In September 2015, Howell Township Public Schools was reestablishing a vision for its future of the district after the difficult process of reconfiguring its twelve schools.

As a result of the reconfiguration, the district now serves its 6,000 pre-K – grade 8 students in five primary, five elementary, and two middle school settings. It was vital to the continued success of our students, especially after such a challenging process, that trust be maintained between the board of education and the administrative team, and that the fundamental relationship between our two key partner groups be nurtured.

For Howell Township, one tool for building that trust involves creating data-rich dashboards – visual displays of student outcomes – for the board of education. These dashboards allow board members to quickly look at pertinent district information and statistics whenever they want.

The idea of making information easily available to school board members is consistent with the underlying theme that we strive for in our board-administration relationship: one of trust, mutual accountability, and shared purpose. This point cannot be stressed enough. The productive result of those relationships is a district-wide, laser-like focus on student success. That specific focus is undoubtedly the most beneficial outcome of our dashboards.

When asked what sets high-functioning boards of education apart from other school boards, Bill Daggett, founder of the International Center for Educational Leadership, states:

“In our ongoing study of the nation’s most rapidly improving schools, it is clear that these organizations are focused on student achievement and effective instruction—from classroom to boardroom. These schools’ boards of education typically spend about 70 percent of their time reviewing data, participating in presentations on and discussing how to support student performance, and then setting and monitoring policies to maximize student performance.”

When these types of relationships do not exist, boards may focus on myopic changes; they may focus more on boilers and roofs than student success. This is through no fault of their own. As elected officials, board members represent the desires of the public regarding one of the community’s most cherished commodities: its school system. To quickly and easily prove that a board of education is making a difference, it may focus on the small, concrete changes that it can demonstrably prove.

The question then becomes: How can the administration and the board build a relationship through which the slow-changing, constantly-evolving nature of classroom learning is the focus of both groups? Howell has answered that question by building a fluid system of trust between the administration and the board of education. The administration is trusted to provide a proactive, timely, accurate and understandable depiction of the school district’s current learning realities. The board is trusted to stay focused on the critical needs derived from the current learning reality and provide space and support to the administrative team to accomplish the tasks associated with those goals. Simply put, we work to monitor and adjust the balance between board trust and administrative transparency.

There are building blocks to this trust that must be firmly in place. Regarding the roles both groups play and the outcomes for students influenced by those roles, there must be a shared vision based on high expectations. A strong belief in the optimal possibilities for students in the school district is at the core of our work. Clear and focused communication allows that work to thrive. The Center for Public Education provides an outline that clearly delineates the above attributes.

Two key descriptors from that outline support Howell’s commitment to an open and transparent relationship with our board of education:

  • Effective school boards are accountability-driven, spending less time on operational issues and more time focused on policies to improve student achievement.
  • Effective school boards are data-savvy; they embrace and monitor data, even when the information is negative, and use it to drive continuous improvement.

With that context, our administrative team believes wholeheartedly in supporting the board in a third element of that outline:

  • Effective school boards lead as a united team with the superintendent, each from their respective roles, with strong collaboration and mutual trust.

By providing a transparent look into the work of the administration, the board can be comfortable asking the questions that support each member of the team’s respective advocacy for student success. Regular deployment of a board-ready, data-rich dashboard has been integral to supporting that work.

The concept of the ‘data-rich dashboard’ was an outgrowth of our desire to share relevant, unfiltered, student-performance data with the board of education. As the concept evolved, various characteristics became necessary to include in the dashboard design: board member ease of use, focused data without distractors, graphic layout to support comparative performance, and flexibility for adding or removing elements as the need demands.

While the above elements were necessary to include in our dashboard, decisions needed to be made regarding what types of specific data should be included. Again, we created context with the attributes expressed in the three bullets from the referenced list of school board quality indicators. That context led to an open-ended decision: broad views of the data would better support the board’s work, while more granular data would create distractions and possible confidentiality concerns.

