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Alter Everything

A podcast about data science and analytics culture.

How do educators use data to inform their instruction for students? We’re joined by educational professionals Casey Wohletz, TJ Layne and Annie Mais to discuss how Title I schools around the country are using data to help their students shine.













Episode Transcription


What's funny about data is that it keeps me passionate. Seeing kids grow, it literally reignites a fire in me every time I see growth in a kid and it makes me want to get them to grow even more. If I can push them to where they need to be and then even further, that is super exciting to me and super reinvigorating.


Hello and welcome to the Alter Everything podcast. I'm Mike Cusick, your host for today's episode. Today's show is all about data analytics and lower education, specifically, in public elementary schools in the US. This is a topic I've been interested in exploring for quite some time. I just happen to know quite a few folks in the field of education and they always have such incredible stories to share. The way they think about data in the classroom setting is fascinating, so I wanted to create this episode to explore the ways data analytics in the real world intersects with what we're passionate about here at Alteryx. You'll hear a few different voices today. I interviewed two educators working in the field, TJ Lane and Kassie Wallace. They'll share their insights and experiences collecting and analyzing student data. And I've also brought in Alteryx's Annie Maze, an education expert in her own right, to help me understand the complexities and nuances of this topic. So let's get started. All right, Annie, thank you so much for joining me today on the podcast. How are you doing?


I'm doing great, Mike. How's it going?


Doing well, thank you. I'm so excited to have you on to talk about lower education. I know that you have an education background. You work with our SparkED program here at Alteryx. So could you give our audience a bunch of quick intro into who you are?


Yes. My name is Annie Maze. I am currently the director of education program management on the SparkED team here at Alteryx. I come from a education background. So previously, I've done a lot of work in secondary education. I was a teacher myself. I was a high school history teacher for about seven years in public schools here in California, and really happy to leverage some of that knowledge and expertise that I developed in doing that to bring to programmatic initiatives here at Alteryx.


Amazing. Today, Annie and I are listening in on conversations I recently had with two exceptional educators who serve elementary school students. Kassie Wallace teaches kindergarten in Salt Lake City, Utah, while TJ Lane has had several roles, including teacher, instructional coach, and principal in Denver, Colorado. Both educators rely heavily on data collection, interpretation, and reporting for their work, and they both happen to have built their careers working in Title 1 schools. If you haven't heard the term Title 1, I'll let TJ explain what that means.

TJ LAYNE: 02:36

So Title 1 is when 75% or more of the students qualify for free/reduced lunch. And what that means is that based on their parents' income line, they qualify for that. And so when you're a Title 1 school, you get additional funding, whether through state or federal funding for needs that other schools wouldn't necessarily get funding for because research has shown that students who are living in poverty or close to that poverty line, there's other barriers sometimes that stand in their way to get an education. Some of them come from single-parent homes and their moms or dads work two or three jobs, and so they don't have a lot of attention at home as more affluent households do. And so being in a place where you can see the difference, I think, a little bit more, it struck a chord with me. And so that's just where I kind of-- my whole journey led.


50,000 schools across the United States are eligible for Title 1 funding. So again, that is where 75% or more of their students qualify for that free or reduced lunch programming. With more than a quarter of all students in the United States, matriculating into a Title 1 school.


And with that Title 1 status comes many challenges, not the least of which is the data capture and reporting required to keep that extra funding. Let's listen to Casey's experience as a kindergarten teacher in a Title 1 school.


I will start by saying, I've never taught any middle-class or higher-class school. I've only taught in Title 1 schools, and that is where my passion lies. I really do have a passion for taking the kids and the students and the families that need the most help and have the least going for them, the least amount of benefits to get started. And they really need someone on their side advocating for them. My role as an educator is not just a teacher. In the Title 1 school, I am a counselor, I am a doctor, I am a friend, I am a family counselor. I do so many roles for these kids. Title 1 though does come with a lot of requirements, a lot of extra hoops we have to jump through because we're Title 1 to keep our Title 1 funding. There is a lot of money that is given to Title 1 schools because they need the funds the most. But because we get more funds, there are a lot of hurdles and extra requirements that we have to meet to keep our Title 1 status and to keep our funding.


