Growing up in New Jersey, the day after Labor Day always marked the start of a new school year ... and the day I finally got to wear the new outfit I had carefully planned and crack open my new, pristine notebooks.
If you couldn't tell, I have always loved the excitement of returning to school.
Unfortunately, for many children, families, and educators, this year felt different.
Some of the usual excitement and jitters have been replaced by trepidation about what to expect from a year like no other.
Concerns about health and safety, academic progress, and schedule juggling have been abundant in my conversations with teachers and the staff and family surveys I have analyzed.
So how will schools and districts know if they are adequately addressing their stakeholders' fears?
Well... they've got to ask them.
Colleagues in a number of recent conversations have been discussing the use of continuous improvement cycles. If you're not familiar with continuous improvement, its hallmark is the Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) Cycle.
Alicia Grunow of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching explains the PDSA cycle:
More simply put, schools and districts need to:
Then, the cycle starts all over again ... quickly.
We're not talking about huge, multi-year studies here ... This is a relatively quick and simple process!
Make a plan, implement the plan, figure out if the plan worked, and if not, adjust and try again!
With school kicking off, schools and districts have already put a short-term plan in place and are putting it into action.
And this year, short cycles of trial and error are going to be key, as even our modes of schooling could change multiple times throughout the year.
So how can schools and districts get feedback from their stakeholders NOW to see if their plan worked?
Instead of a lengthy formal survey, think of creative ways to ask for feedback:
ShaAsking one or two questions at a time in interactive ways will make it easy for stakeholders of all groups to participate, prevent them from getting tired of surveys, and give you real-time data about how people are feeling.*
*Just make sure the platforms you choose will allow for translation.
Now here's the kicker: once you collect data, you have to complete the cycle ... ACT!
Make it clear for students, families, and staff that you valued their feedback and are going to put it to use ... and tell them how!
Start this crazy school year off right by lifting up the voices of your stakeholders in fun and easy ways and demonstrating that their feedback will guide your next round of planning and action.
What are your creative ideas for hearing from stakeholders? Share them in the comments!
I've written a lot lately (here and here) about WHY tracking your school or organization's data is so critical right now.
As schools begin to reopen, I've heard from educators of so many different configurations for what school is going to look like: some totally virtual, some in person, some in a hybrid model...
That's a lot to keep track of!
It's hard enough to make sure that no child falls through the cracks when school is operating as usual -- now that task seems herculean.
So how can we be sure that we know where each student stands, even if we don't see them every day?
How can we know that we're doing our best to meet their needs (and that we even know what those needs are)?
That, my friends, is where some simple data tracking strategies come in.
Here is one trick to help you assess, at a glance, which students or families need a little more support: conditional formatting in Excel.
Conditional formatting allows you to set criteria to automatically color-code or highlight values that you need to take action on.
You'll see that my (totally fictitious) dataset below is just a typical spreadsheet -- nothing stands out at a glance, and it's hard to see which of these students really needs the most attention.
We can use conditional formatting to visually highlight some of the students who need some support. We can find it by clicking selecting the text we want to format, and then clicking on the circled icon below.
Once you click on the icon, you'll see a drop-down menu pop up with all of the options you have for automatically color-coding your data. I think the easiest way to start is by selecting "New Rule."
In the menu that pops up to manage your rules, you'll set the criteria that will determine what gets color-coded and how you want to code it.
This is where things get fun.
The simplest option is "Classic." I always choose "Format cells that contain" and set either a text or numerical value that I want to highlight. Below is how I highlighted the students whose Quarter 3 grades were below a 70.
And voila! Now you can see, at a glance, the students who were struggling in Quarter 3. No fancy statistical skills needed!
I could also create other rules for my high-performing students or those ones that fell in the middle of the class.
There are TONS of other ways to conditionally format your data -- here are two other examples for the same data that address the whole range of grades.
On the left, you'll see that instead of the Classic mode, I used an Icon Set to do a little traffic light system for the student grades. On the right, I used Data Bars to help me see students' grades on a scale from the lowest to highest score.
