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Power in Numbers

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Following is a post from guest blogger Susan Weston, a Kentucky education consultant who often works with the Prichard Committee:

How do we frame the most important data so the public will look, question and understand? Our education system runs on numbers, but the public often wants to run from numbers. How do we change that?

In my experience, short and thoughtful data displays can make a big difference for public engagement.

Two of my recent projects have focused on issues that can make both educators and non-educators uneasy: student performance and state funding.

First, here's a display of some end-of course testing results for my children's high school:

Susan Chart 1.jpg

Give that one snapshot about 15 seconds, and you'll find the painful parts. Look at similar graphs for all subjects, and you'll be ready to ask important questions about what changes are needed and how you can help them happen. This kind of display is shared with participating parents each year at the Governor's Commonwealth Institute for Parent Leadership, and it never fails to move the discussions to a deeper, more urgent level.

Second, here's a view of how Kentucky state funding has dropped for key initiatives:

Susan Chart 2 Flex Focus.png

Kentucky has been proud of limiting recent cuts to our main SEEK funding formula, but the story is different for these targeted supports that are crucial for Kentucky's push toward higher performance. There, deep damage has been done, and this chart is central to the brief handout now being shared by Kentucky's leading professional organizations, the state PTA, and the Prichard Committee, all working together as Kentucky Education Action Team (KEAT) members to press for adequate school funding. The picture tells the story as the numbers alone never could.

In projects like these and a dozen earlier efforts, I've developed a few key principles for engaging citizens around numbers:

1. Keep it simple and short. People who will look at one page will turn away from two. If you want their attention, you have to decide what you most want them to attend to.

2. Use color. It draws people in, signaling that they'll be able to figure out the included information.

3. Use the simplest labels you can create. If there are added details a few people will want to know, share an appendix on a website.

4. Plan on many drafts and many viewers. You need many different views to tell you if your point is clear and to help you head off possible misunderstandings. No matter how good you think your first version is, good colleagues can make it better.

5. Take it local. The first graph I shared is local because seeing the local version makes me especially uncomfortable. It isn't the whole story of what goes on in my local schools, but it's a slice of the story that matters a lot--and it matters more when I can imagine the students, parents and teachers struggling with the problem it reveals.

6. Make it happen. When you find a compelling format for important information, things change. People remember your main point and watch for your next communication.

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