In late February, a group of school leaders from Iowa City Community School District joined with a team of REL Midwest experts for an in-depth training with the goal of improving student experiences. Part of the work of the Data-Informed Leadership for Equity (DILE) partnership, the training provided information on how to use DILE's action-based monitoring tool, as well as respond to alerts from the tool, to reduce disparities in sense of belonging, absenteeism, and disciplinary actions among student groups in Iowa middle schools.
The focus of the DILE partnership aligns well with the aims of the Iowa City Community School District's Comprehensive Equity Plan. The district adopted this plan in 2015 in response to parent, student, and community concerns regarding disproportionality in discipline and the need to foster more inclusive environments for historically marginalized students. In addition, the plan calls for fostering culturally inclusive and responsive school environments and classroom instruction to help improve the educational experiences of all students, a goal that also supports the district's strategic plan.
Students with a strong sense of belonging are more likely to be engaged in school and perform well academically.1 However, data show that Iowa students of color2 tend to report fewer positive feelings about their school relationships and physical safety relative to White students in the state.3 In addition, Iowa students of color are more likely to be chronically absent4 and to receive suspensions and expulsions at a disproportionate rate compared with White students.5
DILE's action-based monitoring tool is intended to build the capacity of school leaders and staff in using past and present data to act on disparities in student experiences, with the overall aim of producing more equitable outcomes. The tool provides educators with alerts when notable differences in sense of belonging, absenteeism, or disciplinary actions occur among student groups. In response to an alert, educators follow a specified DILE protocol to determine the underlying cause of the disparities, identify and implement solutions, and monitor responses to the implemented solutions.
For example, although the Iowa City Community School District has a rich attendance dashboard, DILE team members noted they often are unable to visualize attendance trends by week, grade level, and student group. In the case of a concerning trend, such as a drastic drop in attendance among Hispanic/Latino grade 8 students, DILE's action-based monitoring tool and protocol for unpacking data can provide school leaders with the information they need to quickly understand why the trend might be happening and how to intervene in real time.
During coaching sessions following the training, the DILE team worked with school leaders to practice unpacking the root causes of the disparities they saw and generated rich actions that could lead to a broader engagement of partners, families, and adult advocates. Training and coaching participants appreciated how the DILE approach could support their existing initiatives outside of the partnership by providing them with real-time snapshots on whether their current efforts are, in fact, making a difference in student engagement and sense of belonging.
"When we see achievement gaps between various demographics groups, we want to implement interventions to support students and close those gaps," said Austin Wells, a data analyst at Iowa City Community School District and a member of the DILE team. "But usually there is a long delay between when we start implementing a new intervention and when we have the data to say confidently whether or not the intervention is making a significant difference. The action-based monitoring tool uses past and present data to give us a much earlier idea about where we are headed based on our current course of action."
During the 2023/24 school year, the DILE partnership will continue to train and coach partner schools in the use of the action-based monitoring tool and its associated protocol. In addition, the partnership plans to implement training on instructional strategies that recognize, value, and incorporate students' lived experiences and cultures into teaching. The intent is to give educators practical strategies to build positive student–teacher relationships, which research has shown to be a strong predictor of student sense of belonging.6
If you would like to partner with REL Midwest and help pilot the DILE approach in your school or district, please contact Sonica Dhillon (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Alicia Espinoza (email@example.com) for more information.
To learn more about the DILE partnership and student sense of belonging, see the following REL Midwest resources:
1 Korpershoek, H., Canrinus, E. T., Fokkens-Bruinsma, M., & de Boer, H. (2020). The relationships between school belonging and students' motivational, social-emotional, behavioural, and academic outcomes in secondary education: A meta-analytic review. Research Papers in Education, 35(6), 641–680; Allen, K., Kern, M. L., Vella-Brodrick, D., Hattie, J., & Waters, L. (2018). What schools need to know about fostering school belonging: A meta-analysis. Educational Psychology Review, 30(1), 1–34; Quin, D. (2017). Longitudinal and contextual associations between teacher-student relationships and student engagement: A systematic review. Review of Educational Research, 87(2), 345–387; Niehaus, K., Rudasill, K. M., & Rakes, C. R. (2012, August). A longitudinal study of school connectedness and academic outcomes across sixth grade. Journal of School Psychology, 50(4), 443–460; Lei, H., Cui, Y., & Zhou, W. (2018). Relationships between student engagement and academic achievement: A meta-analysis. Social Behavior and Personality, 46(3), 517–528.
2 Includes students who are Asian, Black/African American, Hawaiian/Pacifc Islander, Hispanic, Multiracial, and Native American.
3 Authors' calculations are based on data from 2019 and 2020 Iowa Department of Education reports.
4 Authors' calculations are based on data from 2019 and 2020 Iowa Department of Education reports.
5 Authors' calculations are based on data from 2019 and 2020 Iowa Department of Education reports.
6 Allen, K., Kern, M. L., Vella-Brodrick, D., Hattie, J., & Waters, L. (2018). What schools need to know about fostering school belonging: A meta-analysis. Educational Psychology Review, 30(1), 1–34.