With these formatting options, I can see the students that might need some extra support... and it only took a few clicks and a decision about the point at which I'd be concerned about a student.
This is just one strategy of many that can help you quickly and easily to make sure no students are falling through the cracks.
Want to learn more?
None of these work for you? Schedule a free 30-minute consultation with me so we can figure out how to best get your data tracking system started!
When I started my doctoral program at Vanderbilt, I certainly didn't expect to get into a ... heated discussion, shall we say? ... with the professor of my first course.
We were discussing characteristics of effective leaders, and our professor mentioned that the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, one of the most well-known personality tests, was essentially worthless.
You see, despite its incredible popularity, there is actually no data to show that Myers-Briggs is a valid and reliable assessment -- that it measures what it intends to, and that you'd consistently get the same outcomes if you took it again and again.
Now, I've always been a pretty introspective person, and I (still) love personality tests as a fun way to reflect on how I think, feel, and interact with others. I'd never taken them as a scientific assessment of my psyche, but Myers-Briggs especially had stood out to me as a somewhat revelatory framework for why people interact and act the way they do.
I had always gotten the exact same result when I'd taken the Myers-Briggs (ENFJ, if you're curious), so when my professor started talking about how most people get quite different results each time they take it, and that there was no research to support its utility, part of me was bummed, and part of me was fired up.
I argued (civilly, of course) that I didn't use it as a formal diagnostic tool, but instead as a helpful resource or an interesting way of looking at things. So why should it matter? (Newsflash: It does matter.)
For fun, I recently read The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing by Merve Emre. Of course, she confirmed what my professor had said many years ago. However, it reminded me of something I see often in education.
People who are passionate about helping children and families often feel that they KNOW that what they're doing is helping the communities they serve, even without any real data to back it up.
We KNOW that our Family Science Night was a success because there were lots of families there, and everyone enjoyed themselves. We BELIEVE that a teacher is effective because the children love them. We FEEL the impact of an after-school program because, well, it's been in the community forever.
Unfortunately, we can't rely on gut instincts, feelings, and beliefs alone to tell us if something is effective... just like I couldn't make decisions based on only an affinity for Myers-Briggs.
Let me be clear: education, and family engagement in particular, tends to get kind of fuzzy. While we can't rely on intuition, it's also true that we can't rigorously test everything that happens in schools. We need to find a middle ground.
But this isn't just my random interest in personality theory.
When it comes to children and families, we need to make sure that what we're doing to try to help them actually works.
Luckily, it's not that hard to get started. We can begin tracking data, analyzing trends, and ultimately, measuring our impact so that we know we aren't just THINKING that we're changing lives. We actually are.
Ready to start your evidence journey?
Sign up below to get the Evidence for Engagement mini-course sent to your inbox.
You have successfully joined our subscriber list.
Fear. Uncertainty. Frustration. Isolation.
In recent conversations with districts across the country and in analyses of surveys for clients, these words have come up a lot. Families, educators, and community members are feeling a whole lot of unpleasant things as we grapple with how - or if - we can simultaneously facilitate safety and high-quality learning experiences in our nation's schools.
Instead of shopping sprees at Staples (oh, how I wish!), we are experiencing back-to-school season like never before. Reopening plans change so quickly we can't keep up, and districts are scrambling to ensure that the safety protocols can be met and that all students can actually access and benefit from remote learning. My conversations and analyses lately have shown me how palpable and salient these fears and questions are for so many people.
The good news? While no one really knows what will happen with COVID, we do have some ways to alleviate the feelings I listed above. Think about these: Communication. Relationships. Empathy. Engagement.
Let's be honest: we have always needed these things. However, with most districts going fully or partially remote this fall, the role of families in children's education is even more prominent than before. For those of us who have long promoted the critical nature of family and community engagement, we've been saying to ourselves lately, "Now's our time."
It's time for family engagement to be a priority for all educators, community members, and policymakers, not an afterthought. We must lift up the voices of families, truly hear what they have to say, and use their feedback as a key driver for decisions moving forward.
