Category

Opinion

Fiscal Health, Municipal, Opinion

Look at the Bigger Picture to Facilitate Better Budgeting

Better Data Makes for Better Budgeting for Municipalities

Whenever city managers and finance directors go into a budgeting exercise, they face dilemmas and difficult decisions. Whether trying to prioritize the allocation of stimulus or other surplus funds, or processing the challenging demands of budget cuts, tough calls need to be made.

The problem we see is many are forced to make difficult decisions with limited data and incomplete information. Placing unnecessary blinders on your budgeting can lead to incorrect conclusions and potentially misplaced allocations of resources.

It is, however, possible to remove the blinders that have shackled the hands of budgeters and forecasters for years, allowing them to make the invisible visible.

To help facilitate and illustrate this methodology for finance directors, we are, for a limited, time offering a free report to any municipality that wants to see how their budget allocations compare to those of all others in their regions.

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Data as Competitive Advantage

Let’s face it: Even neighboring cities and townships are in competition. Municipalities are competing not only for population and tax bases, but for visitors, shoppers and recreationalists as well. 

Most often, the competition is right next door. Sometimes it’s within a reasonable commute. But make no mistake, population flight and lower pedestrian traffic are very real and likely to remain (at least to a degree) for the foreseeable future. 

With so much at stake, it’s imperative that municipalities make the most of their strategic decisions—budgetary or otherwise. It’s no longer enough to look internally and self-assess. To do so ignores the data set of competitive forces…the ones pulling at our residents and guests.

But what if you could not only zoom out from your own spreadsheets and historical data and look at the bigger picture? By this, we mean the much bigger picture of the entire region, to access more information, better intelligence, and greater insights on the drivers of success, resident migration and the flow of expenditures and investment. How might that change minds and budgets?

(To access your municipality’s comparison data like the one illustrated above, click here to receive a free report customized specifically to your city, village or township.)

What we’d see is not only our data, but our own data relative to the entire region’s—not just a neighbor or two. How do our city’s budget allocations differ or align with where our competitors are spending their dollars? It would make visible the answers to these questions, which would otherwise remain invisible:

  • If we have to cut spending, are we cutting in the right areas?
  • If we are able to invest stimulus dollars, where are the areas that we need to play catch-up with our peers?
  • Are we over-spending or under-spending, compared to our peers throughout the region, in areas like salaries, facilities and infrastructure, administrator compensation, etc.?
  • How do we know when enough is enough, or too much is too much?
  • Are we winning or losing the various battles for residents, tax payers, merchants, shoppers and federal investments?

It’s one thing to have “a sense” that particular line items need bolstering or trimming, and quite another to have access to regional averages that keep no secrets as to how your city or township is stacking up against the competition.

No longer is it prudent to play a hunch. It’s time to play to win.

Get Your Municipality’s Free Report to See How Your Budgeting Stacks Up Against the Competition

We feel so strongly about the power of performance analytics and data visualizations presenting the complete picture that we are offering a free report to any municipality that would like to evaluate its own budget allocations against the average of its regional peers. 

Your personalized report, customized to your specific city, township or village, will include your version of the above data, along with a breakdown of all spending categories, delivered personally to your inbox in an easy-to-read PDF:

Simply click here to access your city’s Budget Allocation report, at no cost or obligation. You will receive the report within 24 hours, along with access to a live human who will be available to answer questions or help you contextualize your data.

Before long, the invisible will be visible to you. And you will be entering your next budget planning session armed with greater insights, broader intelligence, and informed confidence. Say hello to easy!

Peter Solar is Director of Client Partnerships with Munetrix, a performance analytics and data visualization solution provider serving school districts and municipalities across the country. He can be reached at psolar@munetrix.com.

Fiscal Health, K-12, Opinion, Uncategorized

Better Data Makes Better Budgets

As we enter budgeting season, finance directors, superintendents and other administrators are facing dilemmas and difficult decisions. Whether trying to prioritize the allocation of stimulus or other surplus funds, or processing the challenging demands of budget cuts, it’s decision time.

The problem we see is many administrators are forced to make difficult decisions with limited data and incomplete information. As we will illustrate, placing unnecessary blinders on your budgeting can lead to incorrect conclusions and potentially misplaced allocations of resources.

