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.”