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Exploratory Data Analysis & School Improvement

Updated: Jan 7, 2023

Welcome to #BeyondTheMean! Check out this post to see what this blog is all about.

Whenever I introduce exploratory data analysis (EDA) to school leaders for the first time, they always say “we don’t have time for anything new” or “we already have our school improvement constructs in place.” I have good news! EDA isn’t something new or extra, it is a skill that will enhance your existing continuous improvement work! In this post, I want to explain how EDA can help boost five common continuous improvement activities.

But first…

Let’s do a quick reminder about what EDA is. EDA is an open ended and iterative process of examining your data. It involves deploying simple mathematical principles and creating easy visualizations to detect anomalies that can inform your school improvement work. You can read more about it in my article in the International Journal of Education Policy and Leadership.

Systematic Data Collection

If you are leading school improvement work, you know the importance of systemic data collection. You must have ready access to high quality and accurate data if you want to create meaningful improvement goals and deploy interventions with fidelity. EDA is a great way to help you monitor the efficiency and impact of your data collection protocols. Since EDA begins by examining and summarizing your data, you can quickly spot data points that don’t look right. For example, maybe one grade level in your school has a 100% attendance rate while the rest of the school is hovering between 85% and 90%. This could indicate that the kids in that grade level are super engaged, but it is more likely that the data collection in that grade level is not as rigorous as at other grade levels. Having identified this anomaly, the leader can have a conversation with the teachers in that grade level to determine what is going on.

Improvement Planning

Improvement planning is an important part of any school improvement process and a quality improvement plan begins with a needs assessment. EDA can jump-start your needs assessment processes by helping you to quickly identify gaps in student performance on indicators that matter to you. I like to make box plots of all of my indicators and line them up next to each other. This lets me see very quickly which indicators are underperforming their counterparts. Those indicators then inform my needs assessment and improvement plans.

Equity Scans

School improvement work is equity work. Every child deserves access to a rigorous, high quality education. As you scan your systems for equity, the EDA process can help you identify areas of inequity or over/under identification. Break out each indicator by the various demographic groups in your school and consider how the various groups perform when compared to one another. Make sure you consider the role of intersectionality to ensure that your own biases don’t creep into your equity work. You can upload your data sets in to my free Data Disaggregation Tool to instantly create summaries and visualizations to help you with this process.

Progress Monitoring

Improvement plans and goals don’t do any good if you don’t monitor them. School improvement is slow and incremental. By embedded a thorough EDA of your available indicators into your 30-60-90 day plans or your PDSA cycles, you can better understand those incremental changes and intervene when changes aren’t happening the way you expected. I recommend a thorough EDA process be performed by your improvement team the week before school starts, at some point in December or January, and the week after school ends. These three check points can help you see your needs and plan and adjust on your multi-year journey of school improvement.

Action Research

EDA is essentially a hypothesis building process. Through each iteration, you are identifying anomalies and then cycling back through to focus in on that anomaly. As you work through the process, you will begin to have new ideas about what may be causing issues in your school and how you might change them. Feed those ideas into an action research project. By reviewing the literature, running an experiment, and deeply analyzing the data you will have a better idea of how to solve your problems and whether or not your solutions are working.

In summary, EDA is not something extra that schools need to learn to and do. It is a set of skills that enhances the school improvement work already underway. By taking time to learn and deploy EDA in your school, you can have a deeper understanding of your problems of practice and provide more meaningful and actionable solutions. If you’re ready to get started with EDA, check out the resources available in The Repository. They are free and easy to use and will give you instant analysis and summaries of your data. Good luck on your journey friends, and let me know if I can help.

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