Optimizing Education in a Data Driven World
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Optimizing Education in a Data Driven World

By: Joel Medley, Head of School, NCVA

  • Jill Curtis – Elementary School Academic Administrator, NCVA
  • Sonimar Villegas – Middle School Academic Administrator, NCVA
  • Marcia Simmons – High School Academic Administrator, NCVA

Data is becoming an increasingly important tool in the world of education. No longer are educators and school administrators using data to retroactively think about ways to optimize a student's experience, but there is an increasing opportunity to proactively engage with students and faculty to ensure everyone is set on a personalized trajectory for success. To capture this process and better understand how data is being used, Joel Medley, Head of School at North Carolina Virtual Academy (NCVA), and several academic administrators, who focus on improving teaching and instruction for the benefit of students for particular grade bands, came together to discuss how they use data in their school to support teachers, parents, and—most importantly—students. 

Joel Medley: At North Carolina Virtual Academy, we are constantly optimizing the experience and support we provide our teachers and our students. Why? Because we believe that everything we can do to help students will translate into their success in the future. With data, we can learn in real time exactly what our students need—academically and personally—to develop a personalized experience for everyone in the NCVA family. It's especially important to highlight that we don't see data as something that's only useful in a student's junior or senior year of high school. Instead, we collect and use data from grades K–12 to ensure we are providing students, teachers, and Learning Coaches with the tools they need. 

Jill Curtis: Absolutely. At the K–5 grade level, we depend on data throughout the school year. At the beginning of the year, right off the bat, we begin collecting data on new- and returning-student performance. Coupled with the data teachers have for their returning-students—from the beginning, middle, and end-of-grade level (EOG) —preparing curriculum plans becomes a comprehensive, customized experience with incredible detail to student growth. 

Teachers are also getting access to data on non-academic issues. Did a student have a truancy issue the year before? Were there other external challenges? Knowing that information helps a teacher identify immediately what kind of support a student will need. For new students, we look at past report cards, talk with families, and pay careful attention to how a student performs in the first few weeks. Additionally, this year, we started working with students in those critical first weeks to determine if a student was shy, if they had trouble sitting in their seat—all information that helps us tell the story of the student and support them along their journey. 

Joel Medley: Can you talk briefly about changes in data collection from last year to this year?

Jill Curtis: Last year, we started providing Learning Coaches (parents) with data about three weeks into the school year. Based on teacher and Learning Coach feedback, this year we have built time in our teachers' daily schedules to solely help a student stay on track through the provision of Learning Coach tips and reminders, in addition to answering any and all questions. We're really hoping that the dedicated time will keep everyone up to speed and will help everyone feel comfortable with new tools and learning platforms. 

Sonimar Villegas: I can go next! Similar to elementary school, everything to us is data, and finding ways to use that data is truly a team process. That can mean student performance on an assignment or an assessment, but it also includes feedback from Learning Coaches and teachers. I do a monthly coffee where I meet with parents, and that is one of the most valuable opportunities I have to learn what is working and what isn't. From that, I often will create specific sessions with our parents to address repeat questions and to provide them with additional resources they can use to help reinforce what students are learning in the classroom. 

One of my teachers is currently working on a predictor algorithm—he calls himself a data geek—but he is trying to figure out how we can combine different data—assignment and time on task, etc. —to determine where a student might stumble and how we can best support them before that happens. That right there is a big piece of data we can focus on in the middle school, because it provides us concrete data on the correlation between how much time students are spending engaged with their work and how well they're doing. If a student is just clicking through a lesson and performing poorly, we know that and can go back to work with that student one-to-one—an experience that benefits a student academically and socially. 

With this comes our culture plan, which we are very excited to roll out. This year, we are working to communicate and instill in our students the three core values at NCVA—being respectful, responsible, and resilient. Middle school is hard, and we have a lot of kids who give up on themselves. As a team, we are working to integrate our three core values into our 'Love Your People' campaign. These aren't easy skills to measure, though, and that's why this year we're introducing "WIN Session" for students. "WIN" stands for "What I Need" and is being rolled out so we can identify skill gaps right from the start, identify students with challenges early, and then track their progress against their customized plan.

Joel Medley: Marcia, how are you all using data collection in the high school—for supporting both a student's academic and personal growth?

Marcia Simmons: While we also use assessments and evaluations in many of the ways my colleagues have already highlighted, in the high school block program, our teachers can really use data as a conduit for having conversations with high-achieving students to determine if they should be in an honors or AP® course. For example, one of our students, who just graduated, had the chance to take several honors and AP® courses in addition to taking community college courses that counted toward graduation requirements. This advanced coursework helped him graduate with an associate's degree—a way to save money and pursue really rigorous academic growth simultaneously. 

We also use data to ensure our students have the chance to connect with each other since they live across the state. Through our data collection, we found that many families said they liked going to regional outings and meeting each other, especially families with kids in different grades. However, our sophomores, junior, and seniors weren't really showing up because they're older and don't want to hang out with the younger kids. Based on that feedback, we decided to implement high-school-only outings. We held an event at the natural history museum and conducted live classes at the museum! They were a huge hit, and we saw an uptick in student engagement. It was so neat to see students finally meet face-to-face, go off into small groups to work together, chatting and laughing like they had done this a thousand times before. They were even talking about prom! As you can see, we're really trying to also use data in the social development space—not just the academic space—and adjust our offerings to meet those needs. 

Joel Medley: Everyone, thank you so much for your insights. There's an old saying that "culture eats strategy every day of the week." At NCVA, we are committed to building programs and a community that will have entrenched value and longevity—that's why we really pride ourselves as a team on our work. Supporting each other, ensuring our teachers feel like they're in a community where they can thrive, and coaching our students in a multitude of ways has cultivated an environment where we depend on data and transparency, but in a way that makes both our successes and our challenges things our school comes together to grow through. As a school, we know who we are and what we are capable of, making us all extremely excited about our past, our present, and—most importantly—our future. 


KEYWORDS: Artificial Intelligence, Collaboration, Constant Improvement, Innovation, Metrics, Results, School Administrators (or Administrators or School Leaders), Powered by Technology

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