In May 2019, along with three colleagues from our foundation, I traveled to Cambridge, MA to celebrate the 10th anniversary of one of our grantee partners, the Strategic Data Project (SDP), which is led by the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University. SDP seeks to improve the use of data-based decision making in education by placing highly trained data professionals into nonprofit or government organizations.

Since its inception, the fellowship has placed over 250 data strategists in school districts, charter networks, state agencies, and other organizations across the country and around the world to bring high-quality research methods and data analysis to education management and policy decisions.

Annice Correia Gabel, SDP Fellow for New England Basecamp, shares her Capstone Project.

Providing targeted funding to improve grantees’ data capacity has been a key strategy for us. It allows us to help grantees improve their ability to access and use data to learn and improve, while also helping us understand if our investments are having a measurable impact.

Under this strategy, we have placed data fellows with three high-potential grantee partners (New England Basecamp, EdReports, and CityBridge Education) and supported existing data leads from Highlander Institute and the Center for Leadership and Educational Equity to join the SDP program. We’re hoping to fund even more fellows in the coming years.

Danielle Blasczak, SDP Fellow for Highlander Institute, stands in front of her Capstone Project presentation.

Through our work with each fellow, we’ve learned seven valuable lessons about changing and building an organization’s data culture, practices, and values. I’m excited to share those lessons with you today:

  1. Nonprofits need support establishing the fundamentals of data practices. While there are many exciting projects a data professional can take on, our fellows have found that laying a strong foundation at the beginning really pays off in the long term–e.g. organizing existing data, merging data files, streamlining data definitions, establishing quality control practices for data entry (how and when), and setting up data storage. These steps ensure organizations have access to data that are meaningful and can be used to support important decisions. “My primary objective is that the data are meaningful,” explained Annice C.G., an SDP fellow at New England Basecamp who designed a new dashboard and upgraded existing data systems that allowed the organization’s coaches to collect meaningful data on how they support their schools, without creating an extra burden on them or the teachers. The fellows we’ve funded have been key in helping our nonprofit partners understand where best to start in establishing their data practices, and how to develop a plan from there.
  2. Being successful in a data role is about facilitating great adult learning. While the immediate responsibility of a data leader is about data collection and analysis, it was clear to our fellows that to create a sustainable data culture, their roles had to also focus on mastering adult learning. Often, that meant training others in their organizations, which included senior leadership, to interpret and use data effectively in order to inform decision making.
  3. Organizations that struggle to define their impact hypotheses and priority data can start by articulating a theory of change. For organizations that are relatively new or adopting new strategies, it may be difficult to define what data to collect. At CityBridge Education, SDP fellow Savannah G. tackled this by designing and leading workshops that helped the organization define a theory of change. The theory of change was then used to inform what data to collect. “The work of generating buy-in from all staff is critical to the success thus far of our theory of change process,” she explained.
  4. Using data on an ongoing basis is key to making lasting improvements. Data leaders can make the most impact in organizations that are able to reflect on drawbacks and are willing to improve. “We’ve used data as a flashlight to shine a light on issues in the field,” Savannah G. pointed out. “Now, we need to also use data as a mirror to reflect on our own work and how we can increase our impact.” The most impactful organizations regularly reflect on their data to make decisions about how to move forward and they do so on an ongoing basis versus as a task that can be checked off on a to-do list.
  5. Establishing strong personal relationships is key to accessing meaningful data from districts. Securing data sharing agreements (DSAs) and getting the teacher or student-level data that is needed to determine the efficacy of work is often a big challenge due to privacy concerns and political timelines (e.g. superintendent turnover, bureaucratic policies, etc.). Our fellows have found that the personal relationships they form are often the most powerful tool to defuse these systematic challenges.
  6. Seeing the impact of building an organization’s data capacity takes time. Over the two years we have funded SDP fellows, we have seen improvements in organizations’ data collection, quality, and capacity. For example, organizations are collecting more data through agreements they have secured with districts and relationships with teachers, their data is better organized within systems, and they are more targeted in the analysis they do and the data they collect. Nevertheless, the organizations still have more work to do to translate improved data collection to a sustained culture of data-driven decision making. “An organization needs push-back from within and realistic timelines [to build a data culture],” said Danielle B., an SDP fellow from Highlander Institute who worked on creating effective tools for classroom observation during her fellowship.
  7. Being part of a network provides crucial support and boosts the impact of individual data leaders. In addition to funding, SDP provides fellows with training and change management tools that prepare the fellows to work in organizations and take on adaptive challenges. Being a part of a cohort of data leaders also allows the fellows to exchange ideas and learn from each other versus being the only “data person” in an organization. Additionally, each fellow’s Capstone Project at the end of the two-year fellowship creates accountability to work towards a deliverable that is tangible and transferrable beyond two years of work.

We’re incredibly proud to support the Strategic Data Project and believe these fellows play key roles in supporting our grantees in building their data capacity. Better data means better decision making, which leads to stronger communities, schools, and futures.

A group photo of Cohort 9 fellows from the Strategic Data Project.