And I'd imagine having a really robust data capturing system is important for that, especially.


Absolutely. We have to show that we are growing kids and you could have pretty serious consequences as a school if growth isn't being met. And some consequences can even be whereas someone from the federal government is coming in and turning your school around where you kind of lose a lot of your autonomy as a teacher, as an educator, when that happens. Which thankfully hasn't happened anywhere I've been teaching, but it is a possibility if growth isn't achieved. And that's where the data comes in. That's why I think my administrator is so passionate about the data is because she knows what could happen if we don't meet those metrics.


One thing I found interesting in listening to Casey, he mentioned the extra hoops that educators have to jump through because they are Title 1 schools to continue to receive that funding. I think that that's a really key element to keep in mind that these educators on top of the work that they know that they already have to bring into a classroom on a day-to-day basis, they're also having to determine and make choices throughout the course of a day, a week, a semester, a year that will help influence whether or not the school itself is eligible for continued funding. So it's almost adding a additional job description to an already full job, and I just resonate so much with that feeling because it does, it creates kind of this overwhelm. There's so much information that they need to be on top of on a day-to-day basis.


Absolutely. So as I mentioned, TJ has had many roles in the education system, and I wanted to ask him a little bit more about that and how his relationship with data collection has changed depending on the role that he was in. So here's what he had to say.

TJ LAYNE: 06:54

So as a teacher, I was really only focused on my class. That kids will take in-class assessments, so provided by the teacher. They are district assessments that everybody in the district and that grade level will take, and it measures you against all the other fourth-graders or fifth-graders in that district. And then you have the state-level testing that comes once a year. And the district testing happens usually about three times a year. So as a teacher, you're solely focused on your students and the growth that they're making in between in-class assessments, district assessments, and then measuring how well they did by the end of the year on a statewide test. The statewide test data is good to see how much growth a student has made from year to year. So when I taught fifth grade, I had kids that would come to me that, "I've already taken this test twice." And so looking at their fourth-grade data, there was a scale of one to five.

TJ LAYNE: 07:49

And so if they had a two the year before, you want to see either a two or greater to show at least a year's growth. A two means they're below grade level. So let's say a three is grade level, two is below grade level, and one's significantly below grade level. I had multiple school years as a teacher where I had half my class coming in as a significantly below grade level in math and/or literacy. And so not only do I want to make sure that they're maintaining growth, but I also am trying to close that learning gap that they came in with to try to catch them up to grade level before they get to middle school. And that's really what you're focused on as a teacher. As a coach, you are focused on multiple classrooms and multiple grade levels, trying to coach them and advise them on how to close the learning gaps of their kids.


So when you were a teacher, you were focused on individual student growth. As a coach, was it more about teacher effectiveness then?

TJ LAYNE: 08:44

Oh, for sure. So every district, every state has a set of guidelines that a teacher is evaluated on. What they say is that there's gaps in this teacher's performance because the student isn't necessarily achieving. And sometimes that's true. And sometimes there are things that teacher can work on, like in any profession. Right? And it's teaching people how to analyze the data. You have to also teach teachers sometimes how to look at data, or how to point things out. If you're a good coach, just like if you're a good administrator, a good teacher, the hope is you're changing these behaviors and these human beings you're working with in order to have a higher learning rate from the child. The first six weeks, I'm going through classrooms to make sure there's [inaudible] in place, that the teacher has control over the classroom, that kids know their expectation and what they're doing. And then once you have those things in place, then you worry about instruction. And so sometimes that data is different because I'm not looking anything in instruction, but that I'm responding to that data in real time. And a big thing that will blow up a school year is if you don't have those things in place, by the end of September, then those kids have already lost that much learning and now they're falling further and further and further behind for that school year.


