I’ll tell you a secret – I was a history major who thought my chosen path had as little to do with data as Jackson Pollock’s masterpieces did (although I do see some nice parabolas). As I changed directions my senior year and joined a group of incredible and passionate people to “teach for america” there was data everywhere. It wasn’t what I expected – little did I know I was walking into one of the most data-driven organizations I’ve ever heard of or worked with.
Finding Data in our lives
Don’t get me wrong, I had done well in calculus, taken my astro physics and micro-economics in college, and understood at least at some basic principles of statistics but I just didn’t connect “data” to the everyday world that I experienced. All of a sudden, data was going to help me teach my kids better. I could get on board with that. And that was just the beginning.
I became immensely frustrated with the tools my school had to organize the data I was collecting. Grade books were useless (except to please people who wanted to come check that yes, in fact you were writing something down for each kid as if that showed that they were learning) and the few teachers that were starting to use Excel to track things had no particular systems or processes in place to do anything with the data. Just a fancier version of the pad and paper.
(I’m happy to say that when I googled “grade book” for images, about 90% of the images were excel-like trackers. We’re making some progress!)
Teach For America had given us a few things that really helped – a tool to match student reading levels progress over time translated into “years of growth” and a skills mastery tracker for a subject (at the time it was just math). But that wasn’t sufficient.
I wanted to be take the data I had and not only use it to purposefully drive instruction, but help motivate my kids and their families – help translate that data into a narrative that was easy to share with people who didn’t care very much spreadsheets. [PS - I obviously wasn't the only one. Another TFA alum started an incredible company that does this for teachers, schools, and school systems!] Although I didn’t realize it at the time, this was a critical turning point. I had a relatively simple choice – continue puttering along the same path of collecting but not really using data or do something about it.
Finding actionable data
I did something about it, and spent the summer building a really gross “super tracker” in excel that could spit out little progress reports for each of my kids. It combined reading growth, math mastery, writing grades, and notes on behavior. Mind you, it was a pretty hoppin’ Excel doc with fun formula, but gross. When I started sharing the tracker around to people who actually had excel skills, they helped me make it more elegant, generalizable, and streamlined. With the improved workbooks, I also realized that the entry was also really easy and could be scaled across the school and in the fall held a few workshops so that others at my school could take advantage of what we had created.
What’s pretty wild is that the folks at my school apparently still use the “super tracker.”
Developing a systems mindset
A few years later I was managing operations at a charter school in Harlem and building systems for procurement, attendance, lunch tracking, and more because we didn’t really have any when I started. It wasn’t a coincidence that I was drawn to the work.
There was optimization to be done and lots of data on the floor to do it with. Sure, the data was simple, but I realized that more important than anything else was the mindset that I brought to the table and the way that I communicated about those systems to others. The teachers in the school had never had to use a materials request form before, but when I pitched it as a way for the school to save money and in turn make sure they could get even more of what they needed, they were all about it.
The two-way value of data
In short, if you can’t simply explain to someone why you need their data and how it will make their lives better, you probably aren’t ready to collect it yet. And don’t start until you’re ready otherwise you’re going to end up with a lot of grumpy partners and a lot of dirty data. Learning to love data was gradual for me, but essential to long term success.
And whatever job you’re in now, it’s likely that you need to manage some type of data. So are you a data guru too?