Commonwealths, Common Cause: Influencing the Quality of Significant Disproportionality Data

Episode 9


Release Date: September 22, 2022

Guests: Brian Coonley, Special Education and Equity Inclusion Specialist, Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education; Jarrod Slone, Exceptional Child Specialist, Kentucky Department of Education


“Improvement begins with data.” These are words to live by and a philosophy held in common by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s Brian Coonley and the Kentucky Department of Education’s Jarrod Slone. 
 
In this episode of A Date with Data, host Amy Bitterman gets to the bottom of these two commonwealths' not-so-common strategies to support districts, which include a focus on increased transparency and data stewardship. Jarrod and Brian also discuss how root-cause analyses and long-term strategic planning can lead to meaningful, substantive improvement.

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Episode Transcript

00:00:01.52  >> You're listening to "A Date with Data," with your host, Amy Bitterman.

00:00:07.34  >> Hey. It's Amy, and I'm so excited to be hosting "A Date with Data." I'll be chatting with state and district special education staff who, just like you, are dealing with IDEA Data every day.

00:00:19.50  >> "A Date with Data" is brought to you by the IDEA Data Center.

00:00:24.44  >> Our topic today is influencing the quality of your state's and district's significant disproportionality data, and we are so fortunate to have joining us Brian Coonley, who is a Special Education Equity and Inclusion Specialist with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, and we also have Jared Sloan, who is an Exceptional Child Specialist with the Kentucky Department of Education. Both are heavily involved in their state's significant disproportionality data and processes, and I'd like to start out with each of you briefly intelligent yourselves. Brian, do you want to start us off?

00:01:00.33  >> Of course. My name is Brian Coonley. I've spent the last 4-plus years working at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, working on our Special Education Planning and Policy team. I lead the work in significant disproportionality data, supporting districts as they look and receive their data, analyze their data and then create plans from there. I also work on some of the indicators that relate to equity, including Indicators 4, 9 and 10.

00:01:29.56  >> Thanks. Jared? Good afternoon. I'm Jared Sloan, and I work at the Kentucky Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Early Learning. I've been here off and on now for a little bit over 6 years, and I work primarily with significant disproportionality and CCEIS as well as Voluntary CEIS. So also work with some of the indicators that Brian said there for 4, 9 and 10, and whatever is asked of me beyond that point.

00:02:01.06  >> Great. So we have two different perspectives from different states. Sounds like similar roles and responsibilities, so really excited to hear what each of you have to say. I want to start the conversation off by asking, what does data-quality influencer mean to you?

00:02:19.20  >> Well, I don't know that I've ever been called a data-quality influencer before, and even I appreciate the new term there. I will tell you that the most important thing that we have to remember throughout this process and really any process through education is that improvement begins with data, and that's understanding, commanding and also being able to make programmatic improvement as a result of that data. So I think it's very important to keep in mind that what we have to do as state agencies is be good stewards and also good instructors of helping our districts really uncover the data, which they may not realize are a part of the significant disproportionality process or of any other equity process itself.

00:03:11.55  >> Yeah. I love that quote, "Improvement begins with data." I think that's something to repeat often and always keep in mind, especially with the work we're doing. And, Brian, how about you?

00:03:22.20  >> Well, I want to follow up on what Jared said in that part of helping districts, I think being a data-quality influencer is helping districts to be able to see the data that exists. Many of them might not always have access to it. It's helping them find that access, helping them then to think through, how do you analyze data? What do you look at? What do you analyze? What do you think about? And then how do you take that to make program improvement?

00:03:47.22  >> So following up on that, how do you influence the quality of your state's significant disproportionality data, more specifically, what are some of the things you're doing in your state with your districts to really have that impact?

00:04:01.47  >> Well, a couple of things. One is, we welcome our data team to be clear about how we collect data. So our state data systems are very clear and organized, how they're basing the data to us, and then also give them supports to think about how they're organizing their data. I think the other part that really helps with it is making the data available to them. So very often, school and district leaders and community members can feel, when they submit data to a stage agency, it goes off into the ether, and they don't know where it ever ... Whatever happens to it and how it ever gets used. So we've committed to providing the significant disproportionality data to all of our districts. We put together an online data tool for all 400-plus LEAs in the state that all of them have access to so that they can take a look at it, and that helps improve data quality because they're consistently able to access it. They're thinking about it, and then they're also thinking about, "Okay. This is a first step. What other data do I need to be collecting?" be it quantitative or qualitative data within their schools and their districts so they can then take the important next steps.

00:05:09.10  >> Great, thanks. Jared, how about you in Kentucky?