Keeping the decision open-ended and providing a broad view of the data supported the goal of a transparent conversation. Tim O’Brien, board president, emphasizes how that transparency resulted in action for the board: “Our task is to focus policy on student success. To do that, as a board, we need to clearly understand our current reality as it aligns with our vision for the future. The data dashboard gives us a lens that marries a granular, present-tense review with a 10,000-foot view of the board’s overall policy impact on our strategic plan. The result allows the board to make informed policy decisions that support student success without impeding daily operations.”

Building the Dashboard Bringing together all the intents and purposes expressed above required the use of a data warehouse to generate our board briefing report. Our data warehouse is the district’s central data repository. We import data from various sources, such as our Student Information System (SIS), raw data from the New Jersey Department of Education such as standardized test scores, internal assessment scores and staff/personnel data from our human resource system. The data warehouse accumulates all the imported data into a self-contained, single data source. As can be seen on the board briefing report, this allows us to display and analyze information utilizing data from many different sources and display it in meaningful ways. For instance, assessment data can be viewed longitudinally over multiple testing periods. Analysis between distinct subsets of data, such as attendance and grades, can be analyzed from a district or a building perspective.

An integral component of the data warehouse is the flexibility to build reports using a wide array of display options. Tables, charts and multi-tabbed reports give us flexibility to illustrate and/or analyze nuanced relationships related to our students, staff and key performance indicators. The data warehouse system is automatically updated each night with the most recent data.

The flexibility, graphic displays, and user-friendly interface allow Howell to achieve a very important goal: making the data real. Looking at the data, for the sake of reviewing it, is a purely academic exercise; it would be a facade rather than yielding actionable outcomes. Both the administrative team and the board of education intended the dashboard to create a bias toward positive action.

The dashboard has often turned into a board meeting focus topic with guiding, action-biased questions such as: How does our work in governance positively or negatively impact these outcomes; and how might our advocacy as a board support and enhance these outcomes? Other guiding questions and support for data discussions as a board of education can be found on the Data-First website.

Now, a year after instituting the dashboard, we see many positive, concrete outcomes from this journey. Below are just a few highlights.

  • After careful review of our dashboard, and consequently more historical data, we found that student attendance on the Monday before Election Day, and the Wednesday after, were typically very low. This resulted in low educational returns for the week. The results of the dashboard view provided the board with great confidence, through deliberative discussion, to approve a week-long break in the district calendar for both students and staff during the 2016 national elections.
  • In reviewing student performance, staff attendance, and budgetary analysis of substitute teachers used for professional development, the board determined that additional professional development days would be instrumental in optimizing the mission of the district. The dashboard provided an objective lens through which the board determined a need for additional professional learning days to be built into the contract. The result could provide a fiscal offset to the salary increases in the first year of the contract while improving learning outcomes for students.
  • Reviewing student performance data provided the board with confidence to support the district’s efforts in developing, fully integrating, and monitoring a robust Response to Intervention framework. Since implementation, we have specifically monitored both student performance data and actual referrals to Intervention and Referral Services (I&RS). That combination of data affirmed the board’s decision to support the Response to Intervention frameworks by showing a significant reduction in the need for referrals to I&RS while maintaining academic performance.
  • As a last example, from the administrative perspective, the work with our dashboards provided the administrative team with great confidence to dramatically shift the state-mandated, statewide assessment data presentation. The dashboard created a comfortable transparency between the administrative team and the board of education such that the administrative team, at a public board meeting, provided video of grade and subject level teams analyzing data during a data meeting. The teams were analyzing the very assessment results the board of education had just reviewed. This provided the board with assurance that the data received from these reports is useful to teachers, meaningful to students, and actionable on behalf of the whole district.

Overall, the dashboard supported a strong culture of cohesion between the stakeholders. Each stakeholder could see real examples of district-wide data. In so doing, the data mattered, authentically, to each other stakeholder, and in turn, each stakeholder group could see the data made a positive difference to the school district’s mission. Mark Bonjavanni, our board vice president, echoes this with conviction, “Nothing happens without trust. Knowing the intentions of others, and the honest outcomes of those intentions, allows that trust to grow. When mutual trust grows, so does student success. In the end, that is what we should all be focused on: student success.”

Joseph Isola is superintendent of Howell Township school district; Bruce Preston is assistant superintendent; and Claire Engle is the district’s director of digital learning and innovation.