It's time for us to leverage the wealth of resources in our communities to support families who are struggling right now. In my city, I was pleased to see that the City of Columbus and Columbus City Schools have agreed to spend $7 million of the CARES Act funds on providing Chromebooks for every student and wifi hotspots for families who lack internet access.
It's time to embrace partnerships with organizations who can help make learning fun, interactive, and accessible. Here's an example of how one of my favorite local institutions, the Center of Science and Industry (COSI), is facilitating the exploration of science for children in under-resourced communities.
It's time for us to focus our energy and public dollars on practices that have been proven effective and to put systems in place to begin tracking our progress. AttendanceWorks has done a great job of bringing data tracking to the forefront as we work to ensure that all students have an equitable school experience this fall.
More than anything, it's time for us to dismantle barriers created by historical and institutionalized racism and to embrace all children and families as our own. We need to be unafraid to check our privilege, acknowledge racist policies and practices, and work to rectify harm that has been done. If you're not sure where to get started, here is a free training on implicit bias for K-12 educators from the Kirwan Institute on the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State (I attended an incredibly powerful trainings with them this week.).
As we continue to weather the uncertainty from COVID, we need to remember that we all have the ability to communicate effectively, build meaningful relationships, empathize with others, and engage families in partnership. With these priorities and a plan for how to measure if we're doing them right, we will be able to help all children, families, and communities make the most of this unconventional back-to-school time.
How are institutions and organizations near you embracing engagement during this time?
I love a good spreadsheet. I mean, I really get excited about it. You may have read on the About page how my business evolved from the development of a really fancy spreadsheet. True story. Now I get to help others learn to use Excel to improve their work and watch them get excited about it too.
One positive thing to come out of the pandemic is an increased appetite for online professional development. Recently, I've gotten to connect with old friends and colleagues by providing a three-part Excel workshop series for the Family League of Baltimore. So on top of hanging out with my old network, I've gotten to teach them about all the fun stuff Excel can do. Win-win!
Here's an overview of the series:
Part 1: Excel Basics
A lot of educators just haven't been trained in how to use data. They may be consumers of it, using someone else's spreadsheet to glean information, but often, they just don't know how to utilize Excel's features for themselves. The Excel Basics workshop starts from the top and discusses formatting, functions, and formulas that beginners can use to build their Excel capacity.
Part 2: Creating and Using Templates in Excel
In the engagement world, there is so much to track! This session built on what was covered in the Basics session and walked participants through the process of designing their own customized tracking sheets. We used breakout rooms to discuss how to track different topics, and we walked through some more advanced features and functions to make these tools as automated as possible.
Part 3: Reporting and Visualizing Data in Excel
Data visualization is a hot topic in evaluation right now, and I get why. When you're able to effectively show your data graphically, you can make your results accessible for a much wider audience. In this session, we talked about so many fun parts of Excel - PivotTables, creating charts and tables for reporting, and ... drumroll, please ... creating interactive dashboards! Did you know you can create dashboards like the one below to share with your team?
Here's what some of my past workshop participants had to say about their experience:
Besides my obvious bias towards using Excel for ... well, everything ... I think it is even more important now for schools and districts to be effectively tracking their work. As we navigate through so many unknowns with school reopening, it will be critical to keep an eye on students who are at risk of falling through the cracks.
Good news - Excel can help (and so can I!).
I'd love to bring this workshop series to more places, so if your team could use a bit of an Excel boost, let's talk!
It's easy to feel discouraged and upset when you turn on the news these days. So much is happening to progress the fight for racial equity and justice in this country that even a global pandemic seems to have taken the backseat. The truth is that without a precedent for our current events, we are all making sense of them as they come. We face tremendous uncertainty in the days and months ahead, especially in the education sector. No one knows what school should or will look like when the 2020-2021 year begins in the fall. And that is scary.
But here's why I'm feeling encouraged. Without a doubt, the Black Lives Matter movement is bringing critical and often unheard voices to the forefront. I'm also starting to see this happening in schools, with many districts really lifting up the voices of parents and families as they make decisions for what reopening schools will look like. I've seen multiple districts just this past week sharing surveys with families about reopening. How can we truly serve children and families if we don't know what they fear, what they want, or what they need?
