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Using data to achieve equitable outcomes

Using data to achieve equitable outcomes
Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages

By Sara Mitrano
June 28, 2021

The process of continuous improvement involves using data to plan, test, monitor, and reflect on a strategy designed to improve outcomes for students and teachers, with the goal of deciding whether to adopt, adapt, or abandon the practice. Staff from the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest have coached several groups of educators and youth development specialists on how to apply continuous improvement methods to their work. Two of these project leaders, researcher Dominique Bradley, PhD, and Dan Frederking, EdD, a senior technical assistance specialist, answered questions on how they coach partner districts and organizations on the use of data and improvement science methods to promote equity in education.

Dominique Bradley Staff Picture
Dominique Bradley, PhD
REL Midwest

Dan Frederking Staff Picture
Dan Frederking, EdD
Senior Technical Assistance Specialist
REL Midwest

How can educators use continuous improvement methods to address opportunity gaps and work toward equity within a school or district?

Dominique: Conducting a root cause analysis and developing a driver diagram are two continuous improvement processes that involve discussions about equity. During the root cause analysis process, stakeholders examine the systems and root causes that contribute to inequitable outcomes. Once root causes are identified, stakeholders work to understand what factors—also known as “drivers”—could lead to improved outcomes and then identify change ideas—or interventions—to address those inequities. Typically, this process involves implementing iterative Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycles to design and implement a change idea and examine data to measure the results. For example, educators can use this process to adapt an instructional approach to the unique context of their classroom. In addition, the process requires educators to make data-based decisions on how they will continue to implement the change idea.

Dan: As coaches, we facilitate discussions about equity and ask our partners to consider equity during each step of the continuous improvement process. We also work with our partners to create a data collection and analysis process that allows them to look at disaggregated data to dig into the intricacies and differences between student groups.

Dominique: Over time, if an intervention has proven to demonstrate positive change for the selected group of students, educators can extend the impact of that promising intervention by adapting and scaling it up to a larger group of students. This scaling-up process contributes to equitable outcomes because educators can implement, measure, reflect on, and adapt an intervention without waiting until the end of the year to see whether it influenced student outcomes. They’re really paying attention to the small, more immediate outcomes to drive implementation decisions. For example, during our work with a networked improvement community of alternative learning centers in the Minneapolis–St. Paul area, teachers implemented an intervention with a small, targeted group of students and ran 6-week PDSA cycles to refine implementation of the intervention. Once they saw enough progress with the smaller group of students, the school began to scale up that intervention, working with more students across the school.

Related REL Midwest project: Developing a networked improvement community

During the 2019/20 school year, REL Midwest helped the Minnesota Department of Education develop a networked improvement community (NIC) of alternative learning centers in the Minneapolis–St. Paul area.

  • View this blog post to learn how staff collaborated to conduct a scan of credit recovery programs and identify action steps for improving statewide practices.
  • Watch this video to learn how REL Midwest coached NIC participants on how to use a continuous improvement approach and implement PDSA cycles to improve credit-recovery strategies and, ultimately, high school graduation rates.

Which stakeholders should be involved in the continuous improvement work and why?

Dominique: You should involve key stakeholders who are related to addressing the inequitable outcome, and also include individuals who are at different levels of decisionmaking to ensure that the work you’re doing will lead to systemic change.

Dan: Conducting a root cause analysis is the perfect opportunity to involve a large group of stakeholders. For example, one Illinois district I worked with invited teachers, teacher aides, administrators, custodians, community members, parents, and some students to be a part of the root cause analysis. All of these different perspectives allowed the participants to look at the identified inequity from various angles. Then, once we got down to planning the PDSA cycles, that planning group contained a smaller number of stakeholders from the district who were in a position to implement change.

Dominique: Who is involved in the planning process will also depend on the intervention and the level of implementation—is an intervention being implemented at the classroom, school, or district level? For example, if the intervention is about altering a school-day schedule to make it more aligned with competency-based education practices, that’s going to require members of the school’s administrative team to be involved in the PDSA cycles to identify appropriate measures, collect data, and analyze the data.

Related REL Midwest project: Using data to improve students’ literacy skills

REL Midwest developed a training for K–2 teachers and literacy coaches in Springfield, Illinois, that outlined how to use running records for formative assessment and then use the data to make changes in classroom practices to better meet students’ literacy needs.

View the slides from each session to learn more about how to use running records to collect assessment data and best practices for assessment in a virtual environment.

During coaching sessions, how do you frame the data collection and analysis processes as opportunities to achieve equitable student outcomes?

Dominique: Through one of my REL Midwest projects, we provided a series of coaching sessions to Change Inc., a community-based organization that provides education and training to support underserved youth and families. The focus of our sessions with Change Inc. was to improve afterschool mentors and educational support staff’s knowledge of continuous improvement cycles and help them use available data to support their work.

During one of our first coaching sessions with Change Inc. staff, we asked them what they think of when they hear the word data. The most common responses were “overwhelming,” “confusing,” and “not helpful.” For teachers, often the first thing they tell me that comes to mind when they think of data is assessments or test scores.

It is our job as REL Midwest coaches to help make data more approachable and meaningful to our partners. During our coaching sessions, we walk educators through different types of data—both qualitative and quantitative—that they can use to measure whether an intervention was implemented as intended. For example, we helped Change Inc. staff identify their mentors’ case notes as data sources.

Dan: When I was studying to become a teacher, I was not trained in data literacy and had to learn on the job and through other professional experiences. So part of our job as coaches is to provide educators and youth development professionals with data training. This process usually involves helping them look at their current system of data to identify existing data sources and helping them analyze data and plan around the results of that analysis. Data literacy also helps teachers take control of their instructional practice. It’s about creating a safe professional environment that’s focused more on improvement than accountability.

Related REL Midwest project: Examining how we think about student data

REL Midwest staff worked with mentors and educational staff from Change Inc., in St. Paul, Minnesota, to improve their data literacy skills.

View the slides from each session to learn more about the role data literacy plays in student learning, how to review and interpret various forms of data, and how to improve data literacy skills in the context of continuous improvement and equity.

What advice would you give to a school or district interested in implementing continuous improvement but unsure of how to start the process?

Dominique: I would suggest first looking at information and resources about improvement science to learn how to implement proven improvement approaches and tools, such as driver diagrams and measurement strategies, to make lasting change. I would also reach out to organizations with expertise in continuous improvement, like REL Midwest, to help build staff capacity and buy-in about these proven approaches. The process of continuous improvement is going to take a lot of work and will be challenging, but it will be worth it.

Dan: There needs to be commitment and support from leaders to make the continuous improvement process successful. Leaders should empower educators to drive innovation in the classroom, which requires giving teachers the time and space to dedicate themselves to this work.

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Author information

Sara Mitrano Staff Picture

Sara Mitrano

Research Associate | REL Midwest


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