In 2012, Tacoma Public Schools (TPS) set out to design a data tracking system that would empower educators and students and communicate important information to parents and the community. Since then, graduation rates have risen 23 percent and the percentage of students accepted to postsecondary schools has doubled at nearly every school in the district.

To learn more about the TPS’s use of data and the successes that have come from it, we spoke with two champions behind its data infrastructure. Zeek Edmond, an elementary and middle school principal for 13 years, will soon step into a new role as Director of Student Data Science and Analytics, in which he’ll coach principals and their teams from across the district on how to better track and use data to improve student performance. Deputy Superintendent Josh Garcia was a driver behind demanding that the district use data to make better big picture decisions, better adjust teaching to fit individual students, and display data online so that successes and failures are transparent to the community. Here, Edmond and Garcia share their insight into the urgency, application and transparency of data across the district and the difference it has made in student performance and agency.

Tacoma Public Schools has gained attention for using data to improve student achievement. Can you talk a bit about that work and why your district decided to focus on its data infrastructure?

EDMOND: There’s a public perception that it’s OK that high-poverty schools don’t do as well as others. Depending on how you choose to lead, this becomes either reality or an excuse. Most recently, as principal of Stewart Middle School, I created an in-school data system and led the staff to take Stewart from the bottom 1 percent of schools to the 34th percentile. What’s key is getting schools to understand their “south” in order to understand their “north”—and that can’t happen without data. I’d like to see more schools replicate what we’ve done at Stewart. We have data showing where we’re at and have created benchmarks for where we want to be, and that’s a perfect example of the “north.” We see so many schools try to create their “north” goal without knowing their “south” so it became clear that a stronger data infrastructure was needed.

GARCIA: Our decision to focus on data started with the idea that we had to be clearer about where our students were. We had to take big data and boil it down to a particular child. Through a process of  implementation science, we looked at data from a total, functional, and continuous approach. We made sure to analyze data from every angle, studying everything from the board room to the living room, and in doing so also scrutinized every type of data we collected based on whether it would actually be useful in making instructional or systemic decisions. This level of analysis ensured that the data collection was a thorough process, and that it would allow us to make adjustments and continue to learn.

How do you and other principals you know support teachers in using data?

EDMOND: The first step—which I always liken to an airplane flight—is to start with the big picture where we can get an aerial view. If half the students are passing science, we need to dig deeper—or lower the plane a few thousand feet—to find out what this looks like at each grade level and how cohorts of classes have improved, or not, to identify how we can get better per year. Then we look at each grade level, per subject, to dissect who is and isn’t having success in the school year. As we collect data this year and compare it to last year, it helps create context for teachers, and administrators help them process it. The second step is making sure we’re collecting data in multiple ways so that teachers aren’t looking at pieces of data in isolation—they’re looking at all the metrics, and not just the test scores.

GARCIA: We asked principals what benchmarks they needed in the data reports they’d share with teachers, and they were engaged in the development of reports. We spent a lot of time trying to understand how the data was being calculated and what limitations teachers may have in the data, while also making sure it was effective for their decision making.

How do teams of teachers collaborate in analyzing data and using it to inform instruction?

GARCIA: We host Data Days four times per year across the district, where every school builds a plan based on where we are at overall. Teachers have the opportunity to discuss what we need to learn about data science and what the data is telling us. From those meetings, every teacher walks away with the insight they need to determine how they will monitor and adjust their action plan.

EDMOND: During these Data Days, we allocate an equal amount of time to lesson planning that takes that data into consideration as we do to data analysis. When teachers sit down as teams it becomes quite fascinating to compare how different teachers’ students are doing. Teachers analyze together, talk aloud, and compare and learn from each other. And because the data is public, teachers have to be ready to come to the table and roll up their sleeves regardless of how it’s going to feel.

How have you created transparency with parents so that they can use the data tools as well? Have the responses been mostly positive?

EDMOND: Data is posted on the Tacoma Public Schools website for each school, so that the public can see how we’re raising our kids as a city. Parents can see their kids’ data on everything from dropout and achievement rates, perception data, math and reading test scores, extracurricular activities, postsecondary and certifications, and suspensions. The data startles some parents but teachers do a good job of coaching them through processing the data. It minimizes finger pointing when parents see the data in a straightforward way.

GARCIA: The community generally appreciates the transparency. For each of our strategic plan goals, we do twice-yearly monitoring reports, which are also available on the website, and we talk to the community about the results and our plans for the future. We’re continuing to evolve so we’ve explored how to push data to families in various ways, instead of expecting them to come to us for the data. For example, every two weeks we notify families whose students aren’t meeting standards. We’re also proactive about letting parents know about attendance through early notification letters with possible ways they can support their kids. It’s helped build trust so that families can make decisions that are best for their children.

What impacts have you seen on students as a result of this work?

EDMOND: Seeing the data allows kids to be self-reflective. They also interact more now with data than they otherwise would have. The trends in social media (and kids incessantly keeping track of their engagement analytics) allow data to not be as daunting. So we bring them in on the data, sharing every middle school’s data so they can be challenged to be a better performing school. What we don’t have enough of in education today is victory. Helping kids see where they are today compared to yesterday encourages them to celebrate their growth and put a little more work in today for tomorrow.

GARCIA: When students become knowledgeable about their results and know there are ways to improve, it becomes contagious. We’re here to say, “Here’s where you are and here’s the expectation,” and we spend a lot of time talking about why those things are important. Students see that and begin to compete with themselves. It empowers them through their own knowledge and information.

In what ways does TPS use data to drive a cycle of continuous improvement in schools?

GARCIA: Continuous improvement has to be an organizational belief. At Tacoma Public Schools, our board and our central office model continuous improvement. We honor the fact that not every kid improves at the same time and we measure success by growth. You can’t have an archaic system that expects every student to improve at the same pace, so we’ve created a team atmosphere where everyone has shared accountability to make sure students are nurtured by revisiting their data and personalizing their instruction.

What steps has your district taken to make sure data tools could be used effectively by principals, teachers, and parents?

EDMOND: Principals and teachers are provided with dashboards, which are pivot tables that outline how students are doing and can drill down into specific demographics (black male students in special ed, for example) and track comprehension in various subjects. Teachers use that data to determine their next set of lessons plans and the topics they need to focus on. This has really changed our practice because teachers aren’t waiting for assessment results to see whether students are improving. They can see it in real time through better outcomes. It becomes a snowball effect when students improve their proficiency because they’ll build on their own momentum. Then parents check in with the students more, and students become more engaged with teachers in the classroom.

Have you run into any challenges in using data along the way? How did you overcome them?

EDMOND: The biggest challenge is when data is shared without some framing or context. You have to break down barriers to get people to realize that improvement is tangible. Without context to help them compare their classroom or individual student data to, just a number, score or percentage doesn’t mean much.

GARCIA: No matter who you ask, there’s never enough time to analyze the data and create action plans. It’s not something that’s built into the education system so we have to be intentional about carving out that time. The more that we learn, the more we know we have so much further to go to build better data systems. Another huge challenge when talking about data is being mindful that we’re talking about kids, because every 1 percent included in any data report represents a handful of kids that need our support. Our job is to put a face to those numbers.