Fiscal Health, Municipal, News, Opinion, Uncategorized

Watch: How to Restore Public Trust in Government Institutions through Data Literacy

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Education, Fiscal Health, Municipal, Opinion

Be Not Afraid: Data Can Be Your Greatest Ally and Easiest Path to a Post-Pandemic Recovery

GovTech’s March magazine’s article, Data-Driven Ways to Maximize City Budgets Post-Pandemic, authored by Harvard-Kennedy Professor of Innovations in Government Stephen Goldsmith, was almost genius in the way it broke down the benefits of data use into simple components. Former government appointee and thought leader Jane Wiseman co-authored the piece, and collectively, they hit the nail on the head.

I have long held that the word data is one of the most oft-used but least understood words in government today. What exactly is data, anyway? It means different things to different people. And to almost everyone, the word can suggest an intimidating reference to sophisticated technology and informational analytics.

But for an archeologist, an unearthed piece of broken clay is a data point. A cardiologist would find blood pressure or heart rate data useful. For a police chief, crimes per capita per geographic square mile are significant data points. Certainly any police chief would understand those measures and their importance, but making an assumption that everybody shares that ability would be a mistake. The point is, data must be presented in a manner in which anybody can understand—especially public-sector data, which is often lacking in structure and availability.

Adopting a Culture of Data Literacy to Combat Data Intimidation

As both a data analyst and an office-holding policymaker, I can say with certainty that many public sector stakeholders who have limited exposure to technology, finance or analytics often shy away from asking questions for fear of embarrassment. This is particularly concerning with policymakers, who may be tasked with making decisions on information they may not completely comprehend.

Goldsmith and Wiseman suggest, “The best strategy is to use data as a tool—to identify what works and find operational efficiencies and identify the areas in the greatest need.” One with a technical or analytical background might infer he’s referring to the Pareto Principle, also referred to as the “80/20 Rule”, which implies that 80% of outputs are driven from just 20% of inputs.

Using data, a city discovered it was spending considerably more on its police department on a per-capita basis than any of the other 17 cities in the region. Blue bars represent region averages, red represent the city’s actual spend. By addressing the imbalance in its next contract, the city saved $2 million over the new contract term.

But not every municipality can afford to have a Business Analyst on staff, nor do they need to. Investing in a simple-to-use analytics platform, and with minimal training, a “culture of data literacy” can take root, and eventually erode away the intimidation that the typical lay person harbors when it comes to data and technology. Given the right inputs (the 20% Pareto references), technology can be leveraged to provide a prescriptive set of outputs, in an intuitive, dashboard-like visualization that even the broader community-at-large can understand, with no prior training at all!  

In one real-world example, a community in Michigan found that they were spending considerably less than the 11 other cities in its region by reviewing just such graphic outputs. When expanding their search/analysis to cities across the state of like size (budget, taxable value, population, e.g.), it emphasized the finding was truer than they even realized. In one sense, community officials could be proud of their cost controls, but the question that remained was, How does this relate to the quality of service we are delivering at that budget, and was it appropriate and sufficient?  

Another community found that it was spending considerably less than the 11 other cities in their region (middle chart), and when expanding their search to cities across the state of like size (budget, taxable value, population, shown at right) it emphasized the finding was true.

When they looked at their reported crime data, they realized that the money saved was not benefiting the residents, since they were near the top in every one of the four major categories of crime reporting data.

Aha. A more complete data set reveals a much different takeaway. And nobody needed an advanced degree to read the digital tea leaves. This community clearly and confidently recognized that it needed to invest more in their police department, and made the decision to do so almost immediately. 

Survey Says!

The authors cite a recent survey they conducted in 2020 with the Chief Data Officers of 20 cities. They report that the responses were contradictory, in that many cited the need for massive increases in data use, but anticipated less funding would be available for the infrastructure that creates value from data. One respondent said, “The appetite for data has tremendously increased, and data insights are becoming the norm.” 

One concern is that as data needs increase, budget reductions “will eliminate new initiatives and impact some ongoing operations,” according to Philadelphia CIO Mark Wheeler. The other concern confronting them is the loss of experienced staff due to the boomers hitting retirement eligibility and a shortage of qualified or interested talent coming into the public domain.

