats meaningful and effective for each school in the Virgin Islands, the team leaders were asked to fill out a matrix to indicate what kind of data they would be able to collect and bring to the retreat. The most common barrier to using data in schools is the lack of time to collect, organize, analyze and interpret the information. Chumbley knows firsthand how educators are often faced with the challenge of conducting data review in short meetings before or after school or as a smaller part of a professional development day. Another critical issue is appropriate training.

"Educators in general receive inadequate training in the areas of data use and analysis," Chumbley said. "Even when they are provided a block of time to review data, feelings of being ill-prepared to engage in such work are pervasive."

Data retreats provide a unique opportunity to address both of these common barriers. Chumbley describes the two-day session as a time to receive training in processes to analyze and interpret data, as well as an opportunity to engage in those processes to review school data. "Participants are able to see the data transformed into meaningful charts and graphs which make trends and patterns apparent. This kind of information benefits decisions about curriculum planning and instruction," Chumbley said.

Prior to the retreats, only 39 percent of the participants were actively planning to implement data-driven decision-making. But after the retreats, more than 61 percent were planning to use data to drive decisions. One hundred percent said they gained new knowledge and skills to apply to their jobs.

While improvement efforts in the USVI are ongoing, preliminary evaluation results of the retreats demonstrate teachers' capacity and willingness to examine data, discuss critical issues with colleagues, and develop plans for future data collection and analysis. Team leaders displayed an eagerness to share the information uncovered during the retreat with colleagues and community members.

Making the commitment to integrate data-driven decision-making will help to sustain and expand upon the learning started in the retreats. School leaders in the Virgin Islands are taking important steps to sustain these efforts such as revising schedules to allow for more time to be devoted to integrating new skills and knowledge, providing technical support to schools, and incorporating information presented at the retreats into classrooms.

In this case, data retreats were used as one component of a larger comprehensive education improvement effort. Over the next two years, Learning Point Associates and the USVI will continue to work with the information revealed at the data retreats to make informed decisions about school and district improvement plans.

Find out more

To plan a data retreat for your district or to get more tips on integrating data into your school improvement efforts, call Learning Point Associates at 800-252-0283 or visit www.learningpt.org. You can also access an online Guide to Using Data in School Improvement Efforts (Adobe Reader PDF 902KB).

Copyright © 2004 LRP Publications. What's Working: Data-Driven Decision-Making In The Schools. Reprinted with permission. To subscribe, call 800-341-7874 or visit online at www.lrp.com/store.

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