Field Trip: Deep in Data, Short on Time: How Analytics Can Do Your Legwork
School districts collect a wealth of data — data that often lives in various disconnected systems or spreadsheets that make it difficult to understand and work with. While many K-12 leaders recognize that data can be useful, the in-depth analysis that makes it possible to use data to inform strategic decisions about student programs or financial planning can often feel out of reach.
Dr. CyLynn Braswell has spent 20 years in public education in roles ranging from teacher to executive director. She now works for Frontline Education, helping schools use the data at their disposal to evaluate student programs, identify at-risk students, increase equity, and ensure that resources are allocated for maximum impact.
We sat down with her to explore:
- The obstacles that often stand in the way of using data to inform decisions
- Key issues that school districts should be thinking about they welcome students back in the fall — and how using data can help set them up for success
- Current trends at the intersection of education and analytics
- The single biggest question that district leaders can ask and answer with data to drive greater student outcomes and achievement
Join us for this exciting, practical look at how data can be used to make a meaningful difference in the lives of students!
Also check out:
- Case Study: Compton Unified School District uses Frontline Student Analytics to identify students who would benefit from intervention.
- eBook: Moving the Needle: Improve Student Performance by Correlating and Analyzing Multiple Indicators
- Frontline Student Analytics: Close the digital divide, address learning gaps, eliminate equity and achievement gaps, and more. See it in action.
DR. CYLYNN BRASWELL: I think that we owe it to our young people in this country to be data-informed in our decisions.
Schools today have a lot of big challenges in front of them, and big questions to answer.
DR. CYLYNN BRASWELL: Are my most accomplished teachers serving my students who have the greatest need? That is a question I ask myself first and foremost, I want my most talented, I want my teachers who have the deepest gift for working with young people, working with those who need them the most. Because the teacher matters.
Today we are exploring how the vast amount of data that school districts have can be put to use to answer those pressing questions, to make decisions, and to serve students, staff, and communities.
DR. CYLYNN BRASWELL: That’s the beauty of the speed to insight. You’re getting this data and you’re getting these analyses and you’re looking at them, not so that you can continue to check a box to say, “We checked it every month and we looked at it.” No, we’re looking at it to say, “Do we need to shift? Do we need to reprioritize? It’s not just by, “Yep. We looked at it every time,” but “No, we changed our behavior because of it.”
Don’t go away. You don’t want to miss this conversation. From Frontline Education, this is Field Trip.
DR. CYLYNN BRASWELL: So I’m Dr. CyLynn Braswell. And I am a, I like to say a recovering executive director.
CyLynn spent 20 years in public education. She’s been a teacher, has worked in a lot of different positions in public education, developed an outdoor learning center. She’s been around schools, her whole life. Now she works with Frontline Education, helping leaders at school districts put data and analytics to use. I sat down with CyLynn a couple of weeks ago to talk about one thing: in a world where data is everywhere, how do you go from simply having data to actually using it?
DR. CYLYNN BRASWELL: Prior to the pandemic I was working putting in data and analytics in our departments to be more insightful on our academic return on investment and really focus there. And so when the opportunity came for me to join the team, I immediately did. So it’s been an extraordinary experience for me. I’ve loved working in public ed and now I love serving public ed.
RYAN ESTES: Essentially, I think analytics might have a reputation for being something of a luxury for school districts, and I would just love your perspective on that. Do you see that happening?
DR. CYLYNN BRASWELL: And that’s the thing. A lot of people are like, “Oh, it’s a nice to have this place to really analyze.” Or they’re trying to do it internally. That’s the thing: it’s not like most people are just setting the data on the shelf, you know? But I lived in spreadsheets. I was constantly trying to grapple with the data. I was spending a lot of time working on massive volumes of data. And school districts do. They have massive volumes of data. We’re talking state, national, the day to day data, the street data, even, understanding what the young people in our organizations are going through.