So if your school, organization, or district is trying to imagine what school will look like in August, and you haven't talked to families and students, now's the time to use some simple evaluation strategies to give power to their perspectives. Here are a few tips to get started.
Think about what you really need and want to know from your stakeholders. Make a list of what your team is wondering about or what the impact of proposed plans might be before you draft your survey questions. For example, many districts are considering alternate schedules to accommodate all students in socially distant ways. Here are a few things to think about:
Encourage your survey respondents to commit to an answer. Whenever I take a survey, and I don't really know or care about the answer, I always select the non-committal, middle option. Most people do - it's human nature. However, during this especially important time, we can't risk having a whole bunch of middle of the road responses. Consider using a four-point (instead of a five-point) scale that encourages respondents to indicate if they're feeling negatively or positively about what you're asking. Instead of a neutral/not sure answer choice in the middle, have them choose from a scale like this: Strongly Disagree, Disagree, Agree, or Strongly Agree. Include a "not applicable" option if you feel that's relevant - we don't want to force answers that don't make sense - but this type of scale will give your team a better sense of which way your stakeholders are leaning and help you make more informed decisions.
Make it equitable and accessible. Hopefully it goes without saying that not all students and families can access a survey that is online and only in English. To embrace and reflect the diversity of our nation's school districts, we must try to reach our stakeholders in multiple ways. Of course, an online survey is the easiest way to collect information, and many families can at least access the internet on their phones. However, some families cannot, and to truly understand what your families and students are feeling about reopening, we need to try to reach them as well. Think about mailing surveys or distributing them at food giveaways or other local gathering places. Or, if you're unable to translate the survey into every language spoken in your district, hire a few bilingual staff members or outside interpreters to do brief phone surveys with families whose native language isn't English.
For the most successful reopening possible in the fall, districts need to know what families and students are thinking now. Brief surveys are an easy, cost-effective way to reach a large percentage of your stakeholders. Schools and districts need to think creatively to hear from as many families as they can and make their understanding of student and family needs as inclusive and diverse as possible. You'll be amazed at how much more informative your results can be!
I still remember how scared I was during the 2015 riots/uprising in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray.
I understood the pain and outrage in the black community over the death of a young, black man in police custody, but looking back, I didn't really get the depth of the collective trauma that was at the heart of it.
At the time, I was a Community School Coordinator at a predominately black elementary school about two miles down the road from Mondawmin Mall, the epicenter of the protests. As word spread of a student-led protest at Mondawmin that afternoon, staff and families began to fear for the safety of our students as they left school for the day. I had to take a different route on my way home, since I always passed the mall on my drive. On my detour, I passed armored National Guard tanks and heavily armed soldiers. It was clear that this was much more than a student-led protest. I was rattled.
That night, I holed up in my apartment and spent the entire evening glued to the news, unable to do anything but watch my city burn. Living close to downtown, I heard a lot of noise outside that night, but I was shocked to wake up and find buildings across the street boarded up, having been broken into the night before.
I felt that same initial shock this weekend when I saw images of my new city - Columbus, OH - on fire. While still frightening, I had a different understanding of the situation than I did five years ago.
In the five years since that night, I have continued to study, listen, and learn about the deeply institutionalized racism in this country and the violence that still accompanies it in modern-day America. I now have a better understanding of how intensely traumatized our black communities are from centuries of oppression, discrimination, and brutality, and I also know that I can never truly know that pain for myself.
So the recent surge in senseless and hate-fueled killings of black men and women in this country has rested heavy on my heart. I've felt sick over the horrific and unnecessary deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd in recent weeks ... and so many others before them. I've heard the friends and colleagues I love question their own self-worth and the safety of their children just because of the color of their skin. Dyjuan Tatro, featured in the moving series College Behind Bars, about the Bard Prison Initiative, summed this up so eloquently:
And yet, police brutality has only proliferated this week. I've watched videos of officers driving their cars into crowds of protesters, pulling down a young man's mask and pepper spraying him, and shooting protesters and journalists in the face with "non-lethal" bullets.
