Infinite Insights Recap: 5 Characteristics of Districts Creating Equitable Data Cultures

Posted by Nick StammO

October 5, 2020

Hoonuit’s Infinite Insights virtual event series offers education leaders a space  to share their data successes,  collaborate, and ideate. This blog series summarizes the insights gleaned from each session. Watch a recording of the event here.

Role of Data in Addressing Student Equity

On Wednesday, September 30th, a team of Hoonuit experts were joined by Marcy Lauck, a renowned data pioneer and education data leader for California schools, to examine the role data plays in addressing student equity. Education agencies are struggling to determine where to place their energy and resources to make the biggest impact for all students. Data collection and analyses can be enormously helpful to districts to improve educational equity. By examining data, we can get a closer look at students’ experiences and a more accurate sense of how our systems, especially during this challenging time, are not fully serving all students, despite our best intentions. 


Marcy Lauck, Founder of the Silicon Valley Regional Data Trust

Marcy is a passionate educator and data leader. She stood up one of the first education data warehouses at San Jose Unified District in California and has countless experiences in education equity work. Marcy also founded the Silicon Valley regional data trust whose mission is to change the culture and practice of how data is responsibly and ethically use to develop actionable solutions to critical education, health, and social problems. Most recently, she served as the Director of Data Governance and later as Senior Advisor of Data Initiatives for the Santa Clara County Office of Education, where she and her team oversaw the Data Zone solution – a data warehouse and visualization solution powered by the Hoonuit platform.

Sarah Singer, Head of Customer Success at Hoonuit

Sarah has worked with dozens of education organizations across the country ranging from state departments down to small suburban and rural districts. She spent several years at Portland Public Schools leading systems, planning, research, and evaluation work that were deeply rooted in equity work. Today, Sarah leads customer success with a team of data advisors at Hoonuit to help our partner agencies define and execute their data strategies.

Dr. Courtney Stevens, Vice President of Education Research at Hoonuit

Dr. Stevens has a very rich history of educational experience. Most recently she served as Director of Accountability and Innovation and Education Technology at Washington Elementary School District outside of Phoenix where she implemented and led the usage of the Hoonuit platform. Today at Hoonuit, she takes her practical education experience and continues to improve our platform while helping our educator partners leverage data in the most powerful way possible.

Tracy McCown, Senior Solution Architect at Hoonuit

Tracy is a tremendous asset to Hoonuit’s partners. During pre-implementation, she works with our partners on the product scope and to make sure their goals, initiatives, and strategic needs are aligned to the Hoonuit platform. Tracy actively provided live examples of using the Hoonuit platform to address equity issues during the webinar. 

Three Momentous Challenges

Sarah Singer, Head of Customer Success at Hoonuit, set the stage for the event by outlining three momentous events – and challenges – that are greatly affecting equity and education today.

“The way I see this right now is that there’s three, what I’m going to call momentous forces at play in our country right now. I don’t think these momentous forces are going to be a surprise to anybody here. The first is COVID-19. The pandemic has forced the K-12 space, an industry not known for its innovation, to upend the entire K-12 instructional delivery models in a matter of months. Anytime we have a change like this, we have to ask ourselves who is being impacted? Who’s being disproportionately impacted by this change,” explained Singer. 

“A second key momentous force is economic uncertainty. Many of our students and their families are faced with unemployment, food security issues, housing security issues. Your organizations themselves may not know what your budget situation is. You may be facing cuts or at the very least, it’s very uncertain for you, which makes it hard to plan,” continued Singer. 

“The third piece is racial injustice. I want to be clear about this particular point, racial injustice didn’t just suddenly emerge. It was present prior to this moment. I think the difference right now is there’s been a ground swelling of national interest in this topic. I think we’re having conversations in more authentic ways, more frequently and across a wider swath of people,” she said.

Courtney Stevens, Hoonuit’s Vice President of Education Research, explained Hoonuit’s role in the context of the three challenges identified by Singer. “These changing dynamic forces are all colliding in systems right now. Hoonuit’s role as a data platform is to work with your systems and pull together all of the different areas that carry data. That’s data about students, systems, staff, finance, and more and bring them into one place so educators can use data to make decisions quickly and easily. We need to spend more implementing, researching, and digging into data than gathering data,” said Stevens.