And so a lot of school districts feel like the analysis of that, they know they need to do it, but they can pick a few places and work with it. But to really have that full speed to insight, the overall district experience, a lot of times people look at that as a luxury, because it’s so busy. Not a lot of people have time in the day to day. I mean, when you’re living in that world, it’s hard. And so when you see districts, they don’t have necessarily all of these people. They’ve got people wearing a lot of hats. We see some districts, the superintendent’s driving the school bus, they’re doing all of these things. So to set aside time to look at data and then analyze it so that we can be more strategic in our decisions. That’s sometimes a luxury.
I say the other side of that, it’s not always trained. We’re in a new phase of how we train and prepare administrators. When I was going through my doctorate work, there wasn’t a ton of coursework around, “Here’s your data. Here’s how we put an analysis together. This is how we’re going to work through this for you to be more strategic in your planning.”
That’s not always trained. And so when you look at our folks across the country, they’re having to do a lot of stuff themselves, and there’s all varying degrees and levels of learning. A lot of district administrators, they did just like I did. They came up through the ranks, they started out as a classroom teacher and they pursued more education in order to be part of the organizational change.
RYAN ESTES: So think about the districts you know of that no longer see it as a luxury, but they see it as an absolute necessity. There a common thread that you see across those districts, among those who have said, “You know what, we might in the past have thought this was a nice-to-have, but now we cannot live without it”?
DR. CYLYNN BRASWELL: You know, there are a couple of little themes that I start to see. There’s this theme of innovation. You see a lot of people who have seen the power of data in analytics. And so they’re going, “We’ve got to be more intentional.” You also see, the folks that are really pushing the envelope, they’re very focused on diversity, equity, inclusion. They’re looking at the organization as a whole, not just this one place. Fiscal responsibility, people who are very fiscally focused, they are moving more into that data analytics space. So those are some of the things, the trends and the themes that I start to see tease out people who have very intentional focus around that strategic planning. They’re really looking to be more focused in the pressure.
And I know that sounds kind of crazy, but there’s this pressure cooker that’s happening you see school districts really grappling with. And the global pandemic accelerated it. Let’s be real. It pushed it a little faster, but the people that are really having to use the analytics, in part, they’ve also been pressured to use the analytics. Their stakeholders are expecting more. And you start to see that come out in the conversation. School boards, you know, I have a school board, a client, their school board is the one who said, “We have to have these analytics. We need to be in the data when we’re approving these massive purchases at these school board meetings, or we’re looking at our school board’s strategic plan,” because their community has said, “We expect you to be data informed.”
RYAN ESTES: When you think about districts that are trying to, that have said, “Yes, we see the value in this. We want to spend more time understanding our data, understanding what it’s telling us, being able to use it to make better decisions.” Where do you see people getting hung up? Is it being overwhelmed with too many spreadsheets? Is it not having the requisite skills to make use of the data? Not knowing the right questions to ask? Where do you see people getting hung up?
DR. CYLYNN BRASWELL: Well, without our solutions, they are living in spreadsheets. It’s disparate data, right? Everything has its own little sector and segment. So to really look at our young people in the organization, or to look at the adults and the stakeholders in the organization and to see that 360 degree view, you need more than one data set. You know, the argument about standardized tests has always been, “One day to decide whether or not a student’s ready?” That’s really hard. And so you’re talking about one data point because the student is a culmination of more than that. So people know that one data point can’t tell the whole story.
And you see people living in these different spreadsheets, trying to join all of these different data sets. You know, they’re in a different set of financials in prior year, trying to look at previous years and then bring in the new ones, and then trying to forecast out of that. That’s hard to do in just a quick spreadsheet.
It doesn’t just happen. There are too many data points that we are bombarded. We are data saturated. And so when that saturation point happens, Then you see people going, I don’t know where to start. This is too big. So then you start whittling down those questions.
Once again, when you’re trying to make it more intentional in your data, very focused, and really bring it in, that’s where you start, single trading is what I like to call it. You know, you’re just wanting to look at one data set. “Let’s just see, okay, these kids are at risk, move on.” We start trying to really just focus in, but we know that we need other data points.
You’ve got 37,000 kids, 80,000 kids, or even — I have a client who only has eight students, but they still need to find a way to bring down the 20 different assessments that those eight students are subjected to, plus the day in and day out. They’re still having to look at all of those pieces, even though they only have eight students.
