May 29, 2009
Shaw sees 'data warehouse' as key to Unified improvement
Racine Unified Superintendent James Shaw met with the Racine Unified School Board on May 28 to review his first nine months as head of the school district. The far-reaching conversation touched on several issues facing our public schools. We're breaking down the meeting by topic and will post stories over the next few days reporting on the meeting.
Near the top of Superintendent James Shaw's wish list for Racine Unified is a warehouse.
OK, that's a little misleading. What Shaw really wants is a "data warehouse," which is an important distinction. Instead of storing inventory and equipment, Shaw wants to store numbers. Lots and lots of numbers.
Like every Racine Unified student's grades, test scores, attendance records, extracurricular activities, GPA, credits and anything else administrators, teachers, parents - even the public (student confidentiality would be maintained) - needs to evaluate and improve student, school and district-wide performance.
“The idea is to get data in the hands of everybody,” Shaw said.
Listening to Shaw talk, it's easy to see why he covets data. Many of his sentences begin with the phrase, "The research says ..." and Shaw often talks about using numbers to uncover problems and work out solutions.
Data warehouses are a growing trend in schools, and according to Shaw, Racine is falling behind other districts. Milwaukee and Kenosha both have data warehouses in place and are training staff to use them. For example, one database search can pinpoint freshman with high test scores but low GPAs, giving schools the opportunity to create study skill sessions for them.
Case High School is testing out a pilot version of what's possible. Parents of some classes can log into a website and check on test scores, assignments and other numbers.
Shaw has more ambitious plans for a more comprehensive system in every Unified school. The system would cost millions of dollars, but $10 million in federal stimulus money over the next two years is arriving just in time to create the data warehouse Shaw hopes to see. (The stimulus bill, which restricts how the federal can be used, actually recommends districts create data warehouses as a way to help the economy.)
“If we don’t have the bottom drop out, we should have enough money,” he said.
School Board member Dennis Wiser, a former math teacher, said math teachers have long requested a system to track students’ math history through grades and test scores. That’s the type of thing that can be included in the data warehouse, Shaw said.
Board member Julie McKenna said she's hearing demand for the system. “Parents want this,” she said.
As far as a timetable, Shaw offered a hint of frustration with the pace of change in Unified. One technician told him he could get a data system running by fall, but Shaw was skeptical.
“That’s not been my experience so far in Racine, that we can do those things so quickly,” he said.
But principals are creating data teams for the summer to figure out what should be included in the data warehouse, and at least the beginning of a system could be in place by next school year, Shaw said.
That said, Shaw said advice he’s receiving on the system is to “go slow and do it the right way.”
That means involving teachers and principals in the setup process and then making sure everyone in the district gets trained on how to use the system.
“It’s not that they have it,” Shaw said, “it’s that it’s used.”
One sticky question: When will teachers have time to crunch the data to gain insights on their students? Shaw said the district needs to figure out a way to give teachers time to do that work within the school day.
He’s hopeful the district can hire “coaches” to work with principals and teachers on how to use the system. The district had three such coaches – ex-teachers with years of experience and training - this year, and it helped principals learn how to use data to identify and solve problems, Shaw said.