Turning Data Into Knowledge: Lessons From Six Milwaukee Public Schools

WCER Working Paper No. 2002-3

Sarah Mason

April 2002, 9 pp.

ABSTRACT: This 2-year project, funded by the Joyce Foundation, was a collaboration of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research (WCER) with UCLA’s National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing (CRESST) and the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). The project was designed to increase the capacity of six MPS schools to use student, classroom, and school data more effectively for decision making, continuous improvement, and school reform. In addition, WCER staff collaborated with CRESST in providing external feedback on the implementation of the Quality School Portfolio (QSP) software and designing an evaluation, and engaged in joint problem solving and reflection. In working with the six Milwaukee urban schools from 1999 to 2001, we learned that data use, to be effective, must become an active part of school planning and improvement processes, and it must become infused and accepted into the school culture and organization. Additionally, school staff members must develop the analytical capacity to understand and apply data strategically. Once fully integrated into a school’s systems, data can be transformed from mere numbers into useful information, which can then contribute to the staff’s knowledge in effective and meaningful ways. The application of data to decision making presents an array of complex challenges for schools. These challenges must both be addressed initially and attended to continuously if a school is to make successful and effective use of its data. We have identified six challenges school leaders must confront as they build their capacity for using data for decision making: (a) cultivating the desire to transform data into knowledge; (b) focusing on a process for planned data use; (c) committing to the acquisition and creation of data; (d) organizing data management; (e) developing analytical capacity; and (f) strategically applying information and results.

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keywords: Data-Based Decision Making; Continuous Improvement; School Reform