Perfect Recipe for Low-Stress School Data Analysis

By Maya Sussman, director of product

When my friend asked what I could bring to her Halloween picnic I texted back without a moment’s hesitation: dessert! I was planning to go dressed as a finalist from the Great British Baking Show, so a beautifully-decorated cake practically was my costume.

I spent the week leading up to Halloween watching reruns from Cake Week for inspiration, while packing my apartment for my upcoming move. I carefully packed my baking supplies at the top of a box labeled “Kitchen,” so I’d be able to find them when I arrived at my new place the day before the picnic. 

But as is often the case when it comes to baking (at least for me), I was overly optimistic in my planning. By the time the movers had left it was almost 6pm. I was tired, sweaty, and hungry, and I had no idea which of the 8 boxes stacked in my kitchen held my baking supplies.

I’d imagined that baking this cake would be a nice distraction from moving, that it would help me feel relaxed and accomplished. But at this point I just felt stressed. So I did what I knew would actually make me feel relaxed and accomplished — I took a shower, ate some dinner, unpacked a few boxes, and went to sleep.

The next morning I left 15 minutes early so I could stop by the bakery and pick up a pre-made cake. The cake I bought was delicious, it perfectly completed my costume, and I felt absolutely no regrets about my decision to not bake my own cake.

Delicious, easy, no-fuss… analysis and reporting

When it comes to school data, our instinct is often that more is better. Got a tough decision to make? Want to prove your program is working? Need to convince your funders to support a new initiative? Just gather a whole bunch of spreadsheets and voila, the data will make your decision, prove your point, and raise your funding. 

But the truth is the data is just the raw ingredients. It’s only as useful as what we make out of it. In an ideal world, we would all have the time and skills to make something new and compelling out of our school data for each decision or meeting in front of us. We’d turn our raw ingredients into an elaborate cake for each occasion. They’d be inspired by the latest culinary trends and meet the unique dietary preferences of our intended audience. 

If you enjoy baking and have a few hours to spare, then by all means, bake the perfect cake for the occasion! But there’s a reason that store-bought cakes exist. So those of us without the time or the skills to bake a unique cake for every occasion don’t have to show up empty-handed. We can browse the display case expertly filled by the professional bakers, and chances are we’ll find a pre-made cake that meets our needs.

Maya’s Secret Recipe for Crowd-Pleasing Data Analysis

In my role as the director of product, I like to think of the reporting I build on the ParentPowered dashboard as a set of pre-made cakes. We know how busy education administrators are, and we also know that analyzing school data, like math more generally, can be stressful for a lot of adults.

Through this work, I’ve learned a lot about what you, the administrator, needs from your reporting. So here are the steps in my recipe for Delicious, Low-Stress Family Engagement Reports. We’ve followed these steps to build out our ParentPowered dashboard, and we hope they’ll help you and your team with any report you need to create.

Step 1: Start by Knowing What You Need

Knowing what you need is ESSENTIAL to creating something useful with your data. You wouldn’t start mixing your baking ingredients without a dish in mind and a plan for making it! So before you dig into your school data, decide what your end goal is.

Start by naming the questions on your mind. What do you need to know in order to make the decision in front of you? What outcomes will convince your community to continue supporting your work? This is particularly true if you’re asking a team to give you the insights you need for a presentation or big decision.

My first step when adding new data to the ParentPowered dashboard is to think about what’s really important to administrators. I talk to partners, learn about their reporting requirements, and hear their requests. I learn what matters to them when it comes to reporting on their family engagement efforts.

This includes some more general questions, such as:

  • How many families are we supporting through our family engagement programming?
  • What family engagement activities are most useful to our parents?
  • How many community resources do my families have access to?

And also more specific questions, like:

  • Which of my families’ phone numbers stopped working this month?
  • How many families am I reaching from the lowest-income zip codes in my area?
  • Which community resources are families accessing the most?

Step 2: Explore Your Chart-and-Graph Options

If you’re really in the mood for a pie, cake just won’t do. It’s the same with your charts and graphs! So once you’ve got your questions in mind, the next step is to figure out what kind of information would answer those questions.

For our team, the goal is to find the simplest way to present family engagement data so that partners can quickly, easily answer these questions and many more. I like to think back to the question we’re trying to answer, and imagine how I might answer it in conversation if I just had one sentence. (“Families have access to 50 community resources” or “The activities families find most helpful are…”.) Then I think about what kind of visual would convey that answer to the viewer as clearly as possible.

Matching the graphs to the questions gives us confidence that partners get answers to the key questions they have to answer. One of the questions we know administrators want answered is, “What do our parents think of our family engagement activities?” We mulled on how to most effectively answer that question in the dashboard, and we came up with these survey charts:

We know we’ve hit our goals when we’ve not only answered their question, but done it in a way that saves them time and spreadsheet anxiety. Some product teams might strive for fancy graphics or complex automations, but for us, phrases like “so simple,” “easy to navigate,” and “not scary at all” are music to our ears. 

Step 3: Share and Enjoy!

Whether I’ve baked the cake myself or chosen the perfect one out of a bakery case, nothing compares to seeing the look of satisfaction on my friends’ and family members’ faces when they take their first bite. Once you’ve found a great way to present your school data, share it far and wide!

The best charts and graphs are the ones that speak for themselves, and don’t require an introduction or even a caption. So make sure to include labels, and a title that tells your audience what they’re looking at.

You can even title your chart, graph, or number with the question it answers!

I always assume our partners don’t have extra time to explain their family engagement data, so we designed the ParentPowered dashboard with sharing in mind. They can take screenshots, print a PDF, or download their one-page end of year report.

Step 4: Drop in a Comment Card

Sometimes you bite into that Red Velvet Cake and realize now you need a glass of milk. Sometimes when you provide a really interesting insight, it sparks even more questions. That can definitely happen in the world of reporting!

So make sure to provide your analytical team with that insight as soon as possible, so they can take it the next mile and keep the conversation going.

Gathering and organizing the right data takes time. So does figuring out how best to crunch the numbers. Knowing what you need will help your analytical team continuously improve.

Matching Questions to Visuals

Question: “How many families are in the program right now?”

Question: “Are we consistently increasing participation in our family engagement program?”

Question: “Out of all families, which grades are we getting the most participation from?”

Question: “Which enrollment event got the most non-English speaking families to join?”

Since it’s really important to us that the analytics we provide are useful, we spend a lot of time listening to partners and asking for feedback. For example, partners recently told us that providing more granular family engagement data was important to them. So we now indicate the number of families who participated in the survey and the month that the survey was conducted. That helps partners contextualize the results within their broader family engagement efforts.

Most of our partners are relieved that we’ve done the number crunching and answered their questions in a clear and concise way. But we have other partners who are eager to run their own analyses. So we made sure to also offer an option to download the raw data — the ingredients they need to bake their own cake.

Because when you know your question, how you want to answer it, and focus on simplicity, school data becomes a piece of cake!

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