Kara Cotton, Former Executive Director of Instructional Services for Howell Public Schools, has spent her career working to ensure students are academically, socially, and emotionally successful. Her experience has taught her two things — that although there are common elements in each area of education, every person, department, building, and district is unique, and that every place has stories to share, situations to learn from, and lessons to teach.
The state has established aggressive academic goals for the next few years, and Michigan schools are working hard to achieve them. Each school building, and the district as a whole, has objectives to meet. But with declining budgets and increasing expectations, how will school districts manage?
For Kara Cotton, the key to continuous improvement is a focus on best practices and continuous learning. She learns from the teams in the buildings. She learns from the data. Perhaps most importantly,she also learns from the experiences of other districts.
Planning from the bottom up
Cotton begins by listening to teams from each school. The real world experience lies in each school building. Even well-constructed initiatives, she believes, if presented in a “top-down” fashion without proper understanding of the overall goal by all parties, and lacking a rollout plan, will be most likely ineffective.
“Every school is unique,” she notes. “Buildings can have different demographic makeups and economic situations, so a specific one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t make sense.”
She uses this bottom-up approach, driven by each school, to develop school improvement plans. Then, after taking into account building-to-building differences, she merges the individual plans together into the district improvement plan.
Mining the data
Cotton supports her decisions with data, but, she emphasizes, data in context.
“We had a building implement a new math curriculum, and they had tremendous success, but that doesn’t mean that we should roll it out district wide,” she explains. “We need to understand the variables. That school has a higher percentage of free and reduced lunch students, and maybe they benefit more from a curriculum that spends more time on fundamentals.
“Having data is great,” she adds, “but you need to know what you’re looking at. Making a decision without context leads to bad decisions.”
To Cotton, data in general, and Eidex in particular, have two purposes: validation and exploration.
“We can use historical data to confirm that something is working, or confirm that a problem exists,” she says. “We can see the before and after picture, and see how our strategies are working.”
The power of peers
But what she really values is the ability to use data to learn from her peers.
“Knowing what my peers are doing, and being able to compare our performance to theirs, is the first step in identifying best practices,” she explains. “Are we using our funds efficiently? Is someone else doing it better, or showing more growth?”
She also digs deep into other districts’ improvement plans, using information gleaned from their websites to understand how her peers are approaching the same challenges.
“I’d like to know what other districts are using, why they are using it, and how they are using it,” she says. And to provide context, peer comparisons are critical.
“If a certain district keeps coming up as a comparable district, and they’re doing very well, I want to understand why.”
The faster way to context
“In the past,” Cotton says, “I haven’t had time to say ‘what is going on, what are other districts doing.’ We have lots of data coming in, but until Eidex, we couldn’t make sense of it.”
With all of the data that she is evaluating, Cotton sees value in finding a faster way to process it all. For her, Eidex is that faster way.