Dashboarding 101 – 5 Tips to Get Your District Started

The buzz around dashboards continues to grow, and as I travel the US providing demonstrations, more and more educators are interested in learning what dashboards can do for them. I am going to walk through what a data dashboard is, why they are becoming so popular, and then lay out my 5 tips to get started. First, what is a dashboard? Merriam-Websters defines it as:

1: a screen on the front of a usually horse-drawn vehicle to intercept water, mud, or snow

2: a panel extending across the interior of a vehicle (as an automobile) below the windshield and usually containing instruments and controls

Close but no cigar right!? (Love number 1 by the way) Explaining to a colleague, client, prospect, what a dashboard really is and why they are so powerful is not always easy. But Eric Soden, Managing partner at Capitialize Analytics simplifies it a bit by defining a dashboard as “a consolidation of information that provides answers to questions the user needs to consider for his or her role. An effective dashboard must be timely, accurate, actionable, and provide value for the user accessing it.”

Ok, so we have defined a dashboard.  Now the question becomes, “why are they so popular?” Dashboards can provide top-level metrics at a glance, with the ability to easily drill down to more detailed information stored below the surface. Think about your district goals and objectives for the upcoming year. They often fall into one or more of these categories:

  1. Lower the drop-out rates
  2. Put a damper on chronic absenteeism
  3. Develop a plan to minimize teacher turnover while maximizing teacher productivity

Those are all examples, but my question to you is, “How would you measure them?” That is where dashboards can come in. Dashboards simplify the process, while providing timely, accurate updates. They are becoming so popular because they provide high level insights in an organized, efficient, timely manner.

Most people get the why they need dashboards, they just get hung up on how to implement them. It seems complicated, right? Here are 5 tips to get your district moving in a data-driven direction that will allow for Dashboards to simply your data:

1. Define Your End Game

You have to know what the “end game” is for EACH dashboard project that you undertake. Before you can start, you have to know what your district goals are for the next year, 3 years, 5 years and beyond. Without knowing where you are going, you will never know how to get there.

If you are the advocate for your district to explore the power of dashboards, I would start with the influencer. For this example, let’s focus on the Superintendent. Ask them what information they would LOVE to have at a glance that would simplify their job exponentially. There is your starting point!

2. Keep your Data Clean

In order for dashboards to be efficient and provide usable information, your data MUST BE ACCURATE. In today’s world where most data checks come from running reports, odds are you will not be finding any errors until someone runs a report and discovers the issue. With dashboards, data is constantly being analyzed so you will be more on top of your data. In turn, it will make your data more accurate, which will lead to a more reliable database and the ability to trust the results. This is a benefit of dashboards that often goes over looked!

3. Set Aside Time

This is two-fold. First, do not be naïve to the fact that generating dashboards with great functionality takes time. “Nothing worthwhile ever comes easy.” Embrace the journey and the challenge knowing that when you are done, it WILL be gratifying because you will be making a difference for your staff, students, teachers, and community.

Second, once the time and effort is put in to the development of the dashboards you MUST set aside time for the data to be analyzed. It is critical to analyze the data and allow your staff/faculty the time to discuss the data together. You will be amazed at how this will help to develop a culture of learning and support amongst your staff. They will be able to discuss learning strategies and have data to support why one specific group fell behind while another soared. It is time to empower your staff with accurate data, to not just support, but drive the learning process.

4. Establish Growth Targets and Track Progress

So we have established our end-game, cleaned our data, and set aside time to review and discuss the data. The next step is defining what progress is and setting benchmarks. Set benchmarks as a district, campus, classroom, teacher, and students. Dashboards will aide you in tracking it all.

Think about the impact this can have for your students. Studies show that if you empower a student in their learning, then true magic can happen. You can design dashboards to demonstrate growth and provide your students with a sense of power while teaching them valuable life skills in order to achieve their goals.

What is also cool about dashboards is that we can use this data for more than just impacting students as well. As a teacher, I can set a goal to see a minimum of 5% growth in each student and actually have the data to support if I achieved my goal.

5. Make it Visible

You have to show off all of your hard work right!? Seriously though, accessibility is key and will help you to promote buy in. Often times you may ask for a report and then when you receive it, it leads to you having more questions and you ask for another report, then another report, and by then your teachers (who are always strapped for time) have already tapped out and are doing their own thing.

If the data is easily accessible by your staff, teachers, students, and community then it is all the more likely that they will engage. If you present the data in a way that it is easy to access, reliable, and used on a regular basis, then you are making it easy for them to take the next steps.

Bottom Line

Dashboards will revolutionize the way districts compile, track, and analyze data. It’s important to know that this process will take time, though, often by a dedicated a group that can design and build the dashboards. This is where many districts get hung up. However the time initially invested is time that will help our students and provide them with the best support they need to be successful. And in the end, what’s more important than that?