According to the article, consulting firm McKinsey estimated that globally, “Government could capture $1 trillion of value by using data analytics, both to identify revenue not collected and to recoup payments made in error, and estimates that using data analytics to eliminate waste, fraud and abuse in government can have returns as high as 10 to 15 times the cost.”

At Munetrix, we’ve seen this in situations as simple as analyzing an Accounts Payable report.  Why pay a single vendor 50-70 times per year when payment terms of once per month can be easily established?  If we calculate the cost of processing a payment, order to bank reconciliation, transactions costs range from $35 to almost $150 based on estimates from governments of different types and sizes. If 50 payments using an average of $50 were eliminated, we could free up $2,500 for other operational purposes. Multiply that by dozens of vendors and we’re talking real money.

Simple, intuitive and rich data visualizations have the ability to turn the invisible into the visible.

Looking at data visually can provide insights to trends or anomalies that may otherwise be left undiscovered.

Removing Uncertainty, Instilling Confidence in Decision Making

Goldsmith-Wiseman’s article concludes by saying that public officials should be able to check the following five boxes if they are interested in fostering a culture that respects the power of data to unlock insight. Does your community…

  1. Use public scorecards to show returns on investment measured in terms of customer service and dollars saved.  
  2. Use a predictive analytics program.
  3. Make widespread use of layered data and spatial analytics to identify trends and relationships.
  4. Use data to identify revenue opportunities in service areas or with examining unpaid fees. 
  5. Establish an internal “culture of data literacy” initiative with employees. 

And I would recommend a #6 be added: Don’t be afraid of data, and don’t be afraid to ask for help! There is nothing to fear in making more informed decisions and more confidently prescribing solutions to today’s challenges as we continue to recover from the effects of a global pandemic.

When data is Reliable, Timely, Relevant, Useful, Comparable and Consistent—the six qualitative characteristics of data per the Government Accounting Standard Board (GASB)—the invisible becomes visible; and added clarity will ultimately improve decisions, outcomes and literacy.

Education, K-12, News, Opinion, Uncategorized

Creating a District-Wide Culture of “Data Literacy” to Achieve Equity in Education

How to Map a Path to Your Equity Goals Tomorrow by Understanding Where Your District Stands Today

By Peter Solar and Mike Geers

A version of this article originally appeared on District Administration magazine.

As educators everywhere place an increasing focus and emphasis on achieving equity and equality in education—working to address historical inequities and increase opportunities for all students—a new challenge has emerged to present an even greater hurdle: not knowing what we don’t know. This is especially critical as stakeholders work together to specifically address the equity piece of equity and equality, as equity should be regarded as a destination, or something demonstrably achievable, as opposed to a mere goal of ambiguous “improvement.”

As the trope goes, there are things that we know, things that we don’t know, and things we don’t know that we don’t know—and it’s in that last category where lies a danger that, gone unaddressed, could result in well-meaning intentions causing purpose-defeating ends. 

With so much at stake, at a time in which so many are uniting in common purpose and resolve, it’s critical to get this initiative right, for current students and for future generations to come. 

Our secret weapon in this cause is something districts have at their ready disposal, but which has historically presented difficulty harnessing: data. It’s not that districts and educators don’t have access to data—quite the contrary. Data is everywhere: public databases, district-owned systems, spreadsheets, census bureaus, government entities…even desk drawers and computer hard drives! 

Yes, districts are data-rich. But they’re knowledge-poor.

Start with a Clear Picture

It’s one thing to set generalized standards for what a better future might look like—greater equity, more equitable access, etc.—but quite another to set definitive metrics for what improvement looks like, and what the final destination might be. The latter are hard numbers, and they’re specific, measurable milestones.

But to achieve progress toward a goal, you must have a clear picture of where your district stands today. What, precisely, is the current reality when it comes to existing equity gaps—social, emotional, educational and financial? The only way to truly understand the disparities (and the degree/extent of disparity) is to look at hard data. Numbers don’t lie, and there are numbers everywhere.

If there were ever a critical time and clear justification for the modernization of school districts’ data management systems, this is it. No longer is it enough to have data storage systems. We must get the numbers off of the paper, out of the spreadsheets, unlocked and out of disparate systems that house our data, and get them all into one system, where they can be analyzed and cross-analyzed, aggregated and disaggregated, compared, contrasted and shared.