There is no reason for it, and there is no excuse. The blatant racism and hate crimes in our country must be prosecuted and condemned.
But let's think for a moment about our country's black youth. On top of this historical and racial trauma that so many of them carry before they are old enough to understand it, they also attend under-resourced, hyper-segregated schools ... and yet, we expect them to learn and function like those who are lucky enough to live without these burdens.
It doesn't make sense. We have to do better.
I'm still grappling with my role in all of this and how I can try to make the world a bit better. I will continue to serve and support communities and school districts serving black and brown youth, but somehow that doesn't feel like enough. I hope that as a nation, we can collectively remember that there is a common good, and that it is far easier to stand for that than to stand for hate.
It's funny how things work out sometimes.
Tamara Hamai and I have been sowing the seeds for our new program, Evidence for Engagement, for months. Our partnership happened so organically - a meeting of the minds for two evaluators who have experience with and a passion for organizations that serve youth and families. We'd been toying with the best way to support the organizations that we serve and help them use evaluation to improve their access to funding and the children and families they serve.
Then COVID hit.
The pandemic has caused all of us to pause and re-evaluate how our work fits into a very new, very different reality. Tamara and I know that small organizations, especially those who work in schools, are struggling right now. Their access to the people they serve has been essentially cut off. We realized that organizations may need our help even more than before.
Our solution: We're running a totally free, three-week email series that will help small youth- and family-serving organizations build their evidence base (which is required under the Every Student Succeeds Act for any organization receiving federal education funds). Through videos, worksheets, frameworks, and success stories, Tamara and I will walk participants through the process of becoming evidence-based organizations and help them see this as an opportunity, not a burden.
The goal: We want to help vital, community-based organizations plan for the future, open themselves up to new opportunities, and become more sustainably funded. We're hoping that this opportunity will help them better serve youth and families, not only during this difficult period of time, but also for a long time afterward.
For us, this is also about equity. We know that for many community-based, minority-owned organizations, budgeting for evaluation is out of the question. We also know that these grass-roots organizations are having a profound impact on their communities -- and that their communities need all the support we can give. We're hoping that we can get more small, local organizations approved as evidence-based programs in their districts and begin to level the playing field.
If you think this program will benefit you and your organization, sign up below! If you know of someone else who could use this support, encourage them to join.
Ready to start your evidence journey?
Sign up below to get the Evidence for Engagement mini-course sent to your inbox.
You have successfully joined our subscriber list.
Last week, I watched a powerful webinar from Ohio State's Wexner Medical Center about health inequity and COVID-19. One of the first speakers, Dr. Nwando Olayiwola, started to talk about vulnerable populations but quickly corrected herself. She called them, "populations that have been made vulnerable."
What a difference such a small change made. Instead of assuming that people in those populations are inherently vulnerable, her corrected phrase shows that inequity is the result of intentional decisions that negatively affect specific groups of people. Her quick self-correction stuck with me.
This morning, I was reading the education news that comes to my inbox each day and saw a headline from the Wall Street Journal last week that read, "Some School Districts Plan to End the Year Early, Call Remote Learning Too Tough." Another entry in the same newsletter suggested that based on a national poll of teachers and administrators, 65% want to start the school year as normal in the fall, without adjustments to the curriculum or schedule. My heart sank, and I instantly thought of Dr. Olayiwola's revised phrase.
Now, I am no longer a K-12 teacher, so it is unfair for me to pass judgment on educators, whose jobs were already difficult, and who had to do a 180-degree shift in their daily practices within days or weeks. That is an incredible challenge, and it will take time to adjust. I empathize with teachers and cannot imagine what I would have done if I had to shift my middle school instruction online in a heartbeat. However, we're also faced with a growing educational crisis.