‘Small Data’ could fix what ‘Big Data’ could not fix in education.

How many of you have been provided with so much data that you are lost and not sure how to effectively manage it?


How many of you receive so much data that you spend hours molding the data with pivot tables, calculations, etc. just to analyze it and break it down into what you really need to make informed decisions?

I was in the first bucket.  I remember being introduced to an online data warehouse that held ALL of my districts information, was given a log in, showed how to run reports, and was handed the keys to do what I needed.  Thanks for nothing?

Data is useless, its what you do with it that matters.

Now once I got where I needed to be, the data was not completely useless.  I would use it to find out which kids did not test proficient on last years state assessment but there was no way to see how they scored over the past 3 years.  Another problem was that I had to massage the data to get anything valuable out of it because there was so much of it!  Then I started to think, “What if last year was an outlier?”  Things like this frustrated me to no end because my goal was to teach and this emphasis on test results, I felt, encouraged people to teach to the test.

We were never provided data on attendance rates for students, behavior data, or how they performed on their report card for the last 4 years.  It all revolved around benchmark tests and state exams.  What if they provided me all the reports I just mentioned, then ran that data against how they performed on tests, to really look for small to focus on that might make a HUGE impact.  We are now going to segway into an article published by the Washington Post and Valeri Strauss who shared a a post by Jonathan Hask and Pasi Sahlberg called “Next Big Thing in Education: Small Data”.

You can read the Washington Post article OR the article directly from Pasi Sahlberg’s website.

Share your thoughts and lets start some great conversation on where data analytics maybe going in the near future!

Analyzing What Trump, Clinton Paid for Their Children’s Education vs National Average

This. Article. Is. Awesome.

Two thumbs up for Andrew Ujifusa and his article called “What if America Spent Per Student What Clinton, Trump Paid for Private Schools?”

Trump is an advocate for school of choice and his son discussed this at the GOP and stated that they wish all Americans had the same choices.  Laughable when you look at what he, his siblings, and even Chelsea Clinton experienced.  Andrew does an fantastic job laying it all out on the line and shows the disparity between private and public schools.  There is a large gap between the amount spent on each child in these two environments.

How to Share Data Effectively

Harvard Family Research Project (2013). Tips for Administrators, Teachers, and Families: How to Share Data Effectively. Retrieved from http://www.hfrp.org/var/hfrp/storage/fckeditor/File/7-DataSharingTipSheets-HarvardFamilyResearchProject.p


Data-driven organizations are found all over the world.  It is the data that drives decisions in banking, sports, and in recent years, schools.  It has transformed the way districts analyze scores, make decisions, and all of this has a direct impact on our students.  The question I have for you is are you sharing it effectively?

The Harvard Family Research Project provides us with their Tips for Administrators, Teachers, and Families: How to Share Data Effectively.  The article provides tips on how to effectively distribute, use, and communicate data to your teachers, students, and community.  I worked at a school that would provide me piles of data on paper, multiple websites with multiple log-ins, and then claim to be data driven!  They never sat down and talked with teachers to explain best practices is utilizing the data, how to share it with students or even how to share it with parents.  Do you work at a place like this?  This article is great and provides suggestions on how to get over these hurdles.

Here are some of the headlines from the article highlighting which scenario’s are discussed:

  • Creating a Data Sharing Culture Among Teachers
  • Helping Families Make Use of Data
  • Preparing to Share Data With Families
  • Talking With Families About Student Data
  • Preparing to Communicate With Teachers
  • Talking with Teachers About Your Child’s Progress

So often I see schools who claim they are data driven and then when you ask how they use it effectively they are not able to provide a solid response.  They are like one of the districts I worked at.  They can provide me lists of websites, benchmark tests, etc to collect the data but they do not have a plan on how to use it effectively.

Think of the things that are wasted when data is not used: money, instructional time, teacher planning time, etc.  “Recess!” My daughter would yell and you know what why not!?  Gathering data with benchmark tests bring stress, anxiety to classrooms across the country for teachers and students so when I see they are not used effectively it is disappointing.  Data alone has no value, it is what is done with it that matters.

So we have talked about ways to share the data so how did we get to this point?  Data has no value unless you use it appropriately to make decisions.  Here is a resource that highlights how to make data work and what you can do as a teacher, administrator and policy maker to ensure that data is useful.  If you are still wondering what specifically you could do here are 11 tips on How to Make Data Analytics Work for K-12.

Use these resources to inspire changes in policy and usage of data in your district or fine tune your methods.  In this ever changing world we always need to make sure that we are being efficient in our practices and data sharing is no different!