That is the same as if I’m in a district of 80,000, I still have all these data points I need to look at to really make sure that I am focusing in on the whole organization or the whole child. There’s just more to it. It’s so complex.
RYAN ESTES: Well, let me ask you if we can focus on where schools are at right now in the school year, right? We are in the summertime. But back to school is not that far away. For some districts, by the time they’re hearing this, it may already be here. So how can analytics help with what schools are dealing with at this point in the late summer? What are the kinds of questions that districts should be asking that analytics can help set them up for success? And maybe what are the key three or four things that educators and school and district leaders should be thinking about over say the next couple of months?
DR. CYLYNN BRASWELL: I’m going to address that in two parts there. The first part being, what can data and analytics do right now? A lot of times we’ll go through, and it’s like this cycle. I loved working in public ed because the cycle was very predictable, for the most part. Prior to the global pandemic, things were very predictable about what we were going to be doing. I could tell you what October was going to be like, most of the time. There were a really good set of trends. And so I look now and I realized that I fell into the trap of saying, “Okay, well, here’s our strategic plan. Here are our goals. This is what we’re going to do this year. Here is our problem of practice. We’re going to focus in on this.” That’s what we would do. But what I have learned through the data and analytic lens is it’s okay to pivot. The global pandemic said, “Hey, you have to stop and I need you to change how you’re going to approach.”
I remember I was sitting frantically every night, going through spreadsheets, trying to figure out how to get internet hotspots to kids. I didn’t have the– we had to use location analytics, trying to find out where students lived. I was trying to figure out who didn’t have food. We were running a call center. It was crazy. We had to pause.
We still need to be able to do that when we see data throughout the year. And so right now, we’re in late summer and we probably think we know, we had a good idea of where our students were going to land. A lot of people are living with unfinished learning. They’re having those conversations. They’re also having conversations around their diversity and equity.
They’re looking to see in their organization what they may be doing. So right now they’re looking at all of these different data sets. And they’re going, “I’ve got a plan for 2023. All right. I’ve got a plan.” If you have been doing that data and you’re looking at it, you’ve got a plan. What is imperative is to know that you can’t look at the data in late summer and then come back and see it and have an autopsy of the data in late summer 2023.
We need to be looking at that data as we go. Yeah, it’s a problem of practice. It’s what we’re measuring, whatever. But we need to be looking at it throughout the year. And also looking at some of those places where maybe we didn’t even know we needed to be looking. Sometimes we’ll find that data that we didn’t see before and it’s okay to change some of our plan when we see this data that just pops out.
I asked CyLynn for an example. And she began telling me about a client she had who, at the beginning of the year, decided to hone in on student discipline. And they began looking at their data to see what they could learn.
DR. CYLYNN BRASWELL: And so they’re going through all of these things around focusing in on the number of referrals, the number of [students who are tardy], that type of stuff. But then they looked at this dashboard we created on early warning systems, which put grades, attendance, and discipline and put them together. All of a sudden, the visual that comes to mind for them, they start to see some trends that they hadn’t looked at when they put those three together, because they were just focused on discipline on this side and they noticed like student [tardiness] and ISS, and then the student’s grades… they started to see this trend around the missing time of tier one instruction. And so they changed their problem of practice. They said, “Okay, instead of our problem of practice going, we’re going to reduce the number of referrals,” they said, “We’re going to change that to say we are going to increase the amount of tier one instruction students receive.” That’s a different approach. And that was mid-year. So now I’m going from, I’m focused in on reducing referrals to I’m focused in on increasing students’ access to tier one instruction. That influences teacher attendance. That influences student attendance. That influences student grades and performance.
That also looks at some of the social and emotional learning that we see with our students. So now all of a sudden you have this change in your problem of practice mid-year, then you start looking at some of the things that you do to support that problem of practice. You change how we approach it.
