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Using Data Rooms to
Map Your Way to Success


Got data? Most administrators would say of course. The trick is to get it off the shelves and into the open. By setting up data rooms to display, track, and analyze information, administrators can make meaningful, measurable changes in their schools. Included: Tips for setting up a data room.

School administrators are great at collecting and storing data. The problem is, storing becomes tantamount to burying. Too often, once reports are filed, they rarely are seen again by the human eye.

The accountability and assessment movements, though, are pushing data off shelves and out of drawers, prompting some administrators to set up areas to display, analyze, and apply data.

Called data rooms -- or "war rooms," after military strategy rooms -- the conference room or classroom walls are adorned with charts, graphs, and statistics about the students, school, and district. Administrators who use data rooms say putting the information out in the open has helped them learn more about trends and zero in on problem areas they might have missed before.


"It [data] is information not based on what people think, feel, the season, or teacher preferences," says Kim Halstead, Tucker Elementary School principal. 

The push for reform, and the fact that data was plentiful and available to help shape changes, prompted administrators to haul it off the shelves.

"We realized several years ago we needed to be more data-oriented; we'd been collecting, not using, data," Maggie Bowden, executive director for curriculum and instruction in the Monroe County, Georgia, schools, told Education World. "We've been trying to find a way to make data more meaningful. It's not just a matter of having things on the wall -- we saw it making a difference."

The district has five schools and an alternative school, and all of them, as well as the central office, have had data rooms for three years.

"Our data room [at central office] also is the staff development room," said Bowden. "And in the schools, the data room is the planning room."

In Duval County, Florida, Superintendent John C. Fryer Jr. not only uses data rooms but has trained most of the school superintendents in neighboring Georgia on how to set them up and use them.

"We've been using data rooms for four or five years," Fryer told Education World. "Individual schools use them as well. We wanted to make data more visible and wanted the principals to know what the district was doing to support school improvement. It also helps show the community and businesses how efficient we are. We compare certain categories with other districts so we can show we are spending more efficiently in certain areas."

Part of the mission in setting up data rooms is helping educators feel more confident using data. "School districts tend to hide from data," said Fryer, a former major general in the Air Force. He also created in his district what he calls a "data shop" -- a group of people good at collecting and analyzing data. "I saw this as a great step forward."

When Fryer first proposed displaying charts with teachers' names that showed individual students' performances, principals were "horrified," he said. But Fryer did it anyway, and no one complained. "That way, people could see the differences and explain if there were more special needs kids in a particular class. It really changed the culture."

In creating data rooms, Bowden added, administrators need to stress to faculty members that the rooms are not designed to add to their workloads or criticize their teaching.

"We know teachers are feeling overburdened, but we're not asking them to do more," Bowden said. "We're asking them to throw away some stuff and do it differently, to help us integrate what we are doing. It's one of the things that help us grow as professional educators, help us address student needs and pare away things that are not as important.

"Now they are saying, "Now I'm beginning to get it.'"


The content in data rooms varies; some schools go as far as listing students' names and tracking individual progress -- these data rooms are not open to the public -- while others are more general; they show information about schools and grades, and they are accessible to staff and the public.

"If you are just working at random, you are wasting a lot of time," says John Fryer, Jacksonville, Florida, superintendent of schools.

In Monroe County, the district's data room is organized around the three goals of the Monroe County Continuous School Improvement Plan:

  • Improving student achievement
  • Improving operational processes
  • Improving stakeholder engagement and loyalty

"We rate them as schools and as a system," Bowden said. "We're tracking our progress. We want to be as transparent as possible and have as much information available as possible. I think the community respects that."

Teachers also find it comforting that the district has a plan. "We're implementing changes; these [data rooms] help support teachers as they make changes. We're trying to work smarter," she said.

Joe Parlier, principal of Mary Persons High School in the Monroe County district, organized his data room based on district goals. "For each strategic objective, we also have school objectives," Parlier told Education World. "Under the objective of attaining a high level of student achievement, we list things we are doing to help students meet the requirements of the curriculum. We look at students who are at risk of not making it and the support we are offering them."

The school tracks SAT, AP, and state test data, and has graphs and charts showing how students perform in each area. "We have specific strategies we are using, and three-year targets."

The school tries to schedule all its training sessions and department meetings in the data room, which also is open to parents.

"The data are visible so you don't have to find it in a notebook," Parlier continued. "If you put it in a notebook and folder, you file it away. This is a constant reminder of our goals. Now when we get the data, we can say this is what we did in the past and this is what we need to do in the future."