“The other major important piece that we play as a technology partner is making sure that we are giving the right access and making sure that security and privacy are foremost when we’re working with data,” she explained. “Because we are collecting all of that information into one space, we need to make sure that the right people have access. We have a ton of experience and passion around this topic. We know data privacy is a major concern both at the adult level, but also as we look to pull together data around schools.” 

Stevens also added a foundational strategy for using data. “One of the things that you’ll notice as we tackle some of these questions around inequity is a focus to be grounded in answering questions and not taking a look at data for the sake of looking at data. As data is surfaced, you can use the Hoonuit platform to investigate further to understand the foundation of those inequities,” she said.

“Behind every data element is a child.”

– Marcy Lauck, Founder of the Silicon Valley Data Trust

Marcy Lauck, founder of the Silicon Valley Data Trust echoed Stevens’ sentiment. “Behind every data element is a child. We’re talking about improving our systems to help all kids be successful. We’re being thoughtful and systemic in how we look at our systems as a whole, so we can do the right kinds of root cause analysis to determine what’s at the heart of the inequities that we may see through our data. Whether you’re looking at current data or that long-term longitudinal view of how kids are faring in the system. If you want to understand the root causes of inequities in the system, you have to be able to see how the systems, policies, and practices are leading to those outcomes. And that’s where you have the power to to institute significant change,” said Lauck.

The Five Characteristics of Districts Creating Equity Focused Data Cultures

In her role as Head of Customer Success at Hoonuit, Singer has a front-row seat to some of the best education practices employed across the country. “I have the most awesome job in the world. And one of the reasons I say that is because I get to work with over 300 education partners. Those are rural districts, suburban districts, and urban districts. They are big, small, heterogeneous districts and homogeneous districts. We also work with state education agencies and nonprofit organizations. I get to observe awesome practices from all around the country and I get to learn from it,” explained Singer.

“Hoonuit has this interesting and broad view of education and it’s our responsibility to share what we see. Some of the practices that I have seen employed are incredibly impressive and sometimes I would even say courageous. Today, I want to talk about our observations of successful organizations as they seek to create what I would call an equity focused data culture,” she said.

Singer then outlined five characteristics that Hoonuit sees within organizations who are creating equity focused data cultures. 

#1: Prioritize Equity Across the Organization

The first characteristic is the prioritization of equity organization wide. These education agencies understand that data is a necessary tool, but that data alone is not sufficient without an organization wide mindset. 

“I’ve seen organizations prioritize equity across their organizations. Howard County Public School System in Maryland is a great example. One way to prioritize equity is to make sure that equity shows up in your strategic plan. Howard County’s strategic plan is called ‘Learning and Leading with Equity.’ Similarly, you want to look at your organizational structures. Do you see equity living within your organizational structures? For example, with Howard County, they have a Director of Diversity Equity and Inclusion. I’m noticing that type of position is showing up all across the country. Many organizations are beginning to recognize that that type of position is important,” said Singer. 

However, equity doesn’t just live within that position. It is critical that a philosophy is embedded throughout the organization. “I think these types of positions play a fundamental role in building the infrastructure and helping with professional development organizationally. It’s the start to ensure that equity is embedded across the organization,” said Singer.

#2: Make Data Widely Accessible

The second characteristic we recognized in these districts is they make data widely accessible to their stakeholders and they disaggregate their data. “Some organizations want to hide data. They don’t want to be transparent, because it’s bad news. The organizations that do well in creating a data culture don’t do that. They make it accessible. I’ve also seen other types of data disaggregation emerge recently that are unique and creative. A great example was at Portland Public Schools. They wanted to understand and aggregate African immigrant populations versus African American populations. The reason they wanted to do that is because they had a culturally specific mentorship program that they had invested in. To determine which mentors to assign to whom they wanted to get a better sense of those populations. They felt like the needs were different and that the data would reflect that,” said Singer. 

#3: Use Relevant Data

The third characteristic is the use of relevant data. This means we should holistic data sets because we know kids aren’t one dimensional. Educators must look at data across a wide set of domains. 

Agencies with strong data cultures and a focus on equity are not only looking at broad data sets such as student achievement, SEL, parent and family perception, digital learning analytics, finance, operations, and human capital data. They are also able to make connections across those data domains.

