Giving time back to teachers at Aspire Public Schools

"By knowing that there is a way to get an answer, they're able to not just get that answer, but also ask that next question."

Aspire Public Schools is a charter management organization based out of Oakland, California. Aspire operates a network of 30 charter schools that serve 10,000 children. In 2010, Lynzi Ziegenhagen, Director of Technology Solutions, told us how Tableau empowers Aspire teachers to access data faster and use it more effectively. “It helps them spend more time thinking, gaining insights on what they should be doing when they walk in the classroom the next day, as opposed to spending time getting the data.”

Tableau: What is Aspire’s mission and what is your role with the organization?
Lynzi: We're focused on providing excellent education opportunities for students in traditionally underserved neighborhoods, especially with the focus of getting them college ready and successfully to college. Most are first in their families to go to college, and “College for Certain” is our motto. I work to bring tools and technology into the organization that are going to increase student achievement and improve operational efficiency.
Tableau: For the business of Aspire and your mission of teaching, what have been the major benefits of using Tableau?
Lynzi: Teachers have too many responsibilities, and anything that we can do that saves them half an hour is an enormous help for them, for their lifestyle, for the kids, and for their energy. That’s my first bar: are we giving them back time? Another important aspect is: are we enabling them to leverage their expertise and their hard work with better data, so they're not working in the dark and they can focus on what only they can do, increase student achievement.
Tableau: How do you use Tableau?
Lynzi: We've been using Tableau to gain insights and do analysis that wasn't possible before.

We use it in two primary ways. One way is basically making up for the lack of decent reporting in our 20 operational systems. Even if all you want is data from one system like our finance system, you can't get it with our finance software. So we create reports with a lot more flexibility and control than the software provides us. The other aspect is because we have 20 operational systems that all hold a part of the puzzle of a student's achievement or a staff member's history, we actively integrate that data into a data warehouse and then use Tableau to create reports from many data sources that answer principals' and teachers' questions.

Tableau: What kinds of information are you analyzing?
Lynzi: We use Tableau Desktop to create visualizations around student achievement data and to provide data around HR, finance, student attendance—all the information that's important to run schools and support student achievement. We use Tableau Server as a way to get the information into the hands of the people that need to use it, including teachers, principals, home office managers, and instructional coaches.
Tableau: How many people do you have using Tableau Server?
Dan: We have about 1,200 employees on Tableau Server. About 600 of them are teachers, who are our most common users of the data. About 100-120 administrators also use Tableau Server.
Tableau: Tell me a little bit more about the student achievement data. What does that look like? What are you measuring? What kind of views are you providing?
Lynzi: Aspire has always had a very strong culture of using data from our creation 12 years ago. The appetite is created by our education team everyday. There's a lot of structure in place, in our process during team meetings, to help teachers look at and use data. Historically, doing that was painful and required exporting from multiple systems and putting it into Excel. By the time that was done there was less time to actually think about it and create an action plan for it.

The data teachers use most regularly is around student assessments.. At Aspire, our teachers use assessments to figure out what students know beforehand, what students know after they've taught them a specific skill for the California state standard, and then also for benchmarks at specific times during the year where they get a pulse on where students are based on everything that's gone on, and are then able to improve their practice to better meet the needs of their students.

What we've done with Tableau is support that process for both the short term cycles and the quarterly cycles, allowing teachers to interact with the data in ways that they couldn't before. It helps them spend more time thinking, gaining insights on what they should be doing when they walk in the classroom the next day, as opposed to spending time getting the data.

Tableau: So what does a day in the life of a teacher working with data look like before Tableau and after Tableau?
Lynzi: Before, teachers who wanted to use, let's say benchmark data, they would have the students take an assessment. We have operational software that helps them scan it into a computer, so the data is there. But if they wanted to look and compare those results to previous benchmarks or last year's standardized tests or, heaven forbid, multiple years before that, they would have to go back and find Excel spreadsheets that were sent to them from our home office. And then in the home office, the people on the data assessment team that has long served our teachers would spend about a month creating teacher-specific or school-specific PowerPoint presentations using Excel. They would email them out to the principal and have the principal distribute them to the teachers.

Now the data assessment team can create the framework for the report before the benchmark tests are even administered. The data is then used to populate the report and about 24-48 hours after the test, that data is in the hands of every teacher. The teachers can just go to a website and see their students and how they did, as opposed to waiting for the production and then the distribution of that data.

The other great thing is that because our data assessment team isn't spending as much time producing reports, they’re spending more time with teachers and with principals, helping people use the data and plan around it, which has a bigger impact.