And so I think that when we’re looking and grappling with some of those things that the districts are having to go through midyear right now, it’s okay to know we’re going to write, and we’re going to look at these analyses. We’re going to look at how our students ended 2022. We’re going to look at things like learning loss. Or we’re going to look at our budget and we’re going to look at how we’re retaining our teachers, or we’re going to look at the retention rate of teachers who have more than five years’ experience. Whatever it may be, whatever we’re focused on, no matter what department we’re in, when we’re looking at those things, we have to be willing to say, “This is my current problem of practice, but I’m going to continue to look at other data sets that support and inform it, and we may have to change our approach.”
That’s the beauty of the speed to insight. You’re getting this data and you’re getting these analyses and you’re looking at them, not so that you can continue to check a box to say, “We checked it every month and we looked at it.” No, we’re looking at it to say, “Do we need to shift? Do we need to reprioritize? Do we need to focus in a little bit deeper, to really narrow into the needle? To really get in there and just get right into the heart of what’s going on?” That’s where data and analytics becomes powerful. It’s not just by, “Yep. We looked at it every time,” but “No, we changed our behavior because of it.”
Organizational behavior. That’s where, you know, you talked about those three to four things that district are grappling with. Let’s talk about human capital. I mean, there is a battle going on right now for good human capital across the country. Not just in education, but public education, man — it’s not just, “Hey, I need a teacher.” It’s, “I need a teacher of quality because our young people right now, they need good teachers in the classroom.”
RYAN ESTES: Yeah.
DR. CYLYNN BRASWELL: They need people who have the heart to want to help them. I was working with a school district and we were talking about how they were going and recruiting, what they were doing right now. And people are getting very innovative. They’re looking at their data. They’re trying to see, “Is my salary competitive? Do we offer enough employee perks? Do we have something that helps people stay with us?” And I tell them, a lot of times it’s like, “Guys, you gotta start with culture first. You know, what is the culture of your organization? Are you able to say, ‘Hey, we have a 90% retention rate for our teachers who have more than five years’ experience’? Or, ‘We have a strong mentor program for our year one through three and at 85% retention rate for that?’ You know, that kind of stuff. Do you have that?”
RYAN ESTES: And you’re saying that analytics solutions like Frontline’s can actually help easily answer those kinds of questions?
DR. CYLYNN BRASWELL: For sure. Our systems with human capital management and looking at professional growth and how many hours, and stuff like that, just categorizing how well you’re retaining your teachers that are of high achievement, or how well are you retaining your teachers who have a 90% attendance rate. It’s always great when you see that your teachers, not only you’re retaining them, but they come to school and they come to work every day and they want to be there and they help our young people, that matters. And so having that speed to insight and conversations, those are the conversations we need to be telling our school boards. You know, our school boards need to hear from our administrators about how well they’re working to really create a culture where people want to come to work and serve young people.
You know, that’s one and then also fiscal responsibility. There is really a lot of expectation. We had this flood of ESSER dollars and the money’s coming in and that’s great. But people are expecting accountability to the money.
I like to say, “Does your analytic improve your operations?” If I’m in my finance side of things and I’m working through, am I putting budget scenarios together for the board and budget scenarios together for our executive cabinet to say, “Hey, if we offer a 3% increase here, this is what we’ll see in our long term. And we need to make sure that our tax base is working or our state funding is working. Are we able to sustain that in the long term.” A lot of times people don’t look at what it costs to onboard new teachers. If you’re constantly cycling new teachers, have you done that cost of doing business to end up a new teacher, what it cost to do that? You know, those are the kinds of things you need to be having that conversation with and what it cost to really finance that, as well as implementing new ideas.
I have some clients they’re very innovative. But they have to really look at the academic return on investment. So they’re having to look at, what does it cost to implement this new… let’s say assessment. A lot of times our C&I folks, they’re amazing. And they’re like, “We have got to get more insight on student growth, especially right now. Learning loss is massive.” And I won’t name the assessments that I see used a lot. There are some out there that are tremendous, but they don’t come necessarily free. And so a school district may spend a lot of money implementing a new assessment to see student growth throughout the year. Well, they need to know that that assessment was worth the growth. So then they’ve got to look at another set of analytics on how well did the teacher implement? Did the student make growth and does our curriculum support the instruction, which supports the assessment? You know, that’s all a CIA model. It all goes together.
