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Making Data-Driven Decisions In Rural Schools

Using student achievement data to guide instructional decisions is nothing new for educators, but that information also is being used in a different way—to ensure the continuous improvement of all students.

The U.S. Department of Education has embraced the idea of using data to help every child maximize his or her ability rather than solely for compliance and accountability, said Ellen B. Mandinach, a national expert on understanding data-driven decisionmaking in education settings. Technological advances have given educators a number of options to access and monitor that information, she said.

Mandinach was the featured presenter during a Tuesday Webinar on that issue as it pertains to rural schools and districts. She co-authored the Institute of Education Sciences Practice Guide, "Using Student Achievement Data to Support Instructional Decision Making,", which gives an overview of challenges related to this issue, and she pulled from that five suggestions for schools and districts.

The recommendations were:
• Make data a part of an ongoing cycle of instructional improvement;
• Teach students to examine their own data and set learning goals;
• Establish a clear vision for school-wide data use;
• Provide supports that foster a data-driven culture within the school;
• Develop and maintain a district-wide data system.

For each recommendation, Mandinach offered practical steps to accomplish that goal, as well as common roadblocks and solutions schools would encounter. For example, schools wanting to make data part of an ongoing cycle of instructional improvement should: collect and review data relative to student learning, interpret that data and develop hypotheses about how to improve student learning, and modify instruction to test the hypotheses and increase student learning.

A common problem is educators being overwhelmed with too much data. They should find ways to reduce data to a manageable amount and focus their questions based on evidence, Mandinach said. Another problem is the content areas that don't have readily available data, so educators should develop common assessments across schools or classes.

One of the bigger challenges rural schools will face is related to the recommendation to develop a district-wide data system. That's not an easy task for districts of any size, but rural schools with fewer students will have to rationalize the cost and benefits of pursuing that kind of technology, Mandinach said. She suggested involving a variety of stakeholders—from parents to students to top officials—in choosing a data system and making sure that it's accessible, usable, and meaningful.

One of the Webinar's panelists was Gary DePatis, who is superintendent of Greenview C.U.S.D., in Greenview, Ill., which has fewer than 300 students in grades K-12. DePatis has been working to implement a district-wide data system, and he cautioned that rural schools should be careful not to overwhelm staff members who already wear a number of hats.

His district has been trying to figure out what it wants to get out of this new system and what companies can offer. Cost is a factor, and the district is balancing the expense against the benefit, he said. Training for everyone, from staff to parents, is key because they need to understand the information, he said.

The presentation was easy to understand and seemed to have worthwhile tips that rural educators could use. Presenters recognized the difficulties rural schools face, such as having small staffs who lack training in how to use this data, and they offered meaningful remedies, such as investing in professional development and offering incentives for participation.

The Webinar was hosted by the Regional Educational Laboratory Rural Working Group, which is part of the Regional Educational Laboratory Program, a network of 10 laboratories that give educators and policymakers access to high-quality education research. The REL Program is funded by the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education.

This Webinar was one in a series relative to the needs of rural educators. Others have included: Post-secondary Access and Success for Rural Students. The Powerpoint and audio presentation from Tuesday's Webinar is available online.

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