Tableau: Teachers obviously have a lot to do during the day, including actually teaching. Can you estimate the time your teachers were spending gathering the data and knitting it all together before, versus now with Tableau?
Lynzi: We did a survey of our teachers about a year ago asking them on average how much time they spend "analyzing data" per week. Ninety percent of our teachers spent between 30 minutes and 4 hours a week. A significant portion of them said that they spent the majority of their time just getting the data ready to analyze instead of gaining insights and doing action planning. We haven't given the follow-up survey yet, but that is our plan. Anecdotally, what we've heard so far is that it's saving teachers a lot of time and that it's letting them get access to longitudinal data and more multi-faceted data than ever before.
Tableau: It’s often hard to introduce new tools. How was the reception from teachers when you rolled out Tableau Server?
Lynzi: When we rolled out the first product to teachers on Tableau Server, it was almost a mirror image of the graph that teachers had received for years in PowerPoint. Therefore, the learning curve was not about “what is this data?” or “why is the bar chart like that?” The learning was, “oh, I go to a web page now and when I click on this bar I can see data on this filtered differently.” I think the data assessment team's idea to start with something the teachers already knew really helped with the adoption because there were very limited questions. There was very limited confusion about the tool.

In the second stage of rollout, we kept the visualizations very simple and the format and the presentation of them very consistent in our data portal. So even though there may be 100 reports, they all have filters in the exact same place, they all work the same way, and the visualizations are almost all relatively simple. And that was our year one plan with the teachers because we didn't have the ability to provide a lot of additional training around how to interpret and understand more complicated visualizations.

Tableau: If you were talking to someone else who was implementing Tableau Server, what would you recommend they do to make it successful?
Lynzi: If you have a large audience with a range of analytical skills and experience, I would say don't make it too fancy to begin with. I also would not pretend that people are going to get away from paper. Initially, when people said, “it has to print perfectly,” I fought it, believing the visualizations are supposed to be on the web, it's supposed to be interactive. In the end, they were totally right. A large portion of your population, when they start doing this, if they're used to paper, will print it. You need to have one worksheet that looks perfect when you print it. Then you can also have additional worksheets and even label them “interactive,” so that they knew these aren't to print, these are the interactive ones. It was important for us not to assume they were going to go to this new tool and change the way they were working with paper and the web.  

We didn't even try to convince teachers of the value of Tableau Server. I don't think they even know necessarily that what they're seeing is Tableau Server. What they're seeing is the data that answers the questions that they really want answers to. So, instead of making a big splash about the product or this new tool, we really embedded it in their day-to-day business, or educational practices that they already have.

Tableau: But how did you convince non-technical teachers that going online for interactive dashboards was a good thing?
Lynzi: Our teachers didn't need convincing that going to a web page to get data was a good thing. Basically they got an email from a source that they trusted that had been giving them data and attachments and Excel files for years, with a link saying, “your data is on the web this time and we're also able to deliver it to you with 48 hour turnaround instead of two, three, four weeks.”
Tableau: What's the size of the data you're working on?
Lynzi: We are still building our data warehouse, but probably the largest cube that we have tracks students' attendance per class, per day. That one is several million rows.
Tableau: And you're able to do reports or queries against that with Tableau?
Lynzi: Yes, we use Tableau against both relational SQL databases and against our cubes that we use analysis services for. It works great.
Tableau: How has communication within Aspire changed you since you started using Tableau?
Lynzi: One of the important results that we've had at Aspire from having our data in a more integrated fashion and having a powerful BI tool is that people aren't scared to ask questions. They don't get frustrated. By knowing that there is a way to get an answer, they're able to not just get that answer, but also ask that next question. I think that's only because we have Tableau, and we have worked hard to make sure that we have the data that Tableau can make more powerful.
Tableau: So you already had a data-driven culture, but you're actually fostering and furthering it with Tableau?
Lynzi: Yes. I think our founders did a great job in realizing how important the data is when many of our students come to us at multiple levels, years behind in school. You need to be focused on student achievement and make sure they're moving forward all the time.
Tableau: What ideas do you have for the future? Will use you Tableau in different ways?
Lynzi: I'm looking forward to going beyond this first wave of making data available and starting to use this great data and this powerful tool to gain insights that no one has gained yet. We also plan in this next year to help push data expertise out of just an analyst group into every single business unit—not just education units, but finance, HR, student services, and operations. We’re developing a curriculum around the skills that people need in order to be able to do that: some understanding of databases and data warehouses, some understanding of visual analysis, and some core skills in Tableau Desktop and Server. Also, how do you get other people, your customers, to use data? So I'm excited about that.