So there there’s an analysis on each one of those. That’s what our districts are dealing with right now. They need to prove growth because of our unfinished learning. They need to show that they are fiscally responsible each and every day. And they need to be able to show that they are creating a culture in which they are not only keeping their teachers, but their teachers are thriving within the organization so that they want to be there. People don’t just stay for the money, you know, they need to see an organization that’s thriving because that teacher that’s thriving is able to impart that to that student and help them thrive. And that’s the ultimate goal.
RYAN ESTES: Let me put you on the spot for a moment and say, I know that there are 13,000 or so school districts across the country and all of them are different and all of them are dealing with unique situations. But if I had to put you on the spot and say, right now, this time of year, late summer, what is the single biggest question that a district can ask that analytics can help provide some insight into that is going to drive greater student outcomes, greater student achievement? And how analytics can help to address and answer that question?
DR. CYLYNN BRASWELL: Hmm. I love it when you push me. It’s all good. I think there’s a couple of different areas there for me. I still go back to the teacher matters. The teacher matters. My first question I look at: are my most accomplished teachers serving my students who have the greatest need? That is a question I ask myself first and foremost, I want my most talented, I want my teachers who have the deepest gift for working with young people, working with those who need them the most. Because the teacher matters.
We know that data, any educator out there has heard that data a million times. The teacher matters. And if I don’t have the talent in the classroom… I don’t need somebody to just occupy the classroom. I need somebody to inspire the classroom and we see that through COVID. You know, a lot of people were… that disconnect of energy because it was all through Zoom or it was that remote learning experience, whatever it may be, a lot of students who would’ve struggled possibly in the classroom in a live environment, some of them flourished and they did well. Some of them shrunk into themselves even more.
So now we’re at this precipice where you may be face to face back in the classroom. You might still have students working in a remote environment. You’ve got all these different levels. And I need a teacher who can capture all children. All had to mean all. Our young people, it had to be all. And so for me, the number one question I’m asking is, are my students who need the most getting the best?
RYAN ESTES: How can data and analytics help a school district answer that question? How would you coach a district through choosing the select data points to look at and how to gain the insight that’s needed in order to answer that question?
DR. CYLYNN BRASWELL: My first one is, in our Comparative product I like to use — and not all states turn this in, but in our Comparative, we use state data. We pull everything from state public data. And one of the first things I like to do is run an analysis on teachers who have zero to three years’ experience, because experience is a good place to start.
Don’t get me wrong. There are talented first year teachers, but there is something to say about experience, so I like to start there. I run an analysis on the teachers who have zero to three years’ experience, the percentage of them at an individual campus. So if you’re a district, let’s say you have 10 elementary schools. And we see that a lot of times in our really big districts, they have multiple elementary schools. We look at the concentration of teachers that have zero to three years’ experience. But even if you only have one, are you looking at that? What percentage of your staff has zero to three years’ experience?
Then the next thing I’m going to go into is my Professional Growth and say, “Okay, if I have 23% of my staff who have zero to three years’ experience, what have I invested in professional growth for that zero to three years’ experience? What am I doing to accelerate those teachers so that they catch up a little faster? What am I investing into their professional growth so that they can serve students better?” Because we don’t want to wait until they’ve had three to five years’ experience for them to be great. We want to start developing them now.
And colleges can only do so much. You really, you learn in the classroom. We look at a lot of different models across the world and really that time in the classroom is what develops you, but good professional growth, structured with time and development and a good support system in the classroom from a campus leader matters.
I’m going to ask the question next then, “Okay, what’s my professional growth investment?” And then the analytic that I’m going to be looking at, campus administrator, are you monitoring students’ grades, attendance, discipline within that? Are you monitoring their performance across assessments and growth assessments at a national and state level? And so we take all of those together, so you can kind of get a profile of how that teacher is operating within the classroom and then to start breaking down.