00:05:12.77  >> Well, I think it really begins for us with teaching our districts to be good data stewards and teaching them how to have a command of their own data at the school, the district level, whatever that might be. We do have several tools. We're not quite as expansive as Brian said, but getting to the point where we do have ... We will have, hopefully, a system where all of our districts can access that data as far as significant disproportionality is concerned. We do have a couple of other dashboards that are currently rolling out, but I think the important part is, again, as I said in the beginning, it's having folks take the ownership of that data and really even getting down one of the things that I work with a lot of districts on is even looking at schools, at grade levels, even at classrooms to make determinations on, where did the disproportionality start? Particularly, when it come storage overidentification. So where was the root cause? Was it that they had a teacher couple of years back that wasn't quite quality and a Tier 1 or a Tier 2? Where did that actually start, and where did the root cause lie that eventually led them to the district getting to the point where it is significant disproportionate?

00:06:29.52  >> So really putting in place technical assistance and resources, it sounds like, to help support districts and schools to really drill down disaggregate, dig into their data deeply to really narrow in on those important root causes that need to be identified in terms of that next step of our CCEIS planning and implementation.

00:06:49.95  >> Absolutely.

00:06:51.33  >> What are some challenges that you have encountered to being a data-quality influencer, and how have you been able to address them? And I'll let Jared start us off.

00:07:01.85  >> Well, I really think when you're talking about the challenges is, obviously, it is time and also accessibility. I think that we have come leaps and bounds in terms of transparency with the data and teaching folks, as I've said before, have access to that data, but I think for folks, there's so many different areas and so many different expectations that we have in districts that it's a point of showing them how to leverage the tools that they have to overcome that sort of time barrier, as it were. I would also say too, it's buy-in to be able to understand that this is a significant issue and a problem within the district. Sometimes, you have to go kind of a sideway at it to get to the point where it becomes focused, and it becomes a priority for the district, but once you've done that, we've seen some really, really transformative things, not only just with significant disproportionality, not only just with special education but because of the nature of the beast, as it were, in regular ed and in special education within the districts as a result of the work that has come out of CCEIS.

00:08:23.78  >> Yeah, absolutely. Having general education be a big partner in all of it is critical and I know can be a challenge too, to some extent, making sure that they are at the table and really part of the conversation. So that's great to hear that you've had success in that. Brian, what about you? Any challenges you want to share?

00:08:43.14  >> Jared took the words right out of my mouth. Time. That was the first thing that came into my mind was district leaders, teachers, educators, students, family members, whoever is participating in this process are all really busy, especially post-2020 and the pandemic, but has always been busy. So we really have to think about, how do we create opportunities, spaces and almost create time for districts to be able to look at their data, to be able to collect their data? So if it's providing them frameworks, like Jared talked about, giving them tools to do that. If it's giving them spaces, we've had multiple conferences where large portions of the day were ... to give them time just to get away and sit somewhere in a conference center just to be able to do it or setting up multiple professional learning communities over the last few years where they, again, can set aside time in the calendar where they can meet with their colleagues either within their district or colleagues form other districts to help them analyze and look at their data has all been really useful to overcoming that struggle with time that they all seem to deal with. Another one is data literacy or having someone on staff who is in charge of data or at least multiple people, especially when we're looking at some of our smaller more rural districts or charter schools, regional, vocational schools that we work with, the use of data, the analyzing of data and then taking it to the next step to do program improvement, to look at, what's your CCEIS going to look like? What are your measurable outcomes going to look like long-term? How are you going to make change? They even have the bandwidth to do the pretty good shape they're currently doing off when they're so busy. So to have someone who's in charge of data or ... It's a struggle, and finding people who can set aside the time or who are in charge of it can find the funding to do that. I think we're still working at, how do we help districts get people involved in the schools who are in charge of data?

00:10:33.39  >> Who can devote that time, specifically, to that work?

00:10:36.87  >> It all comes back to time.

00:10:38.69  >> Yes, it certainly does. Is there a certain success story, something you're really proud of that your state or district has done around significant disproportionality that you'd like to share with us?

00:10:52.33  >> Yeah. One of the success stories that always stands out to me is a district that has been identified for multiple years for significant disproportionality, and when we first identified them, they were invited to a conference we were having, where they had the opportunity to start looking at their data and start building a team to do root-cause analysis. One of their school leaders, on the drive home, had this debate in their mind, "I could math my way out of it," as he described it to me later, "Or I could do what's right by my students." I could go in and really dive into the data and see why we're overidentifying this population. And he said, "How can I math?" That's not what ... He described it, "mathing his way out," that's not what we're here for in education. That's not what we're here to do. And as a result, has completely changed how their multi-tiered systems of support looks within the district, how their Tier 1 and Tier 2 ... in relatively large districts now exist, that that system didn't exist in the past. And if it wasn't for this identification, probably wouldn't have occurred, and now they're seeing a lot more supports, a lot more inclusion, a lot more excitement for supporting struggling students than they'd seen in the past, which is great, and it's all because this leader really stepped up and took advantage of what we were providing but also went out and found resources on their own.

