Back to School, with Better Data

While the start of each school year brings renewed commitments to improve learning, I’m especially excited this year to see a growing commitment among leaders around the country to expand learning beyond the classroom and beyond the traditional school day.

The concept of expanded learning – that is, promoting a broad set of strategies (from assessment to advocacy) that expand learning objectives, outcomes, opportunities and options – is gaining traction. Also gaining traction is the use of data to increase the quality and stickiness of students’ back-to-school experiences. I’d like to share some developments from places around the country that convince me that these two movements are coming together.

Communities use data to spark conversations: Last fall we launched Ready Youth, a technical assistance package that uses data to offer a fresh perspective on the needs and assets of youth, community providers and community coalitions. Ready Youth builds on the Gallup Student Poll – which each year measures the hope, engagement and well-being of 5th through 12th graders in schools around the country – using that and other data to spark community discussions about issues and solutions.

Six communities took the challenge, and we’re seeing results. Community partnerships found the data powerful. Most importantly, they used that data to launch conversations among youth, parents, educators, community leaders and business leaders. (How can you not respond when half of your students report that they are not hopeful or engaged in school?) These conversations explored the causes behind the findings and the changes needed to address issues in fundamental ways. See this new story about how leaders in Indianola, Miss., are using the data and conversations to change the way they do business for young people. A second Ready Youth cohort launches this fall.

OST programs align data with schools: This year, the Forum provided a special package of technical services for out-of-school time partnerships that want to align their data with schools. What difference does that make? When schools and OST providers both see data about such things as at school attendance, grades, afterschool participation and behavioral issues, they get a more holistic picture of the young people they work with, and can coordinate their efforts and tailor their services to better match the needs of specific youths.

This email I got from the Nashville After Zone Alliance shows the value:

“The school district and the mayor’s office are using data to increase the benefits of afterschool programs for Nashville’s middle-school students. Less than two weeks into the school year, 80 school leaders and afterschool providers gathered for a collaborative inquiry process to:

  • Use student-level data that quickly identify school attendance, behavior and academic issues among the afterschool program participants;
  • Use data on assessed quality of the afterschool programs to support continuous improvement; and
  • Develop plans to proactively use student and program data to shape academic time after school, to better meet the social/emotional needs of the students, and to align the expanded learning opportunities with the school day.”

Icing on the cake: Local TV news covered the story.

Researchers and practitioners expand the scope of student data: In my last Ready Thoughts (Alternative ABCs), I applauded the use of Early Warning Systems to identify students at risk of academic failure in schools, and proposed ways to increase their scope by tracking attendance, behavior and course progress during and outside of the school day. The response tells me that there is a burgeoning movement in communities and among collaborations to expand early warning systems beyond simply focusing on traditional academic indicators or school-day programs:

  • Within hours of posting the piece, I heard from several research colleagues telling me about projects underway that are broadening the scope and use of data on student performance and participation.
  • I got a request to share the commentary with a group looking at juvenile justice reform, an invitation to meet with the Early Warning Systems team at Johns Hopkins University, and a note that the article was the selected reading for a learning circle of youth development practitioners focusing on improving their craft. 
  • A recommendation to explore Alternative ABC systems is being built into one city’s  youth master plan. 

These are just some of ways that data is being used in new ways to expand learning objectives, outcomes, opportunities and options for all young people. More changes are on the way in communities around the country. I’ll keep you posted – and I ask that you do the same. Share your ideas and efforts with me at