I'm really glad to hear TJ talking about the education of teachers themselves and data literacy in general. When I think of a perfect education world, it would be the data analytics is also part of an educator onboarding, it's part of credentialing, it's part of the pathway for educators as they're learning to become a teacher that they are equipped with that data analytics mindset. In my role at Alteryx in the SparkED program, we are really focused on upskilling individuals, whether it's a traditional academic student, an educator, or someone who has recently changed careers or in the process of changing careers. We're all about this kind of upskilling headspace and when I hear TJ talk about educators needing to know basic fundamentals of data analytics, that's really why we have developed programming to help support that. What we find even in a traditional student's academic journey, they often don't have access or exposure to what the field of data analytics even is until way too late in their academic career, sometimes in their second, third, fourth year of college.


And so what we're really trying to do here at Alteryx is help empower people to start learning the skill set, how to think about data, how to analyze data, how to interpret data at a very fundamental level so that educators can go in armed with the knowledge that they need to interpret all the things that are coming at them on a day-to-day basis. What we see right now in education and the education of students in the field of data analytics is it's still pretty narrow in terms of how and where it's taught and in which subject areas it's being taught in. And so what we're really excited to see is this change in data analytics being taught across subject areas and so that they can continue to interpret data no matter if they're in a Title 1 school, a charter school, some other alternative education school, that they are armed with the skills that they need to be able to interpret data on a day-to-day basis.


I love what you're saying about empowering and upskilling teachers and educators in the area of data analytics. One thing that really jumped out at me as I was doing these interviews is just how complex that data can actually be. So we're not just talking about raw math literacy data. There's so many other factors, especially at a Title 1 school, the educators are considering, and so I wanted to ask Casey and TJ specifically about that. How do you reconcile academic data with some of the other issues that students might bring just as little baby human beings making their first attempt at school? Do you capture that kind of data formally or is it something that's just do you use for context?


When you're looking at tiny little humans as data points, a lot goes into analyzing the data. You can look at it as just growth only, either they got it or they didn't. But as an educator, we consider how does that student perform in a not formal setting? If I give them a test and they get them all right for me, but they go take the test with someone else, and they get them all wrong, how accurate is that data? And what happened to cause that discrepancy in the data collection? With kindergartners when we did our middle-of-the-year testing, we had a testing team come in and do all the testing for the kids. And we noticed that their middle-year scores were really low compared to the weekly data that I collect on the exact same skill and knowledge base in my classroom with the same group of kids. And I did not understand and my team and I wracked our brains. We were like, "Is it because it was a stranger or were they in a sugar coma because we tested too far after breakfast?" Some kids just get distracted in a new room. So if they were in a new classroom and they saw something bright on the walls and it's a time test where you only get 60 seconds to show what you know, those precious seconds are wasted when they're distracted. So there's a lot of factors that I have to consider when I do look at the data because the data could also be very much incorrect, to be honest.


It's really interesting in what Casey says is just the anecdotal nature of so many of the things that educators are asked to report on. And so how do you equip educators to start quantifying some of that anecdotal data that happens in real time in their classroom that really does have an impact and effect on the students and their academic journeys? I just think of being put in an education setting today, how much harder that is than for educators 10, 15, 20 years ago, because now you have this additional element. And so I really resonate with what Casey is saying in all of the anecdotal data points that they have to continually be on top of.


You have the hard data and you have the hard numbers, but then every single one of those lines of data has that asterisk next to it with whatever was going on in that day in that kid's life, how much sleep they had, how much breakfast they had, were their parents able to even get them to school for the previous week or two.


Exactly. And you don't want an education to make this look, feel, or seem robotic in any way. I mean, students are really not just walking data points. I mean, they are human beings with real lives. And I think that educators go into the field of education with so much heart. So how do you marry that heart and that human element with these data points that actually do affect funding and things like that at a school, whether it's Title 1 or otherwise?


