We are extremely excited to announce our partnership with the North Carolina School Boards Association (NCSBA) to bring our training program, and Polarys™, to their membership.
So why is this announcement more than notice that we’re expanding into a new state, with the blessing of a major NC education institution?
Because our NC program is designed to change the school data paradigm.
North Carolina administrators have an acute and immediate need to understand their standardized testing data. The North Carolina education climate is one of competition and conflict between the many stakeholders who all want the best education (at the lowest price) for all students.
When we got the invitation to work with NCSBA, we immediately got to work building a training program that will give them specific strategies for leading with data, rather than getting lead by it. In NC, our program will give school leaders the skills they need to wrest back school leadership from externally driven data analysis.
Let me back up and explain how we ended up in North Carolina, skipping past 8 states on our journey south, and why the NCSBA was excited to begin working together.
We are located and began work in Vermont, where the governance structure is – relative to other states, extremely decentralized. Though Vermont citizens and school administrators are perennially concerned about losing control to the higher powers at the State level, legislative mandates inevitably defer to local preferences. By statute, local school board policies almost always trump State policies. In short, public education in the State of Vermont is a carrot-driven cart.
Because Vermont generally takes a default position of deference to local educational preferences, the conversation around standardized testing primarily takes on a tone of frustration. The tests have almost no impact on funding or administrative oversight, but they do take resource from the buildings. Everyone in the school system is required to set aside time during the school year to administer, take, collect, analyze or explain the results of the exams. Creating value out of this annual headache is mostly an afterthought, if that. Most members of the school community want the exams done and out of the way for another year.
As a mathematician by training and inclination, OSSU curriculum director David Adler took a different tack. He built a machine that would allow him to make meaning out of the reams of ignored data lying about the office. Having created a way to actually USE the annual standardized testing data for school improvement, he naturally began sharing his analysis tool with peers. His immediate objective was to help Vermont administrators see value in the data, with the ultimate goal of transforming the data from an annual headache to a tool for school improvement. We took it to the next level by getting grant funding to put the data on the web and began encouraging principals around Vermont to start looking at their data.
Our Vermont approach has been to share information broadly and hope it jars school leaders into a new paradigm of data-informed decision making. What we learned in this process was two-fold.
- Most administrators had a “gee-whiz” moment, but no great “Aha”
- School administrators typically lack understanding of what data can, and can’t, do.
Just as we were launching in VT, we were invited to share our work with the North Carolina School Boards Association. After two years of “neat, but why?” we were greeted with “when can you bring this to NC?”
Unlike Vermont, the North Carolina education system is centrally organized, with strong district leadership and the legislature taking a powerful role in school agenda-setting. Standardized testing data is taken very seriously at the upper echelons, which means school administrators work hard to reach benchmarks. In Vermont, one town often has little interest in the performance of a neighboring school. There’s no incentive. In North Carolina, schools are benchmarked against one another and a low relative performance can lead to withholding funding or firing personnel. In extreme cases, the State Board of Education may take over direct management of the school or district. While Vermont school leaders have the same drive to build great schools, the standardized tests have little impact on how they define “great”. In contrast, the North Carolina system leaves school leaders no choice but to take the tests seriously.
In this context, the NCSBA recognized that ReContext offers something their members desperately need: skills in how to argue with data; an understanding of how schools work, and a powerful new analytical tool that administrators can actually use.
At the invitation of the NCSBA, we’ve spent the last 6 months learning about the North Carolina school climate. What we learned in the process is that NC administrators need not only a new way to understand their data, but a profound shift of perspective. They need to know:
- How data factors into the school analysis process
- How to contest simplistic interpretations of their school’s performance
- How to make action plans based on good data analysis
In short, in order to reassert themselves as professionals in charge of their buildings, school leaders need to be able to demonstrate that they know, understand, and are using data appropriately to make smart investments.
During our conversations with the NCSBA, we learned exactly how important this task is to the success of North Carolina schools. The current system penalizes schools based on a cursory analysis of their performance. When they learned that we know how to use data to win arguments, the NCSBA board of directors immediately jumped on board. The last few months have been a whirlwind as we focused on a singular goal:
Build an accessible curriculum to empower school leaders to take control over, and use, their data.
The process has been completely inspiring. In partnership with the NCSBA, we’re offering North Carolina school leaders a 3 month Basic Data Training program, which brings together 3 key elements:
- Polarys™ – the data analysis program that redefines school benchmarks
- Boot Camp – three days of intensive training, combined with 1:1 coaching calls and peer support webinars
- PLCs – building strong internal teams, cross-district learning partners, and true peer contacts
Our (fully enrolled) pilot Boot Camp kicked off on September 14th. We were amazed at the reception we received, with 5 districts signed on and more on our waiting list.
Our next step will be to present our program to leaders from across the State at the NCSBA annual conference. We are thrilled at this opportunity to take our program to the next level. It’s time to change the paradigm of school data accountability.