Kim Halstead, the principal at Tucker Elementary School in Houston County, Georgia, said her school's data room is designed around the theme of Plan-Do-Check-Act.

"It's a continuous cycle; we go through some reflection to see what gains have been made," Halstead told Education World. "It shows education as more of a diagnostic, prescriptive, type of profession."

Charts track students' math and reading scores; the County Literacy Inventory, which measures reading skills several times a year; as well as monthly attendance rates, Halstead said. "We show how each grade level is performing, and then track individual students. We keep data in front of us at all times. We go over student profiles and compare them with graphs."

The use of objective data is critical for planning, Halstead added. "It's information not based on what people think, feel, the season, or teacher preferences," she said. "I know this gives us laser-like focus on areas we need to improve. This provides support for the teacher. It raises our level of awareness and takes away guesswork."


Once the data is up and reviewed, users said, the information can be striking enough to spur changes.

In Duval County, Florida, posting scores in a data room helped school officials see the need to focus more on high school reading skills. "When we looked at all the data, it became very clear that scores in the elementary schools were climbing, middle school scores were climbing at a slower pace, and high school students were improving in math and writing, but their reading skills were not growing," Fryer said. "They began to decline in middle school. Now we are looking at better ways to offer reading instruction.

"We're very proud of the data room," Fryer added. "We think we've reduced the workload. If you are just working at random, you are wasting a lot of time."

In Monroe County, several years of data clearly showed an achievement gap, which most had not perceived. "When you look at the test scores for the county, they are strong for white and regular education students," said Bowden. "But when we tore the scores apart, it was not such a pretty picture. We had a line graph showing the gap in performance between white and minority students."

Now teachers go over to the charts in the school's data room. They can physically trace the increases in scores over the years. "When you get all the data, you can look at it in different ways," Bowden said. "That way, if someone says something is not the case, they can look at the data and see if it is true."

By projecting into the future, administrators also learned they needed to make adjustments in the curriculum to keep up with standards. "We're at a good level, but not a great level," she said. "We made a chart going out to 2014, showing how the standards are being raised in subject areas. When we looked at the chart, we could see we were above the bar, meeting adequate yearly progress. But if we keep doing just what we're doing, in two years we won't be above the bar."

Staff at Tucker Elementary School decided to change the school's tutoring program after reviewing attendance and progress statistics. Instead of offering tutoring three days a week beginning in February, the school decided to offer it one day a week, starting in September. "When we checked on it in December, student attendance was better, teacher fatigue was lower, and students were able to maintain the mastery of skills for longer periods of time," said Halstead, the principal.


At Kernan Middle School in Duval County, Florida, charts in the conference room that serves as the data room list students' name, race, gender, homeroom, and scores from annual state reading and math tests. "Then we tried to identify the factors we wanted to watch," said principal David Gilmore. "We tracked students who were using interventions, and then checked to see if they were working. We have an after-school program that provides homework assistance and help with basic skills.

"We also tracked how many D's or F's a student received in one quarter, and in which subjects. We could see which students had problems and if they had them in more than one class."

In keeping with the middle school philosophy of each child being known well by at least one adult, Gilmore had each teacher put his or her name next to the name of a child he or she knew well.

"It was interesting to see the group of kids who really had no one who knew them well," he said. "There were some quiet kids who were having academic difficulties and didn't stand out in any way. Teachers put their names next to one or two of them, and 'adopted' them, and made a point to make contact with them."


Administrators added, though, that while data is important, it must be considered along with the "human" factors in a school.

"We have good principals and teachers," Bowden said. "We did not want to seem like we were beating them up. We're trying to tell teachers it's not that they're not good, they just need a different approach."

"The data only is good as the teachers who use it," added Halstead. "You have to factor in teachers' dedication, caring, and skills. We work hard to promote a family atmosphere. We told teachers they didn't have to work harder, they had to work smarter. This is a better exercise for diagnosing students."

Schools now are forced to look at statistics for all the decisions they make, and data rooms put things in perspective, said Parlier.

"The climate now for accountability is the highest it has ever been," he said. "We have to look at data, as well as the human factor, in planning, and ensure students' performance is the best it can be on mandated assessment.

"I would definitely recommend it [a data room] to other schools. I feel like it has made us all aware of students' performance and strengths. It's one part of the key to continual improvement."


Making Data Work for Your School

Article by Ellen R. DeLisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2009 Education World

Originally published 02/08/2005
Last updated 07/23/2009