“Our student profile page is the page most navigated to on Hoonuit. I think the reason that is the case is because it offers a holistic view of a student. You can find all the things that you want to know about a student. Their GPA, their race, are they on track for graduation? Their absenteeism rates. But you can also pull in other things like what interventions have been assigned to that student. I’ve seen some districts pull in the assets the student brings, instead of just talking about a kid’s deficits. What strengths are we building from? That’s something that you could put in a student profile. It’s not surprising to me that this is our one of our most popular dashboard views because it’s about providing that holistic view and the most relevant data,” said Singer.

For educators, few things are more relevant right now than digital learning analytics and understanding student engagement. Which students are engaging in online learning and which students are not? “[Howard County Public School System] wanted to know which students were logging on and which students were not into their various learning management systems and they developed a whole host of dashboard views using the Hoonuit platform. Howard County has been an absolute leader in this space,” said Singer.

#4: Focus on Efforts to Increase Usage and Adoption

The fourth characteristic is centered around efforts to increase usage adoption across systems. Equity-focused districts understand that usage and adoption, isn’t just going to happen by itself and that intentional efforts are needed. “You need to have an actual plan to increase usage and adoption. If you are going to have one takeaway it is to build a plan. Our team at Hoonuit would love to help you create that plan and increase your usage and adoption,” said Singer.  

Bellevue School District in Washington state provides a great model for usage and adoption. “Two months into the job here at Hoonuit, I had an opportunity to be a fly on the wall as Bellevue did a big launch of their Essentials data platform organization-wide. They were training their stakeholders on the new system. Here’s what I saw. First, I walk in the room and you could immediately tell it was a big deal. They had free stuff, and I know that sounds silly, but what that means to me is this is a district that’s prioritized their program and they’re telling the people in the room that this is important. The second thing is they had an initiative name and a whole week of sessions. Each session was tailored to a different stakeholder group and each session had learning-objectives. On top of that, everything was tied to those learning objectives. The use of data was tied to their strategic plans,” said Singer.

#5: Act on Data and Monitor Progress

Acting on data and monitoring the progress of your data culture is the fifth characteristic identified by Singer. A data warehouse and analytics platform is required to execute these strategies. “Successful organizations are courageous enough to act, they understand and monitor the progress along the way,” she said. “And if they fail, they fail fast and move on to another hypothesis on what to do to intervene. They monitor progress along the way and go forth in that regard,” she said. 

Singer identified Osseo Area Schools in Minnesota as an example of a district that has acted on data. “They were faced with this challenge of students not engaging in online learning. They also had students who didn’t have access to the internet. They wanted to act on the digital divide issue. To make a long story short, they were able to use location analytics tools to better understand which students weren’t engaging and where they’re located. They worked with community partners and looked at large apartment complexes to figure out where to strategically place hotspots. They were able to make a great deal of progress in serving kids more equitably by looking at and acting on the data,” explained Singer.

“One of the most exciting days for me, as I’m kind of a data nerd, was when Hoonuit introduced the ability to do GIS mapping. It’s such a powerful tool visually to show the geographic distribution of students,” added Lauck before providing an example involving English language learners. 

“We were seeing pockets of children from other countries coming into our district, and Russia in particular, who needed support in learning English. The GIS mapping helped to identify the specific neighborhoods where families from different countries had settled. The district was able to target outreach programs that might more effectively engage these families and help them assimilate and become more accustomed to the way education is being delivered in the United States,” said Lauck.

Attendees and Platform Demos Highlight Budgets

Attendee participation is a strong part of the Infinite Insights series. The experiences and views of our education partners and guests provide tremendous takeaways for the whole group. A great example emerged during the equity discussion. While Hoonuit offered a list of five characteristics for school districts creating equity focused data cultures, Ron Rode from San Diego Unified School District made a strong suggestion for a sixth. Rode believes budgets must reflect an equity focus.

Hoonuit’s Tracy McCown provided an eye-opening demonstration to highlight the power of Hoonuit dashboards – including budget focused dashboards from Hoonuit’s Operations solution suite. “A lot of the equity lens, it starts with budgets and asking how resources are being distributed in a way that serves equity in our buildings?” asked McCown. “It’s hard to see that picture in spreadsheets. I’m not sure that equity can jump out at us in a 2000 rows spreadsheet. To solve that, we start putting it in pictures, we start telling that story through metrics that show how we’re allocating our money to ensure that all of our students are served. We’re thinking through an equitable lens as we’re moving money around and putting it in places that serves all of our students.”

You can view McCown’s demonstration of the Hoonuit data and analytics platform at the 1:05:50 portion of the webinar

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