Evaluators and researchers have been doing some great work to illuminate the educational ramifications of COVID-19 on disadvantaged communities. Researchers have studied the concept of "summer slide" for many years and have shown students regress in math and reading skills without educational opportunities during the summer. There is even a National Center on Time and Learning, whose work revolves around reducing inequities related to the inflexible and insufficient school year schedules that predominate in our country. Recently, the Collaborative for Student Growth found that an even more significant "COVID slide" is likely to occur when students return to school in the fall, having retained only about 70% of the reading growth and 50% of the math growth they would have typically made in a school year. Recommendations to mitigate the COVID slide include summer school and additional learning time for students.
Yet, the Wall Street Journal article discussed how districts across the country are choosing to end the school year up to three weeks early in order to have more time to prepare for the fall. One superintendent even stated, "It made sense to us to get rid of the stress and get ready for the following school year." We certainly need more supports for teachers and greater access to technology for students in order to make online learning more functional and effective. But does that justify giving up entirely?
Decades of research have shown that more time in school leads to better outcomes for students, especially those from low-income communities. In a time of increased risk for widening the achievement gap, is it ethical to throw in the towel? By justifying inaction with the feeling that it is too difficult to educate students from home, we are making our student populations -- in many cases -- more vulnerable than they already were. I hope that evaluators and researchers can come together with educators to study the data, fully understand the problem and its drivers, and develop policy recommendations that will not only support teachers but will also do right by students who need time with teachers to thrive.
For the past few weeks, one image has been recurring in my mind. I keep picturing the living conditions of a student whose home I visited a few times when I was working as a community school coordinator in Baltimore. This student had struggled at other schools but was thriving at ours. He had repeated second grade, so his maturity compared to his peers was notable, but overall, he was just a really sweet kid. We did a number of home visits for him that year because he missed a lot of school, and as a black child from a low-income home with documented learning disabilities, school was even more important for him than most.
Every time I get frustrated with having to stay home - in my very comfortable apartment, with my husband and dog, and with fairly steady work - I've been trying to check myself. I keep thinking of my former student and imagining how difficult it must be to be confined to a space that may not be healthy, safe, or developmentally appropriate. I keep thinking about all the students I've known who love coming to school because there are people there who love them, two to three meals a day, and a sense of community. I keep thinking that I wish I knew how to help them all right now.
There is no question that low-income students struggle to get to school. (I wrote about this in my last blog post as well.) According to Attendance Works:
"Children living in poverty are two to three times more likely to be chronically absent—and face the most harm because their community lacks the resources to make up for the lost learning in school. Students from communities of color as well as those with disabilities are disproportionately affected."
Unfortunately, they're struggling to access school online as well. The New York Times reported this week that large percentages of low-income students in districts across the country are absent from the virtual education being provided as a result of COVID-19. So not only are students from disadvantaged backgrounds missing out on the resources that many of them so desperately need and want to access, but they are also disconnected from their school communities. Since it is unclear when we will be able to return to work and school, there is the possibility that our highest-need children could be without school for many months, only exacerbating already-existing gaps in achievement and opportunity.
Making matters worse, black communities are disproportionately becoming victim to COVID-19. As one of the many social determinants of health, education joins other critical factors such as adequate housing, socioeconomic status, access to and coverage of healthcare, and more to comprise health outcomes for people and communities. As you can see in the chart below from the Kaiser Family Foundation, these factors have a profound impact on a person's ability to live a healthy life.
For low-income black communities in particular, the collective impact of these factors has not only disastrous outcomes but also clear roots. Dr. Camara Jones, a physician and epidemiologist, is cited in the article linked above about the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on black communities:
“COVID is just unmasking the deep disinvestment in our communities, the historical injustices and the impact of residential segregation... This is the time to name racism as the cause of all of those things. The overrepresentation of people of color in poverty and white people in wealth is not just a happenstance."
Our unequal and unfair society is how it is by design and not by chance. COVID-19 is showing us how this is even more urgently a matter of life or death. Other than overhauling our government systems and laws entirely, I struggle with not knowing how these issues can be fixed or what I as an individual can do to make things better for others. I just hope that opening up the dialogue about these issues will start to lead to changes for students like mine and the families and communities in which they live.
The goal of this blog is to highlight relevant issues that impact students, families, and communities and spark engaging discussions about how to address those issues through evaluation.