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A Decade of Evidence-Driven Impact

Over 10 years, the Strategic Data Project at HGSE has rewritten the script for how research can inform practice — building a network of data specialists dedicated to student success

Despite good intentions and significant effort to bridge the gap, education research can often seem disconnected from the daily challenges of practicing educators. There’s a prevailing view among some in the field that researchers are too often confined to their ivory towers, producing work that’s either not useful or not well aligned with the needs of districts and states (or teachers in the classroom). There’s also the reality that most research is slow; it takes time to conduct and more time to publish. New findings are simply not generated at the pace at which districts hope to make change for students.

For the past 10 years, the Strategic Data Project (SDP) at the Harvard Graduate School of Education has effectively overturned that narrative. By embedding analytic experts within school districts around the country and addressing their specific data needs, SDP has managed to make research an integral, iterative part of school practice and policy — and, importantly, of school improvement.

Strategic Data Project faculty director Tom Kane

CEPR's faculty director Tom Kane, at a Strategic Data Project convening

This year, SDP is celebrating 10 years of helping the education sector use data to improve student outcomes. During that stretch, the project has supported more than 300 data specialists at more than 125 school systems and organizations across the United States — “helping organizations move beyond ideology and ‘expert opinion’ to learn what’s really working for their students,” says Professor Tom Kane, faculty director of the Center for Education Policy Research (CEPR) at Harvard University, where SDP is housed.

On May 20 to 22, SDP will host its annual convening at the Charles Hotel in Cambridge, with special festivities to mark the anniversary milestone. Among the highlights is a conversation Kane will lead between former U.S. Secretary of Education John King, now the president and CEO of the Education Trust, and two Massachusetts legislators: Rep. Alice Peisch, who chairs the Joint Committee on Education; and Rep. Chynah Tyler, who was a student of King’s when he was principal of Roxbury Prep middle school in Boston and is now championing innovations in public education from her perch in the state house.

The convening will also feature an in-depth look at The Boston Globe’s recent series on the unexpected journeys of Boston high school valedictorians, in a live-streamed conversation moderated by HGSE Dean Bridget Terry Long. Former valedictorians, two Globe reporters, and Harvard Kennedy School Associate Professor Joshua Goodman will join Long for the discussion. 

Ten Years of Impact

A photo of the Strategic Data Project Fellows at work.

Strategic Data Project Fellows collaborating during the 2015 annual convening

“The goal from the beginning was to provide a route into school districts and state agencies for a different type of data analyst,” says Kane, reflecting on the early years of the initiative. In the early 2000s, with the advent of longitudinal data tracking, and new expectations around recording student and school growth from the No Child Left Behind Act, it suddenly became possibly to use data to answer strategic questions and inform programs and policies.

But districts needed help identifying where to recruit those analysts — and even understanding what type of data specialist they needed for their specific goals, says Kane.

SDP filled that gap through the creation of a fellowship program. With this model, SDP recruits and screens data experts — early-career Ph.D.s and master’s recipients with demonstrated expertise in, and passion for, education improvement and equity — and places them in a school district or state agency for two years. (Sometimes, fellows come into the program from within state agencies, as existing employees who know the needs and want new tools to address them.) Fellows analyze data to tackle big questions, generating reports, suggesting best practices, and designing systems to help students and teaches succeed. Along the way, SDP provides ongoing mentorship, resources, and community for each cohort of fellows. And many elect to stay on at their placements for permanent positions after the two-year program ends, says Miriam Greenberg, the director of education and communications at CEPR —becoming part of an ever-growing network of data specialists and education leaders. “Though we were concerned that we’d lose these data leaders to private industry, 98 percent stay in education," Greenberg says. "They are passionate about making a difference.”

The big questions that fellows are working to answer have evolved over the past decade. At the beginning, says Kane, in order to create a cohort with shared experiences, fellows focused on a narrow set of problems related to teacher quality, teacher evaluation, and college enrollment. As the program has grown — with a wider network of researchers and practitioners — and as the ability to quantify educational initiatives has skyrocketed, so too have the problems fellows can tackle. Today, fellows are also analyzing how to boost student attendance, whether disciplinary practices create racial disparities, how to improve career and technical education, what indicators predict drop-out rates — and much more.

Spotlight: Three SDP Projects Crafting Tangible Solutions

A look at three SDP initiatives demonstrates just how influential and diverse the program has been.

A number of SDP projects have focused on ensuring college access for low-income students. In one example, Fellow Janell Chery worked to increase the number of high schoolers in Tulsa, Oklahoma, who accessed and filled out FAFSA, a key step to ensuring they could finance their college education. Working for ImpactTulsa, Chery helped implement measurable marketing campaigns, hosted hands-on “FAFSA completion labs,” and analyzed FAFSA completion data. In a year, the number of FAFSA forms completed increased by 12 percent. This growth is key in a state like Oklahoma, where low-income students can attend community college or technical schools for free — but only if they’ve first filled out their FAFSA form. For these students, simply completing the FAFSA could have a monumental impact on their lifelong earnings and well-being.

A photo of Atnre Alleyne

Fellow Atnre Alleyne

Another project in New Jersey showcases the importance of not just analyzing data, but also relaying it in an accessible way. When the New Jersey Department of Education realized that fewer than ten percent of parents were reading its annual School Performance Reports — despite the fact that providing these reports to families were meant to be a key part of the state’s accountability system — Fellow Jessica Merville focused on making the data understandable. She organized focused groups with parents, teachers, and district leaders, and then revamped the reports to make them user-friendly and applicable. Within a year, the number of families accessing the reports had doubled. Without a focus on the people, instead of just the numbers, New Jersey’s performance development would have gone unnoticed.

In Delaware, a project demonstrated how well-researched, well-presented numbers could have a tangible impact on statewide policy. In 2013, Governor Jack Markell set a goal to transform the state’s schools. With the realization that 40 percent of Delaware educators left teaching in the state within four years, Fellow Atnre Alleyne set to work analyzing the ways Delaware recruited, placed, developed, and evaluated its teachers. Based on Alleyne’s research, SDP Faculty Adviser Lindsay Page, Ed.D.'11, then presented findings that, by their third year in the profession, teachers’ impact on student achievement plateaued — and that having a master’s degree had little impact. Delaware then used these findings to create a new law on hiring teachers, one which focused more on content knowledge, teaching experience, and undergraduate achievement, than on master’s coursework.

A Network from HGSE to Beyond

One of the unexpected outcomes of the Strategic Data Project has been how it has benefited the larger HGSE community. As school districts and states have begun to collect their own data, education researchers sometimes face difficulties accessing these valuable datasets for their work. It takes time to forge a trusting relationship with a new institution. However, many districts in the SDP network from across the United States have welcomed the chance to work with other HGSE doctoral students and faculty. “We now have a way to help doctoral students get started in their own research,” says Kane. And when Harvard faculty have a new project in mind, “we can often find state or districts that want to participate from the SDP network.”

“This is unique among universities,” Kane says.

And the network doesn’t only benefit HGSE. It’s a national coalition of districts and states committed to using rigorous data analysis to construct solutions — and as each one tests out practices and reforms, the others can see what’s working and what’s not in different settings and circumstances.

Looking ahead to the next 10 years, SDP is hoping to grow its reach farther still — expanding partnerships with school districts and states, broaching new challenges, and working with educational institutions that support students from early childhood through adulthood.

Read SDP's "Decade of Data" blog series for first-hand reflections on the impact of the work that fellows have done. 

Learn more about the SDP annual convening, May 20 to 22, and its 2019 theme, Strength in Numbers.

Photos courtesy Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University.


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