Grassroots data analysis drives elementary school principal's leadership

Pete Misner is a principal in the Northshore School district in Bothell, Washington. He is also a passionate believer in using data to improve educational outcomes. In addition to his “day job” as an elementary school principal, he teaches aspiring principals how to use data to improve decision-making at the University of Washington.

The Third Grade Tipping Point

Misner’s elementary school has enrolled nearly 800 students; all of these children are regularly assessed through both standardized tests such as Washington State’s Measurement of Student Progress (MSP) and classroom based reading assessments, including the Fountas and Pinnell Independent Reading Record assessment (F&P IRR.)

“Our primary data focus is on reading,” says Misner. His school conducts reading assessments throughout the school year. “One of our district performance measures is ensuring that all kids meet standard in reading by the end of third grade.”

WA State assessment data viz by Pete Misner. Click to drill down or filter the data in Tableau Public.

This deadline is not arbitrary, Misner notes. “There is plenty of research that says if students are reading at grade level by the end of third grade, then great things happen. And if they aren't—then it becomes very difficult for those students to catch up with their peers.”

“We don't have resources to waste and we don’t have time to waste,” Misner says. “Everything is to help kids get to standard or above.”

But with so many students in his school, it was difficult and time-consuming to understand each individual’s needs and strengths.

”Spray and Pray”

“When you don’t have that individual student data view, then there's this phrase that I like, called ‘spray and pray.’ You spray the resources across the school or classroom and you pray that it sticks where it needs to,” Misner says.

The most common resource Misner’s school receives from the state is funding for additional instructor time for struggling readers. In order to optimize this instructional resource—and others—it was important to cluster students with similar needs strategically.

This required a clear understanding of the exact needs and skills of every student across the school. More importantly, it was critical that all teachers had this information to inform their collaborative decision-making as they prepared for the next school year.

In addition, Misner wanted to be able to review the results from interventions, to expand particularly effective approaches while eliminating those that offered less impact.

“It takes months and months and months”

“I've been into data for quite some time even as a teacher,” says Misner. “Throughout my whole career, I’ve been really passionate about using data to inform instruction. But I’ve been frustrated along the way—like everybody is—with the massive amounts of data that we have to digest and how long it could take.”

He notes that it can take months to go from a data overview, such as looking at school-level data and identifying a priority question. Once a question is determined, the principal typically sends it to a data team for analysis and visualization.

Once the principal finally has the results in-hand, it’s time to schedule staff meetings to present the findings. “Then you're finally moving towards making steps about student learning problems,” he says. “It takes months and months and months.”

He had been using Excel to do his own grassroots data analysis when he saw a TED talk that changed everything. “I saw Gapminder—the Hans Rosling TED talk—and that just blew my mind,” he says.

Misner was determined to find a data visualization tool to help him with his analysis.

“Then I saw a crime statistics dashboard on the Seattle Times website, and I immediately knew I wanted to learn more about Tableau,” he says. “I instantly saw the value in that for districts, schools, classes, subgroups, teachers, so forth.”

Using assessment data to track progress and prioritize resources is not new. What is new is how efficient and effective it is with Tableau. It takes everything to a much higher level.

“It’s truly about that insightful moment”

Misner downloaded the free, two-week trial of Tableau and experimented with his data. He then purchased a personal license for Tableau Desktop and was able to use an advanced training stipend from his school district to enroll in Tableau training sessions to learn best practices for developing visualizations.

Today, Misner typically looks at two primary data sources: MSP data downloaded from the state website and F&P reading assessment data stored in Excel.

He has built several different views, including an MSP visualization that includes data from the last five years of testing across the state, which he has shared with education colleagues. They can view and interact with the visualizations by downloading the free Tableau Reader.

Misner is also introducing Tableau into the program that he is teaching at the UW, and the response has been positive. But Misner is most pleased with how he has been able to inspire more data-driven decisions at his elementary school with help from Tableau.

“We are tracking individual progress and interventions, identifying if we need more interventions,” he says. “Being able to click on the visualization and get down to that individual kid level so quickly —that's what's exciting. That's helpful.”

“It's truly about that insightful moment where an educator knows just a little bit more than they did before and is able to act more efficiently and wisely,” says Misner.

Misner has seen improvements in several areas since implementing Tableau:

  • Improve class assignments. Misner used Tableau to visualize the assessment data and interventions for every student in his school. With all this information in a single view, department heads were able to identify students who would benefit from being grouped together. For example, they could cluster English Language Learners by skill level.
    Misner then tested the draft class assignments in Tableau to ensure effective classroom distribution.
  • “From my perspective, we've had the most successful student assignments to classrooms that we've ever had, using the data to drive and test our class assignments,” says Misner.

  • Challenge assumptions. Misner remembers the first time he presented data to teachers using visualization. He took basic reading data for a grade and presented it in an animated chart. The teachers immediately noticed one dot shooting up faster than any other. After clicking the dot to drill down into student information, they realized that the fast-moving dot represented a highly-impacted student in the special education program.
  • “One of the general education teachers instantly said, ‘She needs to be in my class all day,’” says Misner. “And that changed that girl's life.”

    The student began spending every day with a general education class and was fully exited out of special education within approximately a year and a half.

    “It created a sense of excitement about that child in a way that we didn't necessarily see her before,” Misner says. “It really inspires teachers’ spirit of ownership for all children.”

  • Allocate resources more effectively. “From a building principal perspective, Tableau has been unbelievable for me,” says Misner. “It really focuses my in-classroom time and helps me provide as much support as I can.”
  • Misner says that he is able to allocate resources more effectively based on the additional insight he now has through Tableau.

    “We may have a certain amount of money for a particular type of intervention—so where is it going to go? Being able to see and interact with the data visually is very helpful when you’re collaborating and looking at so many kids,” says Misner.

    Most often, Misner is trying to allocate additional support time for struggling readers. Because he can identify the most challenged students and track progress in Tableau, he has been able to improve results.

    “We figured out some cases where we didn't see as much success in one group as others, and then we were able to drill down and ask why,” says Misner. “Using assessment data to track progress and prioritize resources is not new. What is new is how efficient and effective it is with Tableau. It takes everything to a much higher level.”