“Using data to inform all of our practices in K12 education—from budget management to student instruction—is more important than ever,” says Paul Liabenow, Executive Director with The Michigan Elementary and Middle School Principals Association (MEMSPA). “We must analyze the data that we find at our fingertips to make timely course corrections if our desired outcomes are not being met. Most importantly, we must use data to expose and correct inequities in our systems and immediately make changes for the benefit of our marginalized students.”

Making the Invisible Visible

As districts and educators, and as the cornerstones of the communities we serve, we should be cross-pollinating and overlaying publicly available census data, district financial and modeling data, student achievement and educator evaluation data, population demographics and economic data, student migration and graduation data, grant and budget-forecasting data…all of it. And more. We should be working with our partners (public and private) in the communities we serve to harness as much information as possible. 

Only then will we truly understand the equity gaps that exist in our buildings and in our communities. And only then will we be able to conceive of and implement data-driven strategies, plans and programs to overcome them. Anything less, and we risk applying a well-meaning solution to the wrong problem, thereby missing the opportunity to achieve the end itself, or worse, exacerbating the problem.

A complete data set has the effect of “making the invisible, visible.” That danger of not knowing what we don’t know is very real. What if a root cause of a given inequity is presumed to be financial in nature, but in reality, is socio-political? Will throwing more money at this particular situation address root causes, or will it merely present the illusion of effort? And can you even measure progress toward a goal if you’re addressing the wrong underlying cause? Given that scenario, will your efforts be rewarded and applauded, or be met with cynicism and demands for greater transparency or compliance, when reporting demonstrates lack of progress?

If we truly want to address the drivers of inequity, we must first see them, later make sure we understand them, and finally show our work in overcoming them. By tapping into all available data sources, and enabling the data points to talk to each other, we can determine if a particular gap is driven by economics, demographics, geography, educator experience, or geopolitics.

You simply can’t see the invisible by looking at spreadsheets, one at a time.

Create a Culture of Data Literacy to Measure Everything—Even the Invisible

The challenges that educators face when it comes to equity—as well as equality—in education are similar in nature to all of the other myriad challenges confronting district personnel:

  1. Understanding the issue, problem, challenge or opportunity;
  2. Understanding what steps to take to overcome the shortcoming or achieve the aspiration; and
  3. Reporting out to the various stakeholders and compliance officers that action is being taken, and to what effect.

Achieving a district-wide commitment to what we call a “culture of data literacy” is a district’s best opportunity to check all three boxes, including for today’s equity and equality initiatives. This means having a very real, very consistent commitment to optimal data-use practices in order to facilitate better data-driven decisions. Enough of the invisible; enough of not knowing what we don’t know. There are easily implemented and easily understood systems that take all of the time and labor we used to devote to the administrative headaches of keeping data systems current and execute it all for us…way better and faster than we humans ever could.

Take these actions as a district, and yours will be well on its way to achieving this culture of data literacy, and making measurable, demonstrable progress toward greater equity and equality:

Understand the whole community. Know the district you serve, and not just its students and parents. What portion of the population rents versus owns? What is the size and nature of its homeless population? What about its percentage of single-parent households? What is the district’s complete demographics picture, from ethnicity to income, and everything in between? What are the geographic boundaries, anomalies and trends? All of these data points are potential contributors to inequality. But until you see them all, overlaid against one another, it’s difficult to discern which are the drivers, and which are the resultant outcomes.

Follow the money. Do you truly and completely know your financial spend at a district level, and at a building-to-building level? Do you know which schools have more active and more successful grant writing initiatives, and do those (or lack thereof) have an impact on financial gaps or inequities? What are the tax revenues, as well as state and federal funding sources, relative to your neighboring districts and statewide peers? “More money” is one solution, yes. But if a district doesn’t know how the money is spent now, how can it make a better plan to more efficiently allocate resources to greater effect, equity and equality, so that the new good money doesn’t go out with the old, bad?

Evaluate personnel. Consider cross-referencing student achievement data with financial data sets and educator evaluations. Are the higher-income areas of the district being served by teachers with more experience, and is that contributing to (or working against) student achievement metrics and educator outcome inequities?