Do you feel like the data that you collect captures reality correctly and do you feel like there's realities that are missed by the data that schools capture? I know you mentioned that there's a lot of context around the environment or the routine of it all. So how do you balance needing to have some objective measurements, but also taking into account all of these wildly individual circumstances that you have to deal with?


You have to take it with a grain of salt because as educators, truly were kind of judged based on the data at the end of the year. How well did you do with this group of kids and how well did you do with your lowest kids from the beginning of the year? And it's frustrating sometimes. So watch a kid who is performing for you consistently on grade level or even above and then give them a formal test at the end of the year and for whatever reason, they are not performing to what you know. And you're so limited when you're giving those tests of what you can say, because they have to be standardized. There was one example last year, a kid that was really low in my class at the beginning of the year, low, low, red, red kid. And by the end of the year, he grew so much that he was actually ahead of where he needed to be at the end of the year, which was super exciting. And he went from red and everything to blue in everything, math, reading, writing. And I remember doing a math exam. This is for a district. It was one where you have to give it in a small group. So you can't give it to one kid at a time, which has its benefits and drawbacks. Benefit being that you get done a lot quicker so you don't waste as much instructional time. But a drawback is that kids don't always listen to directions if they're not talked directly to them. And it was six kids at a time.


He just saw this math paper. And I read the question, but he was already writing something or trying to solve it because he thought he knew what I wanted him to do. And it was really frustrating because he missed almost everything. I mean, if not everything, a majority of the questions. And it was so frustrating to watch because I know this kid. He is top of my class, and he knew everything at this point in the year that was on this test. And I knew if I did give it to him one on one or slow him down and be like, "Hey, buddy, let's listen to the directions first," something to where I could have slowed him down, I don't know. But it was just so frustrating to watch it happen and then not be able to say anything. And then when I got my results, knowing that the majority of the class did fantastic, but this kid really, really, really performed poorly on this exam.


Are you able to use some of your more individual student assessments that you take more rapidly to help defend the idea that they might have just had a bad day? Because you're doing so many assessments, you actually have a fuller picture of their abilities than just that one test. And are you able to include that?


1000%. Because I myself collect additional data, I am able to defend my reasoning. This kid, yes, a score of maybe yellow or red. And I can say that, not because it's a feeling or a gut feeling, it's because I've had all these other data points leading up to it that show this kid is performing consistently at this particular level and this exam, this test, this data collection piece, just didn't capture that level.


Mike, that's all super interesting. And one thing I heard Casey mention here is the importance of being able to communicate your data, and this is a key principle in data literacy that our community here at Alteryx likes to think about because you can collect data all day long, but if you don't have a purpose, goals, strategy, or even a plan to show or visualize it, it makes it really hard to act on your findings. And so I think it's so interesting that Casey has been able to think of a creative way to start demonstrating what those data points look like.


Absolutely. And I think it takes a special set of skills to communicate that anecdotal and qualitative data, because these kids aren't just numbers. And here's TJ on that topic.

TJ LAYNE: 19:32

My feeling when I was in the classroom was my job was, hey, I know this kid is coming into my class with all this baggage. My job is to help them through some of that and give them a high-quality education no matter what it takes. Yeah, I'm still looking at that data. I'm still using it. But I, as a teacher, I'm also like, "Okay. How many days this week did they come to school in a good mood? How many days this week did they come to school on time? How many days were they here this week? How many days did they have an outburst in the middle of a lesson? How many days have I got a positive reaction out of them or I got them to do an assignment?" And so you can't leave that stuff out. But as a principal, you're not dealing with just one or two of those kids in your classroom, you're working with all those kids in all the classrooms who are exploding, or you're worried about ensuring that all the kids in the school are going to have meals for the weekend, or that the attendance rates for kindergarten are 90% or above. Research shows if kids miss more than 93% of the school year, chances are they're going to be behind grade level the following school year. And you have kids that do that because parents worked all night or they don't want to fight with their kids that morning or it's easier to let them stay home or maybe they didn't have a good educational experience and they don't have a value in education. Right?

