Early Indicators: Using Data to Keep High-Risk Students in the Classroom

Educators have tons of data about their students, from grade and attendance reports to SAT scores and state survey data. But their job isn't to spend hours building reports in Excel—it's being available to their students. That's where the school district comes in.

A quick, easy-to-use data discovery tool is the answer. While it is important for educators to track performance goals and priorities in real-time, they need to be able to understand trends and insights quickly. For example, the Spokane School District uses Tableau to track students at risk of dropping out, determine early warning signs, and step in to help. Read this paper to learn how they did this, and how your school can use data discovery to lower dropout rates.

We've also pulled out the first several pages of the whitepaper for you to read. Download the PDF on the right to read the rest.

We count on our educators to help students make sense of all sorts of information, but how can school districts help educators make sense of the information they have about their students? Our teachers’ inboxes are clogged with everything from grade reports and attendance records to discipline reports, SAT results, state assessments and survey data. As every teacher and principal knows, there is massive divide between receiving static data from disparate sources and putting the pieces together to improve education and help individual students.

The Spokane Public School District has spent the past few years developing a breakthrough solution to this problem. Using Tableau Software, Spokane now provides educators with web-based data dashboards that integrate multiple data sources to track performance goals and priorities in near real-time, using an intuitive visual interface that highlights trends and outliers. For the first time ever, teachers and administrators have a clear and holistic view of what’s really happening with their schools and students.

Spokane’s most exciting project so far is the Early Warning System, designed to reduce student dropout rates. The interactive dashboard they’ve created correlates live student data with known risk factors, allowing educators to identify students who are at risk of dropping out as early as the third grade. The system has garnered enthusiastic attention from NPR and The Seattle Times, and it will soon be replicated throughout the state of Washington.

“I really believe that data has the power to drive change,” says Steven Gering, Chief Academic Officer for Spokane Public Schools. “It gets people focused on what we need to do and why we need to do it. It leads to thoughtful decision-making and action. It gets us moving in a way that nothing else can.”

Spokane is the second largest school district in the state of Washington, serving nearly 30,000 students. The district has 34 elementary schools, 6 middle schools, 7 high schools and about 3,200 employees. Spokane’s poverty rate is higher than the state average, and many schools are struggling. Just three years ago, one in three students at Rogers High School didn’t graduate. Reducing dropout rates is a top priority throughout the district.

“Our goal is to keep kids in school and give them the highest quality education, so that they’ll have choices in their lives,” says Gering. “We want every single one of our kids in Spokane Public Schools to be able to support their families and be productive citizens in our society.”

This is the story of how visual data is helping Spokane tackle that goal.

The Problem of Data in Education

Most educators agree that data is critical to understanding and solving problems. But before turning to Tableau, Spokane faced numerous data challenges that are common across the educational system:

  • Overwhelming reports. Especially at the administrative level, educators received massive volumes of reports that they were expected to somehow sift through and use. Each report addressed just one small piece of the overall picture.
  • “Dead” data. Because of the time it took to create Excel spreadsheets or printed reports, educators often didn’t see data for at least 30 to 60 days, making it very difficult to identify or respond quickly to trends. Reports were essentially “dead” as soon as they were produced and had to be recreated with each new test, survey, assessment, or other data collection event.
  • Disconnected data. Data from various reports were rarely correlated. Educators had to spend hours creating their own spreadsheets to get even a vague idea of what it all meant for their individual students and schools.
  • Multiple data sources. Data are created and distributed through multiple systems at the school, district, state, and national levels. Integrating information from all these systems can be a significant—and expensive – technology challenge.

In short, computer data was not meeting the human need in Spokane. The resources spent attempting to process information were not being used effectively, and the insights that trickled down to educators were far from holistic or actionable.

Taking Control of Data

Making data a genuine driver of understanding and change in Spokane has not been an overnight process. Using Tableau to aggregate data and make it visual was an important first step, but the key was putting it directly into the hands of educators.

“We had Tableau for two years,” recalls Gering, “but we couldn’t get it to take off until we added the web-based tool. Now they can alter their data and play with their data. That’s what really got folks excited.”

Spokane’s new approach to data includes these transformative features:

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