Quantify the gaps and articulate the needs. With some $54 billion coming to schools in the second federal stimulus, a significant portion of that will be earmarked to address learning loss and student well-being (social, emotional and learning deficiencies). If you can’t quantify your district’s needs with hard numbers, it will be difficult (if not impossible) to demonstrate measurable progress toward closing the gaps, which will be a reporting requirement to be eligible for those funds. For example, can you demonstrate that your Title-I population experienced greater learning loss than the general population? Start this analysis now so you can expedite access to much needed federal funding and assistance to come as it becomes available.

Make it a team effort. Collaborate with district leaders, local office holders and city councils, police departments, and other entities that share your commitment to addressing community-wide inequities, and invite these stakeholders into the tent. Ask them to share their available data. Consider forming a task force with each entity represented at the table, and create a project workflow with assignable tasks and accountability, so that the entire community can share in the progress the district makes.

Get it together. Most importantly, get all available data sets into one, centralized, intelligent system, so that you can start with a clear picture of today, conceive of a measured plan for demonstrable progress, and implement that plan with purpose. With all of the data in one place, and with all stakeholders working together, reporting out to state and federal agencies will be easier, more transparent, and more accurate than ever before.

As with any important initiative, one cannot address such a critical goal of achieving equity in education by “going a mile wide and an inch deep.” There are so many interdependent forces at work—both historical and current, both plainly visible and subtly latent— that to make presumptions based on limited information or intuition does a disservice not only to the challenge before us, but to the requisite remedies as well.

Mike Geers

Peter Solar (left) is Director of Client Partnerships with Munetrix. He can be reached at peter@munetrix.com. Mike Geers is Client Partnership Manager with Munetrix, and he can be reached at mike@munetrix.com.

school assessment data
Education, K-12, Opinion

Addressing Inequities and Assessment Challenges Facing Educators, Students and Families Amid Imperfect Educational Environments

How Adopting Emerging Technologies Facilitates Learning, Simplifies Progress Monitoring, and Improves Student Outcomes

A version of this article originally appeared in District Administration Magazine.

As we approach the midpoint of this school year, students are learning via a variety of instructional modalities, including face-to-face, virtual and hybrid instruction.  As COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths are rising again, schools are shifting between instructional models to flex with changing health safety guidelines and local community dynamics. Educational pedagogy such as “synchronous” and “asynchronous learning” are becoming household terms. And, educators at all levels are making Herculean efforts to keep up with these challenges and to provide the best possible instruction for students.

In this oscillating climate, educators must pivot quickly to adapt—guided by data—to have the greatest impact on student learning. The ability to rapidly access, analyze and evaluate data—across multiple assessments and platforms (along with other types of data)—is critical to making decisions about instruction, programming and interventions.

The Continuing Impact COVID-19 Will Have on Students this Fall

A recent study conducted in partnership between NWEA, Brown University and University of Virginia (EdWorkingPaper 20-226) projects that “Students are likely to return in fall 2020 with approximately 63-68% of the learning gains in reading relative to a typical school year, and with 37-50% of the learning gains in math.” The study goes on further to state, “We estimate that losing ground during the COVID-19 school closures would not be universal, with the top third of students potentially making gains in reading.” 

In short, not every student will be impacted in the same way, nor to the same degree. Equity plays a large role in the learning gaps between individual students resulting from a variety of elements including prior achievement, socioeconomic factors, access to technology and internet, teacher training on virtual instruction, support within the home, and more. 

Dynamic reporting tools can help educators to look at trends, past and present, and disaggregate trends easily by filtering at various levels.

Why is Data-Driven Instruction More Important Than Ever?

While assessments can be powerful tools to identify student needs or monitor student progress/growth, assessments are only powerful when the data is analyzed and applied to drive instruction, programming and interventions. Educators must use data to take action for data to have any utility. Otherwise, it’s just more test data.

In Paul Bambrick Santayo’s book, Driven by Data, he writes that schools need to change their focus from, “what is taught” to “what is learned.”  The impact of the pandemic on student learning and the ongoing transitioning of learning environments escalates the necessity of this shift in focus.

Bambrick-Santayo goes on to identify that there are four fundamental building blocks to data driven instruction: assessment, analysis, action and culture.

