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?

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