00:12:11.88  >> Yeah. I think that district leadership piece, I'm sure, is so critical and having leaders that are interested in buy-in and really want to make a difference can make such a huge, huge difference. What about you, Jared? You mentioned some transformative things that you've seen happening because of significant disproportionality and the work districts are doing? What do you want to highlight?

00:12:38.23  >> Well, absolutely, and it's interesting that Brian talked about districts actually sitting there and calculating, "How can I," quote-unquote, "math my way out of it?" And I can't tell you how many times, and I've had conversations with folks to say, "Yeah, you can do that, but is that really what's best for the kids and the district itself?" And I think that's the key. I will tell you that I've got a couple things that I can really think of, and the thing that I really like to talk about is that ... And this is not because of a statistical exit from COVID, anything like that, but we've gone ... We have cut the number of LEAs identified over the past 2 years in half.

00:13:21.56  >> Wow.

00:13:22.21  >> And so the way we have done that, though, is through partnerships. And when I say partnerships, I mean, we have a couple find out technical assistance centers here in the state with whom we partner with districts. First of all, is our formerly special education co-ops now rebranded as SERTACs, the Special Education and Regional Technical Assistance Centers, and also through our Kentucky Avery Partners at the University of Louisville, and they are in Academic and Behavioral Response to Intervention center that we fund through KDE OSIL with our funds. And I think the important is, is really leveraging those partners from a training standpoint, from a support standpoint, from an implementation science standpoint to really get in and work through the proverbial kinks, as it were, to kind of figure out where the real, true root cause lies, to enable them to understand that this is a marathon, not a sprint. It took ... In our state, it takes 3 years for folks to be identified with that data to be CCEIS. And I think the important part is, you got here over 3 years ... using the 3 years of data. It won't necessarily change in the course of one year. It may change, but the fact of the matter is, we're working on climate and culture, and that transformative change as a district, working both proactively and reactively, working on the special education side, whether that be through behavior or identification, and also on the core instruction and the MTSS side, that altogether is ... And really utilizing our partners to get that message across and to get those partnerships to be productive, I think is really where we have seen the most success in Kentucky.

00:15:27.96  [ Chatter ]

00:15:29.38  >> ... something Jared said, if you don't mind?

00:15:31.69  >> Yes, please.

00:15:33.24  >> I think something that just stood out to me is when Jared said, "It's a marathon, not a sprint," I think another success that we've seen is similarly, when you partner with organizations and partner with people and then also help districts understand, it is that long-term. You didn't get here in a day or a week or a month. You got here over multiple years, and if you can come up with long-term strategic planning, you can come up with, how are you going to change practices? It's made a huge difference, right? I've had calls all the time early on where there was a lot of frustration about why I'm here, and now because we've changed that thought and how people think about being identified with significant disproportionality, people are now excited that they get to do some long-term work and some long-term planning, and they can set aside funds for CCEIS to implement programs that they might've never done or change in their district that they've never done, and that's been really exciting to see that switch.

00:16:28.08  >> It's not an easy fix, getting across that ... Yeah. It's going to take time, and it's an investment, but it's worth it in the long run and looking at it as a positive in some ways that now, you're going to have this money to specifically earmark for these improvement activities.

00:16:47.04  >> But, Amy, you can't really just math your way out of it.

00:16:49.76  >> No!

00:16:50.87  >> That's the point is that it has to be something where you're thinking about realistically, this needs to be a long-term approach for the district, and as the state, we have to think of it that way too. We have to say, "It may not change overnight, but we've got to be consistent in the tools that we offer the district, the transparency we offer in terms of data and also the supports that we offer," and that's one thing I can say, our office has been extremely ... and our Associate Commissioner Gretta Hylton has been extremely supportive of this program and the model of change that we've undertaken.

00:17:30.63  >> So what do you have coming up next as a data-quality influencer in the realm of significant disproportionality? What are you working on now? What do you have planned for the future?

00:17:41.01  >> Yeah. So what we've been thinking about for the upcoming school year is ... You already mentioned it earlier, talking about qualitative versus qualitative data, trying to help districts think about the qualitative data, thinking about the stories of the students and the families because that helps change hearts and minds, but it also is an important part of what's going on in the district. So helping districts start thinking about, "How do they collect that information? How do they talk to them? How do they collaborate with families? How do they collaborate with community leaders and community members?" to understand what's going on in the schools beyond the in-depth look they've done at the quantitative data, and we're really going to spend time next year working on, how do you look, once you've done some of that work, how do you look at the biases that might be occurring when you fine through your data analysis and the root-cause analysis work?