TJ LAYNE: 20:58

And so there's all these different reasons why kids have different attendance rates. But as a principal, you're worried about that for everybody. And so you're doing these schoolwide incentives to try to raise that. And so as a principal, you're tracking behavior data schoolwide. Right? And your suspensions or write-ups or IEP goals, which are students who are individual educational plans who are in special ed. And they have their own specific goals written for them year over year. And so helping to ensure that our SPED teachers are helping them meet their annual goals. Kids who are English language learners, they have certain growth goals for language on top of literacy and math and science that they have to score. Right? Subgroups of kids: kids living in poverty, kids of color, males and females. So as a principal, you're looking at all of this schoolwide for K2, 3, 5, K5 on some metrics, and trying to figure out which ones are the best ones, which are the biggest bangs for our bucks right now. Because we might have 50 different things we need to work on, but you can't focus well on 50 different things. What are the few things I can? And so this year, my strategic plan, I'm saying, "As a school, we are going to do this. As a school, this is our goal, what we need to work towards." And so now all the data that I'm looking at as a principal throughout the entire school year is, are we going to make these goals for our school to close this achievement gap that we've set since we've been clear?


I love what TJ said here about trying to think strategically about their data collection and the goal setting for different groups. Casey and TJ both collect an enormous amount of data. They know exactly where their students are all the time. But it's not just cold data. They're not dispassionate about it, and seeing the growth or the lack of growth really allows them to be passionate about their work and translate those data findings into real outcomes for students.


Because I mean, I think that's the crux of all this. Right? And I know this as a teacher, it's kind of a giant bummer part of your job that you do have to be so reliant on data points that often seem impersonal, but also maintain that the heart and what you've signed up to do, which is to help students.


What's funny about data is that it keeps me passionate. Every Friday, me or my assistant is testing these kids to see how they're doing. And seeing kids grow, it literally reignites a fire in me every time I see growth in a kid, and it makes me want to get them to grow even more. Even once they reach their goal, I want to get them past that goal. I want to keep moving that all forward so they have the very best foundation because they don't get that in Title 1 schools. These kids coming to us, their poverty, some of them have really harsh experiences that I can't even imagine. So if I can push them to where they need to be, and then even further, that is super exciting to me and super reinvigorating. So every time I see the data growing, it really lights a fire in me. But then if I see the data is not growing, if I see growth isn't happening, it really makes me analyze what do I need to do for this kid? Because if they're not growing, that can be signs of my teaching, one, could be not what this kid needs and it might need to change my teaching for this kid. It also could be signs of some mental or cognitive or learning disabilities that are starting to display. They might have hard hearing, they might have a speech impairment, something to where they are going to require more services, more help to succeed. And without the data, you could just think, "Oh, this kid just doesn't get it for whatever reason," and it's not helpful, but the data drives so much of what I do in helping these kids.


So despite the challenges the students in a Title 1 school may bring, both teacher and principal use the data they collect to get those kids on track to be successful. TJ's efforts to adjust that.

TJ LAYNE: 24:52

It is because of intervention. I helped teachers, as well as myself, looked at data and looked at the standards, and we said, "What are kids missing? What do we have to do? And during regular classroom instruction, if a kid can't multiply, they're not going to be able to do your fourth-grade multiplication lesson. What are you going to do to change the work that they're doing during their work time so that they can access it and so that they can get closer to the grade level standard?" When Fairview Elementary in Denver, Colorado went from red to almost blue, people lost their minds. People came to our school to study us and interviewed us and did all these things because at the end of the day, yes, it was a lot of hard work, but it was paying attention to what kids need at all levels. So the teacher, the coach, the administrator, the school psychologist, the dean of behavior, the dean of instruction, collaborating together to figure out what's going to help solve this student's problem, whether it's behavior, math, science, walking down the hallway without screaming for five minutes, whatever it is. And that's what we did, and I'm really proud of that work. And I think that's a big-- I know that's a big reason why I was able to move up so quickly to become principal.