  • Assessments must be standards-aligned, with varying levels of questions for depth of knowledge and understanding and provide data that not only informs instruction but helps to compare students with their peers. 
  • Analysis is the key to using the data to identify areas of student need so that action can be taken. 
  • Educators must understand how to apply the conclusions from their data analysis to take appropriate actions that have the greatest impact.
  • Finally, educational leaders must create a culture in which data-driven instruction will thrive.  This includes providing and following an assessment calendar, providing time for deep data analysis and discussion, and encouraging/supporting educators in using the data to guide actions taken.
Dynamic reporting tools in data analytics systems allow educators to quickly analyze trends over multiple assessment periods, and aggregate/disaggregate data using filters.

The greatest barrier to moving from assessment to action is the deep and meaningful analysis of assessment data. Analysis requires the “systematic examination of assessment data to thoroughly determine students’ strengths and weaknesses, then taking the necessary steps to address their needs,” states Bambrick-Santayo.

How to Optimally Get from Assessment to Action

According to Bambrick-Santayo, the first core driver of analysis includes “user-friendly reports.” Time is the new premium. There isn’t the time, nor resources, available to build complex spreadsheets to facilitate comparing data across multiple assessment platforms. The skill level at which educators can analyze data varies as greatly as the instructional levels among students, and many educators may not have the technical skills to create and manage the elaborate spreadsheets needed for meaningful data analysis. Time to teach these new skills is severely limited or not available.  Furthermore, safety protocols, preparation for virtual learning classes, and the new logistics/daily routines of instruction have removed any “extra” time that was once nominally available.

Educators need tools that help analyze data across multiple platforms—quickly, easily and seamlessly. They want tools that provide easy-to-read reports, where computerized systems “crunch the numbers for them.” These tools should rapidly disaggregate or aggregate student assessment data at the student, class, grade, building or district level—by subject, standard or objective—all within a few clicks…not hours or days.

Dynamic reporting tools can help educators easily group students by proficiency and skill/goal area for targeted instruction/intervention.

Dynamic platforms empower educators to change views rapidly in order to identify trends, gaps and areas of need. They help educators filter different types of student data, including achievement, attendance, behavior, demographic and perception data, so that schools and districts are able to analyze the needs of the whole child. In a perfect world, this should be available in one online platform (not multiple systems with different logins that require manual massaging of data between platforms). Data must be accessible anytime, anywhere, to adapt to changing school environments.

Dynamic reporting tools can help educators easily identify significant gaps among different groups of students, help drive data-based decisions on interventions, programming and resource allocation.

A “New Normal” Guided by Data

Perhaps COVID-19 will accelerate the implementation of data-driven instruction to permeate more substantially in everyday educational practice. The easier data analysis is, the more it frees educators to spend their time taking meaningful action with students. For Data Driven practices to take root, educational leaders must also purposefully set aside time to infuse deep and meaningful data analysis, planning and action into the school culture. 

It’s not that educators don’t have enough access to data. It’s that educators need to easily convert that data into intelligence…and intelligence into action. Only then, can educators focus their time, energy, expertise and passion on what they do best—educating and developing today’s learners!

Linda Kraft is Director of Customer Experience with Munetrix, a Michigan-based data analytics and management firm serving school districts and municipalities across the country. She can be reached at linda@munetrix.com. Learn more at munetrix.com.

References 

Bambrick-Santayo, Paul.  Driven by Data 2.0: A Practical Guide to Improve Instruction.  Jossey-Bass, 2019.

Dorn, Emma, Bryan Hancock, Jimmy Sarakatsannis, and Ellen Virelug. (2020)., COVID-19 and student learning in the United States: The hurt could last a lifetime.  Retrieved from Fresno State University: https://fresnostate.edu/kremen/about/centers-projects/weltycenter/documents/COVID-19-and-student-learning-in-the-United-States-FINAL.pdf

Kuhfeld, Megan, James Soland, Beth Tarasawa, Angela Johnson, Erik Ruzek, and Jing Liu. (2020). Projecting the potential impacts of COVID-19 school closures on academic achievement. (EdWorkingPaper: 20-226). Retrieved from Annenberg Institute at Brown University: https://doi.org/10.26300/cdrv-yw05

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