One of the things I like to do in Student Analytics is making sure we look at students who receive special education services, language services, our emerging bilinguals. Let’s look at our young people who are of color, who are most marginalized in our systems, taking each one of those demographics, coupling it with the teacher and saying, “How are our students performing in that teacher’s classroom? Let’s look at their grades, attendance and discipline by those different categories as well.” Because we don’t wanna leave that data to the side. A lot of people are sometimes afraid to look at that, but we need to confront it. You know, don’t ask the question you don’t want the answer to. We need to confront it and make sure that things are happening and that it’s a really equitable classroom and things are really performing at a high level.
And then after that, after I’ve looked at that student analysis, I want to look at my responsibility as a campus leader or even as a district leader, I want to look at and say, “Okay, how well did our students do overall with our teachers who had zero to three years’ experience? How did they perform this year?” Let’s look at a group of it. Let’s look at what we invested and then sit down with C&I and Finance and come together and say, “Okay, based on this year’s data at the end of the year, we see that our students would benefit from…” or maybe we have a hypothesis we want to put together. “We think our students would benefit if our teachers had…” You know, you start filling in those blanks.
“Our students would grow at a higher rate, or they would reduce the amount of learning loss if” — you know, we’ve got to have that action that goes with it — “if our teachers were armed with x/y/z.” And so that helps us inform that practice as we go. And there’s a lot of different trainings that are out there for district administrators to be able to get to some of those hypotheses, but we have to have the data and analytics to do it. And so it’s nice to be able to walk into those data insights. All of our tools do that.
The other piece and it’s kind of a final piece, I’ve always said the school has to leave the building. The last part I would be looking at is, “Where do our young people live?” Because their world doesn’t stop after they leave us. And so I like to be able to see what are the services that are close to where young people live, and can we tap into those? Maybe we invest in those as well as teacher training, and those together could actually accelerate student learning. Like I said, I think that if you made me pinpoint anything, the teacher matters and we have to go in and really put all of those data points around that, that teacher.
RYAN ESTES: Let me pull back a little bit to the idea of data visualization, because you’ve mentioned that already. And you mentioned the idea of getting out of spreadsheets and into data visualization. Talk to me about that. How crucial is that? Why is that so helpful and what do we lose if we don’t have it?
DR. CYLYNN BRASWELL: The numbers, I remember, you know, I would look across… what is 90%? What is that 74% compared to the 90%? When you start to visualize it and you start to really see these layers… When I taught engineering, we did three dimensional modeling. And so you could see an X, Y, and Z axis. Okay? So you could see the different planes. I know that it’s a little complex to be talking about it and that they’re without seeing it. So in your mind, you see the different planes of how things interact and that’s the beauty of data visualization. You’re able to see the planes of the X Y, and if you do it right, the Z axis.
So I’m able to see… I love attendance. Period attendance is like my favorite when I’m in Student Analytics, I like to see where our students are missing. What day of the week are they not coming to school? And then, so you start to see, okay, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. Let’s say I see that, oh, my highest attendance day, the day with the best attendance is on Wednesday. But then I’m going to layer another piece onto that.
And I want to say, okay, “What is my best attendance for a third period, which is my accountability period or whatever it may be for my state funding?” Okay. Now, let me see, “What’s my best attendance for third period?” So now I’m layering on a new piece of information, I’m filtering it. And then I say, “Now, what is my best attendance day for third period, for students who receive special education services?”
Now, all of a sudden I’ve got this other data point that I’m able to look at and deepen. And in what department are students attending the most third period on Wednesday who receives special ed? So now when I start to layer that in, I’m at a different plane and pace to really see it. So when I visualize it, when I start to see those things in action and not just look at, “70% of our students come to third period on…” You know, when I start to visualize it and to see it, then I can start to make meaning so that I can put together a hypothesis. Because we’re looking at data so that we can strategically plan so that it undergirds our work in a way to inform our planning. We have to undergird the work. So to see it allows us to put that in perspective.
RYAN ESTES: Are there any trends that you see right now at the intersection of school and analytics that are happening now in 2022? And maybe a better way to ask it is, where do you see all of this going over the next year or two or three?
