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The Deal with Data

Researchers and practitioners from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research (UChicago Consortium), the Network for College Success (NCS), and The To&Through Project explain their “practice-driven” approach to data in Practice-Driven Data: Lessons from Chicago’s Approach to Research, Data, and Practice in Education. The UChicago Consortium has conducted more than two decades of research on Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and helps build capacity for school reform by identifying what matters most for school improvement and student success. NCS helps build CPS high school leaders’ capacity to respond to emerging research and data with actionable strategies for improvement through ongoing professional learning. The To&Through Project is an initiative that utilizes NCS and the UChicago Consortium as partners to integrate research, data, and professional learning to move more students to and through high school and college. This combination of research, data, and professional learning has yielded significant improvements in CPS students’ educational attainment, as well as some important lessons with implications for educators in Chicago and across the country. These lessons are:

Build Capacity to Facilitate Hard Conversations

Using data to guide school improvement means that the conversation around the data is just as important as the data itself. In order for data to improve student outcomes, educators must be able to use data in conversations about their practice. Our work in Chicago has underscored the importance of building educator capacity to have hard data conversations that clarify what the problem is and what the solutions might be. This requires investing in the capability of one person or a few people at a school to lead data-driven conversations, and it also requires strong school leadership to support a culture of data-driven improvement.

Prioritize Research-Based Indicators

In a relatively short period of time, CPS, like a great many school districts across the country, moved from a system in which educators were thirsty for any data to one where they could drown in data if they weren’t careful. The proliferation of data meant that educators needed to find ways to focus their discussions on the most important data. It’s the role of researchers to work with educators and develop high-leverage indicators that can help them focus on what matters the most for future student outcomes. Data system designers can then integrate these indicators into the data that reaches schools. Finally, educators and school leaders can then incorporate this data into their ongoing work, using these indicators to track progress and examine patterns both within and across schools.

Develop Shared Ownership over the Implications of Research

When using data for improvement, accessible research findings give school and district leaders the opportunity to infuse their data work with research evidence. This in turn builds educators’ sense of ownership over the problems of practice raised by the research as well as their commitment to changing adult practice to improve student outcomes.

Use the Right Data at the Right Time

Decision making in schools varies from big-picture strategy to fine-tuning interventions with individual students. Each of these decisions—and everything in between—benefit from the right data at the right time. The data system should provide schools with different data for different levels of decisions, with researchers evaluating popular strategies across contexts to determine the potential for scale.

Identify and Stop Inequity

Decades of public discussion on the need to reduce achievement gaps has done little to produce more equitable outcomes for American students. In Chicago, we use data not only to highlight differences in student achievement, but also to push educators to examine the beliefs, practices, and institutional conditions that create inequitable outcomes for our youth across the district. Everything from the intentionality of the conversations at the school to the organization of the data ecosystem to the design of the research itself has implications for equity.

Taken together, these five lessons from Practice-Driven Data: Lessons from Chicago’s Approach to Research, Data, and Practice in Education form an approach to data use that focuses stakeholders at various levels on the most important goals and features of a data ecosystem that has the potential to catalyze systematic improvements in student outcomes.

An excerpt from the December 2018 report New Knowledge and Developments in Public Education, published by the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute.