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SDP Uses Untapped Data to Make True Impact

logoIn 2008, the Strategic Data Project (SDP) — a project within the Harvard Graduate School of Education–based Center for Education Policy Research (CEPR) at Harvard University — began as a pilot program with two partners and big dreams to create a network of data strategists working in schools, agencies, and nonprofits across the country.

Despite billions of federal and local dollars being spent to build longitudinal data systems, Professor Thomas Kane, faculty director of CEPR, knew that underutilized data held key answers to education questions. “There was this huge investment each year to assemble data systems that had not been used for figuring out what’s working and what’s not in education,” he says.

Enter SDP with a goal to provide valid and reliable analysis of data that would help improve policy and management decisions related to education by planting professional data strategists directly in the trenches at schools. So far, it’s working.

“School leaders recognize that this is one of the few opportunities they have to get up to speed on what school districts that are ahead of the game are doing,” Kane says. “As we built this cohort and reputation, I think that that by itself creates a sense that if you want to be on the cutting edge of this work, you need to be part of this network. And, I think we’ve just begun to scratch the surface.”

In only five years, SDP has grown from having a handful of partners to 56 worldwide as more and more districts, agencies, nonprofits, and charter school management companies report meaningful results in their local schools thanks to the partnership. Among some of the successes this year alone: data analysts uncovered key findings about Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) high school students to help keep them on track to graduate; and, in Delaware, data analysts helped make sense of low teacher retention rates that gained the attention of the state’s governor.

It all begins within the partnership organizations where SDP’s trained fellows — data strategists either from agencies or carefully recruited into the two year program — sift through data. The bulk of the 69 fellows are education professionals, who under SDP’s guidance conduct comprehensive studies within their placed agencies, become experts on a topic, contribute to their agency’s policymaking, and participate in workshops and professional development.

One of the unique aspects of SDP is how the fellows work directly within the organizations. As former researcher and CEPR Executive Director Jon Fullerton explains, the rules are different when working outside of a district versus inside. “From inside, you can see the real problems with which leadership is struggling,” Fullerton says.

The work of the fellows and the SDP diagnostic, which comprises descriptive analyses of topics related to college readiness or human capital, uncover important information from data systems for decision-making within a partnership organization.

For Atnre Alleyne, an SDP fellow working with the Delaware Department of Education, the decision to apply was easy considering the work combined his passion for research and evaluation with education. “When I saw they were looking for people who are education leaders with a technical skill set, it was a great combination for me,” he says, adding that he came to understand the systems’ need for outside help. “There’s a need for a fresh look and a specific skill set to bring to policy decisions,” he says.

Alleyne was placed in Delaware, where before long he found himself, like many SDP fellows, working on projects focused on a range of issues, from college-going diagnostics to high school student retention to teacher retention rates. As he explains, the impact of the college-going diagnostic led to the state preparing a college readiness plan, and the data becoming a key point of reference regarding where the district has been, presently are, and are headed in terms of improving student outcomes.

“The college-going diagnostic has been very impactful leading to the governor’s reference,” Alleyne says. “It informed them about whether the initiatives they were engaging in were strengthening teacher preparation.”

The fellows’ work is broad and encompasses dozens of projects that are changing the relationship between educators and data.

SDP fellow alum Emily Mohr, who remained in LAUSD after her two-year placement, has continued to help develop the way that data informs district policy and decision making. “I think data can be intimidating,” she says, noting that there has been a growth in data strategists being hired at LAUSD. “It’s a difficult job to be a teacher or a principal and have someone who appears to turn your work into a number. But, I think that using data as an additional dimension can help educators feel that we are doing justice to the whole picture. It can show whether what is being done is still effective, even if we are not the highest scoring district, and that we are still producing positive outcomes for students.”

LAUSD is a large, diverse district where schools differ substantially with regard to outcomes such as graduation and college-readiness rates.  SDP’s analyses identified students at risk of dropping out of high school as early as ninth grade, allowing the district to identify schools with high numbers of students in need of intervention. This data was quickly adopted by LAUSD’s Performance Management Unit and used to identify schools outperforming expectation in an effort to pinpoint best practices that may benefit those schools in need of target support and intervention.

Similarly, across the country at the Caesar Rodney School District in Delaware, Alleyne worked closely with administrators to understand whether the development of a freshmen academy helped students transition to ninth grade and keep them on track to graduate.

Ryan Fuller, the supervisor of Race to the Top for that district, describes the data as vital. “I had a specific question that I wanted help answering,” he says, noting that the start of a freshmen academy was aimed at keeping ninth graders from slipping through the cracks. But was the academy working?  That is where Alleyne’s work came into play.

“It validated what we assumed,” Fuller says, noting that the intervention was working to keep students engaged. “[SDP fellows] have the knowledge to pull the data, and process it in a way that we don’t have the capacity to do. Sometimes you really need to have a very knowledgeable person to run the metrics. I’m happy that the state of Delaware partnered with SDP to make data available to schools in order to inform practice.”

Learn more about SDP: wpdev.gse.harvard.edu/sdp