DR. CYLYNN BRASWELL: I would tell you that speed to insight first and foremost. People are expecting you to have situational awareness. They are wanting you to adjust and make change. They don’t want you to wait for the next year’s strategic plan. Kind of like what I was talking about earlier, they want you to do now. They expect now. I think once again, the global pandemic accelerated that, the pivot. And so people expect when you see data to do something. And so that speed to insight really matters. So that’s definitely something that I’m seeing. And I’m seeing a lot of sources of new innovation, you know, they’re expecting — and I say “they” — the stakeholders in the community, it’s not just parents. It’s parents plus students plus community members. They are expecting our school districts to serve at a higher level. That is a lot because it’s hard! It’s already hard work. And now we’ve accelerated the expectations. So people are expecting you to use that data, inform the practices and to really innovate in how you’re performing with the young people. And they don’t mean that we need you to buy another laptop or a new hotspot or… they’re expecting different.
What we know about public education is, it’s rapid in certain areas, and we developed very fast around a lot of things. But a lot of things aren’t. I used to use an analogy with a team of mine that I’ve got to turn a cruise ship one degree at a time with a tugboat engine, just nice and slow gotta spin that around. But people expect you to go a little faster and they expect you to be able to turn very quickly.
So I think that that’s where our school districts are living is, they need the data and analytics to be able to say, “We’re looking at the data. We are paying attention to it and we are shifting our focuses as necessary.” There’s a community expectation that’s out there, we know.
But also I would say the other thing is that level of confidence in the data, that’s a conversation that analytics can get misconstrued very easily. So you’ve got to have people who know how to really analyze, because a lot of times people can look at data and they can put a misanalysis on it. So that coaching is really important, making sure that we understand what we’re looking at and what it means. And so there has to be a level of confidence that the data that we’re receiving is truly good. That’s something I work with my clients with all the time. I’m like, “Okay, are we getting the right data from your student information system? Is it coming to us correctly so that we visualize it correctly for you? Data integrity matters.” And so the stakeholders who use our systems, they need to have a level of confidence that the data is indeed clean and good.
And our districts, like I said before, they don’t have a lot of time. And so it’s very important for us to bring systems forward that help them be able to grab that insight quickly have confidence that they are getting a good analysis, and that they can use those to strategically plan.
CyLynn specifically called out building leaders in a school district — principals and assistant principals — and the tools, the analytics tools, that can help them make the kinds of decisions they need to make every day.
DR. CYLYNN BRASWELL: They have the toughest job.
Our principals and assistant principals are living in this really hard place. They staff. A lot of times it’s an assistant principal, a principal, a team that’s hiring the staff. So they’ve got to find good staff. They’ve got to keep the staff, maintain morale, keep the teacher excited.
Then they also have to monitor that teacher. So there’s the adult side of things that they’re having to work through. Then, on the other side of that, there are the student pieces. Student discipline, attendance, grades performance on national assessments, state assessments. Then there is whether or not the curriculum is being implemented in the classroom with fidelity, and is the teacher instructing correctly?
So they’re looking at all of that. And then there’s the, “Hey, the district’s given me this budget.” And the budget’s not usually massive. And so they’re also making fiscal decisions. And they’re the first person when the parents are upset, they’re coming to them. They’re mitigating parents and they’re the front line of every single decision within the organization. They’re the catalyst. What I love about Student Analytics is our system is for a principal and an AP as well. It’s very focused on that Dean or that assistant principal, so that they can have speed to insights so that they are not digging through and it’s not a district administrator. It’s somebody on the front lines able to see the data and help be informed in their day to day, because their day to day is fast paced. They need good data to get into their hands so that they can make those split second decisions.
RYAN ESTES: Let me use an analogy that you brought up earlier of the tugboat trying to turn a cruise ship. So there may be someone listening here who feels like the driver of that little tugboat, trying to say, “All right, I want to turn the cruise ship. I want to really start using analytics in a way that is going to matter in my district.” What is the single biggest piece of advice you would give to someone like that who wants to get started? Who maybe aren’t sure how, or perhaps don’t have a lot of buy-in from other leaders in the district. How have you seen someone do this successfully and get this effort off the ground?
