Statewide Initiative Seeks to Close Achievement Gaps and Improve Learning Outcomes

The NMASBO Winter Conference may very well serve as an early report card on New Mexico’s Public Education Department’s (PED) initiative to “Move the Needle.” As PED works to invest a proposed $4.3 billion support package, education professionals will surely have achievement gaps very top-of-mind as the sector convenes to discuss best practices, examine aspirations and map the collective path forward.

Regrettably, New Mexico recently ranked 51 out of 50 states and Washington D.C., but the state is “doubling down” to reverse course in a statewide initiative referred to as “Moving the Needle.” According to one recent news article:

Along with a proposed $4.3 billion support package from the state Public Education Department, lawmakers are mulling several pieces of legislation for the session, including revamping graduation requirements and increasing the amount of time students spend in school.

Those proposals, lawmakers and education officials have said, aim to improve student outcomes and close gaps for “at-risk” students, tackle statewide educator vacancies and better support schools and their leaders.

The difficult issues that educators are trying to solve go far beyond looking superficially at per-pupil spending levels. One contributing factor unique to New Mexico is a much publicized lawsuit — the Martinez/Yazzie Consolidated Lawsuit — following which the PED acknowledged “the Court’s ruling that ‘no education system can be sufficient for the education of all children unless it is founded on the sound principle that every child can learn and succeed[.]’”

The discussions must transcend merely what is deemed “adequate” funding, as well as determinations relative to additional funding — how much more, and for whom. As is so often the case, the more information you have, the better decisions and ultimate outcomes become.

At the Winter Conference, we are sure to hear conversations around the usual challenges facing educators — equity, “at-risk” populations, closing gaps, etc. But for a state ranking last in student achievement, just how far the PED can move the needle will be even more critically monitored, more highly scrutinized, and more dutifully reported — if we can get the data part of the equation right.

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De-Siloing Data Streams to Achieve and Measure Achievement Gains

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.

The first step many districts and state-level education departments are taking is to “de-silo” the various data sets and streams that, together, can create a powerful stream of intelligence. That means “braiding” things like achievement data with financial data to understand correlations between investment and achievement. We need to also de-silo economic data sets from student performance data so we can better understand equity, access and the gaps that exist — along with where and why.

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.

Will Performance Analytics and Data Visualizations Allow Us to Track Equity Gains?

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.

We must also answer the question: Are we spending our funds wisely? Or, in other words, what is our Academic Return on Investment? Academic scores are one measure, but how do we compare when accounting for things like staffing levels, educator longevity, teacher education levels, and faculty retention rates? Are we finding equity discrepancies across the district regarding teachers-per-student versus all staffing per student? The more granularly one examines the data, the clearer picture one gets.

To achieve progress toward a goal, you must have a clear and complete 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.

Making the Invisible Visible to Move the Needle for All Students

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.

Mike Geers is Client Partnership Manager with Munetrix, and he can be reached at mike@munetrix.com.

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