Creating a district-wide culture of ‘data literacy’ to achieve equity in education

How to map a path to your equity goals tomorrow by understanding where your district stands today.
By: and | March 25, 2021
Adobe Stock Photos.

Peter Solar (left) is Director of Client Partnerships at Munetrix. Mike Geers is Client Partnership Manager with Munetrix.

As educators place an increasing focus on equity and equality in education, a new challenge has emerged: not knowing what we don’t know. This is especially critical to the equity piece, as equity should be regarded as a destination, or something demonstrably achievable, as opposed to a mere goal of “improvement.”

Our secret weapon is something districts have at their ready disposal, but which is historically under-leveraged: data. It’s not that districts don’t have access to data—it’s everywhere: public databases, district systems, spreadsheets, census bureaus…even desk drawers and hard drives! 

Districts are data-rich. But they’re knowledge-poor.

Start with a clear picture

To achieve progress toward a goal, you must have a clear picture of where your district stands today. What, precisely, is the current reality when it comes to equity gaps—social, emotional, educational and financial? The only way to truly understand disparities is to look at hard data. 

“Using data to inform all of our practices in K12 education—from budget management to student instruction—is more important than ever,” says Paul Liabenow, Executive Director with The Michigan Elementary and Middle School Principals Association (MEMSPA). “We must analyze the data we find at our fingertips to make timely course corrections if our desired outcomes are not being met…to expose and correct inequities in our systems and make changes for the benefit of our marginalized students.”

Making the invisible visible

As the cornerstones of the communities we serve, districts should be cross-analyzing publicly available census data, district financial data, student achievement and educator evaluation data, population demographics and economic data, student migration data, grant and budget-forecasting data…all of it. We should be working with our partners (public and private) in the communities we serve to harness as much information as possible. 

A complete data set has the effect of “making the invisible, visible.” That danger of not knowing what we don’t know is very real. What if a root cause of a given inequity is presumed to be financial in nature, but in reality, is socio-political? Will throwing more money at this particular situation address root causes, or will it merely present the illusion of effort? And can you even measure progress toward a goal if you’re addressing the wrong underlying cause? 

If we truly want to address the drivers of inequity, we must first see them, later make sure we understand them, and finally show our work in overcoming them. 

Create a culture of data literacy to measure everything—even the invisible

The equity challenges educators face are similar to others confronting district personnel:

  1. Understanding the challenge;
  2. Understanding what steps to take toward remediation; and
  3. Reporting out to various stakeholders that action is being taken, and to what effect.

Achieving a district-wide commitment to what we call a “culture of data literacy” is a district’s best opportunity to check all three boxes. This means having a very real, consistent commitment to optimal data-use practices in order to facilitate data-driven decisions. 

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Take these actions as a district to achieve this culture of data literacy:

Understand the whole community. Know the district you serve, and not just its students and parents. What portion of the population rents versus owns? What is the size and nature of its homeless population? What is the complete demographics picture, from ethnicity to income? All of these data points are potential contributors to inequality. Until you see them all, overlaid against one another, it’s difficult to discern which are the drivers and which are the outcomes.

Follow the money. Do you truly and completely know your financial spend at a district and building level? Do you know which schools have more successful grant writing initiatives, and does that have an impact on financial gaps? What are the tax revenues, relative to your neighboring districts? “More money” is one solution, but if a district doesn’t know how the money is spent now, how can it make a better plan to more efficiently allocate resources in the future?

Evaluate personnel. Consider cross-referencing student achievement data with financial data sets and educator evaluations. Are the higher-income areas of the district being served by teachers with more experience, and is that contributing to student achievement inequities?

Quantify the gaps and articulate the needs. With some $54 billion coming to schools in federal stimulus, a significant portion will be earmarked to address learning loss and student well-being (social, emotional and learning deficiencies). If you can’t quantify your district’s needs with hard numbers, it will be difficult (if not impossible) to demonstrate measurable progress toward closing the gaps, which will be a reporting requirement to be eligible for those funds. Can you demonstrate that your Title-I population experienced greater learning loss than the general population? Start this analysis now so you can expedite access to much needed federal funding as it becomes available.

Make it a team effort. Collaborate with district leaders, local office holders and city councils, police departments, and other entities that share your commitment to addressing equity. Ask them to share data. Consider forming a task force with each entity represented, and create a project workflow with assignable tasks and accountability, so the entire community can share in the progress the district makes.

Get it together. Most importantly, get all available data sets into one, centralized, intelligent system, so that you can start with a clear picture of today, conceive of a measured plan for demonstrable progress, and implement that plan with purpose. 

We cannot address such a critical goal of achieving equity in education by “going a mile wide and an inch deep.” There are so many interdependent forces at work—both historical and current, both plainly visible and subtly latent— that to make presumptions based on limited information or intuition does the entire effort a grave disservice.

Peter Solar is Director of Client Partnerships with Munetrix, a data analytics and management firm serving school districts nationwide. He can be reached at peter@munetrix.com. Mike Geers is Client Partnership Manager with Munetrix, reachable at mike@munetrix.com. Learn more at munetrix.com.