DR. CYLYNN BRASWELL: So I’m going to give you the CyLynn unedited version right here. The first thing, I had an amazing lady one day, tell me, “CyLynn, you have to balance your community’s capacity with change, with your need for them to change.” And that took me aback for a minute, and it stuck with me. It’s been three years, almost four.
It stuck with me. She’s an amazing superintendent. And I listened to my heart on that one. And what I came to realize was I wanted to change everything immediately. I was an innovator in my district. I wanted to go, go, go. And I wanted to put all this data together and let’s go after it.
What I realized was, I needed to pick one thing and really focus in on that one or two data sets that mattered, really focus in on what I was doing in order to start to make systemic change. So if you’re sitting there as a district leader and you’re going, “Where do I start?” You pick the one thing that you think matters and not this big 10,000 foot view.
I focused in on one thing. For me, it was college and career readiness. I said, “Okay, we’re just going to focus on these five data sets within college and career readiness. We’re going to measure these.” And that actually cycled into deeper equity conversations, more organizational conversations, student access. It got to the places I wanted it to go, but I needed to focus in and I really had to balance my community’s capacity for change.
Had I come in and said, “Hey, our students are not receiving a really equitable environment. They’re not getting this, this and this.” If I would’ve come in that way, I would’ve been off-putting to my community. I would not have gotten followership in the data. I would not have gotten people to want to get behind data and look at it.
And so it was really important to take that step back and go, “Well, okay. What can I influence? What do I need to look at? What really matters?” And, you know, I was focused in on academic return on investment and some of those other pieces. So I was looking at financial data, all of these pieces. When I narrowed my focus I was more influential in my organization.
Now, it’s hard to not want to try to solve all the problems at once, because we look and we see the faces of these young people. They are more than a data point and it is so hard. So when we have clients who want to get to those places, I try to tell them, “Okay, let’s pick one place. Let’s just start here because then it’s going to go into those next things. Know that that data will happen, but you have to get people who want to buy in with you. You don’t want to walk this road alone. Take yourself on a data road show, put the data out there. Be honest about your data.”
I used to tell people, “Don’t ask a question you don’t want the answer for, because I am going to give you the answer.” And I think that that’s the question. That’s the conversation you need to have with yourself, too. Are you ready to ask those questions? And if you are, and you’re ready to go ahead and march forward and really make those decisions, and really make that organizational change, awesome. Then start somewhere and let us help you. We’ll help you focus in and really get into that one place. You need a confidant in this. Don’t go it alone. Don’t go it alone. I had to have a partner. I had to have a shoulder partner that I could sit down with and say, “I need to bounce an idea off you.” Find somebody that you can partner with. Find somebody that you can really walk this mile with. Because it’s a hard journey alone. That’s, the reason I came to this side of the table is because I needed a partner when I was sitting there, I needed a solution provider and I came to this side so that I could do that.
Just be with somebody you trust so that you can go through that. Sorry, I know I get a little soapbox-y about it.
RYAN ESTES: You call it soapbox-y, I call it passionate.
DR. CYLYNN BRASWELL: Okay, well, good. I’m glad. I’m glad. I’m glad. I think that we owe it to our young people in this country to be data-informed in our decisions. We owe it to our young people to bring about the best organization. And we owe it to ourselves and our stakeholders to know and feel confident in what we are doing each and every day. And the data and analytics allow us to do that.
RYAN ESTES: That’s a great place to finish up. Dr. CyLynn Braswell is a Senior Analytics Advisor at Frontline Education. CyLynn, I just wanna thank you for taking the time to share all this information and clearly your passion and your care for education and analytics. Thank you for your time today.
DR. CYLYNN BRASWELL: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it. It’s been a great time. I enjoyed it.
Field Trip is a podcast from Frontline Education, the leading provider of school administration software. That includes the Frontline Analytics suite with tools for student analytics, financial planning and budget management analytics, comparative analytics, and location analytics. For more information, visit FrontlineEducation.com/FieldTripPodcast.
For Frontline Education, I’m Ryan Estes. Thanks for listening and have a great day.