Resolving Data Fears in Evaluation

I had some great conversations this week with colleagues about establishing a culture of data in organizations and training organizations who are new to evaluation and data.

These conversations reminded me about one of my favorite old blog posts, that I originally wrote for the National Association for Family, School, and Community Engagement (NAFSCE) in 2017.

Given this week’s discussions, it felt like a good time to bring it back into the rotation (with a few updates!). 

Don’t Be Scared of Data – How it Can Guide Family Engagement and Attendance Interventions

When I was a teacher, conversations around instructional data were baffling to me. Fresh out of policy school, I was eager to use what I had learned about data analysis to monitor how my students were performing, but as a social studies teacher, this task was more difficult than I had anticipated. I was required to keep a data binder, and administrators would periodically check to confirm that, well, it existed. However, I struggled to figure out what to put inside of it. My administrators did not help me understand how – absent standardized test data – I could track progress on specific standards outside of my grade book.

It often felt like the conversation ended after the word “data” was uttered.

As I have focused my career on family engagement efforts, I have seen how conversations about using data to improve engagement are often greeted by the same blank stares I encountered as a teacher of a non-tested subject. On other days, talking about data elicits looks of panic or skepticism. At one particularly memorable training, community school coordinators were led in a debate about the utility of data. Sitting from my seat on the pro-data side of the room, I was amazed by arguments from the anti-data group.

What resonated most is that these capable and talented colleagues understood data to simply be numbers on which their performance review was based, not as a tool to discover context and unlock insights about the families being served.

I think this belief system exists for a number of reasons.

First, many educators are tired of increasing demands for data without sufficient training. Professionals need to understand how data can be collected, ways in which it should be analyzed, and how it can actually make their work easier.

I have found that on-the-ground staff are often the last to receive the proper supports and professional development around understanding and using data.

It becomes a symbol for all of the things we don’t like about accountability instead of the asset that it truly can be.

Perhaps more importantly, the work of engaging families – understanding needs, forming trusting relationships, and helping people when they are vulnerable – is incredibly difficult to quantify.

Often, we know we have made progress or achieved results – not because of a spreadsheet or heat map – but because a family had enough food for the weekend or because a child stopped acting out as much in class.

How do we tell those stories? How do we show our value as professionals when these important markers seem impossible to put into a spreadsheet? These are the critical questions we need to answer.

For these reasons, it is my mission to help educators and professionals realize that data does not have to be scary or intimidating. It does not require complex coding skills or mathematical know-how to track how clients are being served. If you would have been sitting across from me in the data debate, here are some tips to get you started:

Start with what you have. If you are trying to get more parents involved at the school, it’s helpful to know exactly who is already coming to events. Try making a spreadsheet of the information from your event sign-in sheets and see what patterns you find. For example, comparing the names on this list to a whole-school roster can help you figure out which kids have had little to no in-person parental involvement. Use this approach for other measures that you can track from the information and documents already sitting in your office.

Leverage the expertise around you. Everyone knows who the go-to person is at their workplace when they have a technology question. Maybe that person (or someone else) also has some knowledge of Excel or other tools. Anyone can fill in a template. See if a colleague can help you design the tracking tool you know you need but do not know how to create.

Do not be afraid to play around and make mistakes! The best way to learn how to manipulate and analyze data is to get your hands dirty and play around with it. Try different buttons, Google how to do things, and ask what colleagues at other schools and organizations are doing. This is why there is an “Undo” button! Of course, if you are unsure, you can always make a copy of your file so the original data is safe.

Using your organization’s qualitative and quantitative data can give you amazing insight into both the ongoing needs and continuing growth of the students and families you serve. With a little less reticence towards this approach, we can make a lot more progress in engaging families to help their children succeed.