Equity by the Numbers

Newberg schools dive deep on data — with surprising results

Dr. Joe Morelock frowns, leans forward, and types rapidly into his laptop.

“See?” he said, turning the screen to show a line graph with three little peaks — and one decided valley.

“So here, I can see that in this one cohort of seventh grade boys, their math scores went down while everyone else’s went up. Why? Why did that happen this year? Was it something in the classroom, or something outside?”

He paused.

“I want to know what’s happening, and why it’s happening, and these pieces of data make me ask more questions,” he said. “Those are the kinds of things I may take into a meeting to ask teachers — ‘What should our plan be moving forward? What does this mean to you?’ The solution is not in the data. But the starting point for your questions is.”

As the superintendent of Newberg Public Schools, a district of about 5,000 students 25 miles southwest of Portland, Oregon, Morelock joins a number of educational leaders across the country who are turning to data as they tackle questions of equity and outcomes.

Superintendent Joe Morelock

As data-heavy student information systems (SIS) increasingly become the norm in schools across the country, teachers, students, parents and administrators access an ever-increasing, living data set.

Moving beyond systems that simply collate individual student data is a new generation of programs that will convert the macro view into the micro — hour by hour, if necessary.

By syncing these platforms (in this case, Schoolzilla) with existing data sets, school districts like Newberg are able to zero in on specific cohorts, finding the questions that they would not even have thought to ask.

But there are those who question whether a data-first mindset is healthy for students. Dr. Madeline Levine, psychologist and author of Teach Your Children Well and The Price of Privilege, said the minute-by-minute data analysis of students “turns every act of learning into a performance” in a 2014 interview with KQED, San Francisco’s NPR affiliate. She cited studies that show grades and achievement pressure cause students more anxiety than their social lives or family.

“It looks like a disproportionate interest in this one aspect of (student) development,” she said. “Learning requires involvement, interest, making mistakes … (and) what we’re saying is, how do you compare to the kid sitting next to you, in terms of grades?”

It’s great when you have data that says, “OK, the way we think about our world and our students isn’t quite right,” because then we can begin to address those problems.

There’s also sometimes pushback from classroom teachers, who both have to learn (sometimes complicated) new systems and worry that the metrics will be held against them.

When administrators do that, Morelock said, they miss the point entirely.

“There’s no benefit to using data as a weapon to punish people,” he said. “What we want people to do is to look at it and become comfortable with the fact that the data is saying something — but we couldn’t ever, in a real way, use that data to say someone is good or bad — they might need some training, they might need some help.”

When data is a tool of discernment rather than judgement, he said, people become much more comfortable with the transparency, and public schools are able to move beyond their 19th century mandate to prepare the future factory workers of America.

“One of the biggest changes that public schools are going to have to make is getting away from the assumption that we teach everyone the same thing at the same time facing the same direction with the same output,” he said. “Every kid is different — they come to us with different experiences and different traumas and different circumstances — so how do you take this full range of people and provide them with their best opportunity — not the best, but their best?”

Morelock added that far from being yet another source of anxiety, the data actually helped them address the mental health needs of students. In fact, the data illuminated a serious problem that was previously invisible — chronic absenteeism for girls.

“So attendance — we made an assumption that the attendance rates for boys would be worse than for the girls, and it turned out the opposite was true,” he said. “That doesn’t just mean that girls come to school less often — that’s true, but what’s the next level?”

The unexpected data, he said, prompted the district to roll out an empathy assessment to figure out the why of absenteeism — with results they did not see coming.

“We found out that it was anxiety and depression that kept more girls out of school than boys,” he said. “When you look at larger trends, we find that girls feel more social pressure, they feel like they always have to achieve, they feel that if they haven’t prepared they shouldn’t come to class because they won’t achieve.”

Once they had this data point, he said, the schools could begin to address the problem — what actions would support the mental health of students, letting them know that it was far preferable that they come to class, even if they didn’t feel totally prepared, rather than skip?

Newberg uses Schoolzilla, an Oakland-based K-12 data platform that integrates with dozens of existing systems and has an equity-first approach to their data.

Luke Neff, Newberg’s director of strategic partnerships, led the implementation and onboarding of Schoolzilla three years ago, under then-Superintendent Kym LeBlanc-Esparza.

When Neff set out to convince the school board that they needed to find and integrate a data system that could collate and make this information easily accessible, he used the metaphor of planting a tree — the best time is 20 years ago, but the second-best time is now.

“We had a dashboard and it was clunky and tough to use and our teachers hated it,” he said. “We didn’t have all of our data in one place, it was scattered all over … we should’ve done this years ago, but we didn’t.”

“We did a really thorough search and Schoolzilla just blew everyone away — their knowledge and even, really, wisdom, on how education works — no one else really had an equity lens, or knew which data sources matter and which ones don’t.”

Neff also mentioned the moment when they realized that their absenteeism problem was very different than they thought.

“We have a lot of kids who are chronically absent, and that’s when we started breaking it down all these different ways. Some of them were expected — we have a lot of seniors missing school — but the chronically absent females caught us off-guard.”

It is those moments, he said, that makes this data so critical.

“It’s great when you have data that says, ‘OK, the way we think about our world and our students isn’t quite right,’ because then we can begin to address those problems.”

Data is just data — it doesn’t have feelings, it doesn’t tell a story.

When asked where he hopes the technology will go, Morelock didn’t hesitate.

“Something I’ve seen recently which is very interesting to me is — it’s basically, ‘how are you feeling today?’-kind of data,” he said.

After mentioning specifically the insights they’d gotten from their empathy assessments, Morelock said that emotional understanding is a key piece that administrators, in some ways, have never been able to access — and it might be the most important piece of all.

“Any time we can get data that helps us understand where students are, where they’re coming from, how they feel,” is a time when schools can actually meet students where they are, he said.

Morelock mentioned Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, saying that education far too often ignores the base of that pyramid. It’s folly, he said, for educators to imagine that they can skip over addressing physiological needs (where does a transgender student go to the bathroom?), safety needs (these students can’t focus because they’re afraid) or emotional/belonging needs (they’re feeling lonely or bullied) — and have any expectation of student self-actualization or achievement.

“Without a sense of safety and belonging, students are never going to get to self-actualization,” he said. “Nothing will change. Graduation rates won’t change, achievement won’t change … we are pushing a rock up a hill like Sisyphus if we think they’re going to learn,” without addressing those needs.

For those who would implement these systems, he said, the why is perhaps the most important.

“The first step is for them to really spend some time thinking deeply about the kind of questions they want to ask,” he said. “Data is just data — it doesn’t have feelings, it doesn’t tell a story.”

To discern the story through the noise, he said, requires new thinking across the organization.

“You want to create a certain data-curiosity …. You need to find something that will help people learn to fish, learn to think of the questions and how to begin answering them.”