00:18:36.20  >> Wow. That sounds really interesting, excited to hear more about that. And, Jared, what do you have coming up?

00:18:42.21  >> Well, the thing I will always tell you is, as a teacher, as a principal, I never taught the same way 2 years in a row. I was always looking for ways to tweak and change, and I think that's the approach that we try to take to the program in the state. Realistically, what we're looking at is, how do we really engage in true long-term change? And you've heard me say that a few times, and I think the way that we do that is to increase that transparency. Brian talked about the fact that their state has that ability for all districts to be able to see their data. What we're doing right now, we don't necessarily ... We do have a dashboard, but it is in version 1.0, and truthfully, we're moving towards even more data as we go through here to allow districts and our SERTACs to be able to see the data that drives them. So we're actually working through our Special Education and Regional Technical Assistance Centers, the SERTACs, to really work to see regionally, what are the data that drive the significant disproportionality? So we're not just looking at CCEIS districts. We're looking to see what data are out there for year-one districts, for year-two districts and year-three and beyond districts to say, "How do we take this data and marshal our support from the state agency, marshal the technical assistance support from our SERTACs at the regional level and, for all of our Technical Assistance Partners, to offer the best and the highest most responsive quality of assistance that we can offer that has the most urgency and that is data-bound," so that we're able to say, "This truly are the emerging themes and the things that we see that have to be addressed today with our students"?

00:20:40.94  >> Wow. That also sounds amazing and would love to have you both on again to hear more about this great work that you have coming up. Is there anything else that either of you didn't get a chance to mention that you want to have an opportunity to highlight about the work in your state?

00:21:01.64  >> Oh, I would say too, it's important for me to note the importance of working with IDEA Data Center, with IDC. And you didn't put me up to that. You didn't tell me to plug that. I promise, everyone, but I can tell you, for those of y'all who are familiar with the Data Center, and for those who are not, Tom Munk, Joanna Bivins, Heather Reynolds ... I could just go here all day and name folks with whom I've worked with. Nancy Johnson, formerly Nancy O'Hara, have been absolutely instrumental in the success sketch process and really offered me opportunities for me to network with folks like Brian with ... Obviously, Amy, with your leadership with that as well, and to say that we've done everything from doing the trainings on data through you all to ... The Success Sketch Rubric, we actually just started. This is going into our sixth year, actually using our Success Sketch Rubric. We were one of the first, as I understand it, to really undertake this process with our CCEIS districts, and it has grown. It has grown leaps and bounds and tremendously, and it has evolved over time. Here, recently, actually, just within the last week or so, I had Tom and Heather and Nancy Johnson here in the state alongside me training a brand-new district and a district who's been in a little bit longer than a year, and absolutely having them on my team to be able to say, "We have National Technical Assistance Partners here with you all today," to say, "This is how important we feel the work that you're doing is," and the fact of the matter is, we do PLCs [Indistinct] of our districts throughout the years, and we're looking at data constantly. We're also offering additional professional learning support during those times, and our IDC partners are there with us. So I swear that this is not a commercial for IDC, but I will say that it, for us, has been an absolutely positive experience, and we could not be ... I could not do the quality of work. We could not be, as a state, with this program where we are without the support and the expertise that IDC has offered us through the years.

00:23:27.85  >> Follow-up on Jared. So Jared talked about taking advantage of IDC, and those National Technical Assistance Centers, which I also agree with, but there's two other things that came to mind when you asked that. One is, take advantage of the expertise in your state. We all have people who are either experts or have ideas or are excited about doing this equity work in education, especially in 2022. Find those people, collaborate with those people, take advantage of their knowledge. Learn from them, learn with them. That will really help your significant disproportionality work grow. It will help your use of data grow, so I think that's really important to be able to do, to take advantage of. The other one is, don't be afraid to take risks, right? So we've tried plenty of things, these ideas that we've came up with are great suggestions from school leaders that might not have worked, but because we've tried so many different things and had different ideas, it's allowed us to find the ones that do work and have worked successfully over the last few years supporting schools and districts across the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

00:24:31.02  >> Great. Well, it was so fun to talk to both of you. I really enjoyed hearing about everything going on in your states, and thank you so much for being on the podcast.

00:24:42.74  >> Thank you.

00:24:43.07  >> Thank you.

00:24:43.67  >> Thank you. It was a pleasure.

00:24:46.56  >> To access resources, submit questions related to today's episode, or if you have ideas for future topics, we'd love to hear from you. The links are in the episode content. Or connect with us via the Podcast page on the IDC website at ideadata.org.

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