It sounds like you were able to really turn a whole school around by paying very close attention to those assessments, reacting to them in real time, and making changes.

TJ LAYNE: 26:15

But I mean, isn't that what-- any other profession, that's what you do. Right? If sales are going down, you respond to that data and you come up with a whole new marketing campaign to try to make sales go back up. Like any field, you're going to use the data. Why not education? Why not use how kids are performing and respond to that?


Is there anything that you wish you could change about the systems that you use to measure data or maybe the metrics that you're given? Is there anything about the system of data capture that you might change if you had the power to?

TJ LAYNE: 26:47

I think if I had the magic wand to change something, it would be that state assessments take in those extra variables that every building has that's different than every other building. And it's impossible. You can't do that. I believe that the power of a really good educator can teach kids what they need to know no matter what the kid's showing up with. Because they're a kid. Right? We're the adult. We have to take care of them. But not all kids are coming to school in the same level playing field, and you can't change that. As a kindergarten teacher, you have no control over who went to pre-K, who's been in school since they were two, whose parents have been teaching them things before they came to school, who's reading to them at home every night. Some people have a lot more kids. Some people are doing it by themselves. Some people getting food on the table is much higher a priority as their kid reading a chapter in their book. Trying to make sure that the electric bill stays on is a much higher priority than getting their kid to bed at 8:30 so that they can wake up and have a normal routine every day. That's a systemic thing, and that's a whole other conversation. I guess actually, you know what? That would probably be my magic wand, for people looking at data at much higher levels to take into consideration systemic issues that have had significant impact on the data that we see today.


Hearing TJ and Casey's experiences is both powerful and humbling. They're working tirelessly to improve the lives of children using the best tools we have to affect change. Impersonal and imperfect as it might be, analyzing data is what helps focused interventions and strategies to give the kids the best start possible in our world. The systemic challenges and daily realities educators face are almost overwhelming to think about, but it's the hard work of individuals like Casey and TJ that make the future a little brighter for us all. I like to think that Alteryx helps play a small role in that better future in the form of our SparkED program. Here's Annie on how SparkED is helping learners develop their data skills for the future.


I think of data analytics and the knowledge of data analytics as being an equity issue as well. The SparkED program exists really to upskill and help anyone who wants to learn data analytics, leverage everything that we have available in order to do so. What we provide are free Alteryx designer licenses to anyone who is wanting to learn data analytics. I'm really proud of that as being an element of our programming. So that extends to academic students educators, of course, but then also those individual learners who are looking to upskill and reskill themselves. When I think about the learning journey of someone who is coming to our site or are using our platform, it really begins with those fundamentals of what data and analytics is. And I'm really excited because recently we created some coursework on just the essentials of data analytics, and we've just seen so much traction and growth of these independent learners, finding these resources, leveraging these resources, and working towards some certification opportunities that we have through Alteryx in general.


And so we offer now a micro-credential, and that really is a platform agnostic. It's allowing individuals to have something to show for the learning that they've done so that they can act with confidence in any career that they are in, that they do have some fundamental data analytics knowledge. And so what I think about is how excited I am for us to continue empowering educators with these skills because I think the impact here at community level, at a society level, could potentially be huge. I'm also really excited to hear about the work both Casey and TJ are doing and will continue to do. I hope we can follow up with them at some time and then also hear from other educators who are in the Alteryx ecosystem and working really hard towards better student outcomes.


That's all for us today. Thanks for listening. You can find links for more information about the SparkED program in our show notes, and at community.alteryx.com. Catch you next time.

This episode was produced by Maddie Johannsen (@MaddieJ), Mike Cusic (@mikecusic), and Matt Rotundo(@AlteryxMatt). Special thanks to @andyuttley for the theme music track, and @mikecusic for our album artwork.