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data driven decision

With Over 60 percent of school districts considering staff reductions to balance budgets (Kober & Renter, 2011), class size is likely on many educators' minds. With money tight, schools are seeking to focus available funds on those policies and programs most likely to have a positive impact on student learning. Although the effects of class size have been debated for decades, Tennessee's STAR project in the late 1980s seemed to settle the argument.

Failure Is Not an Option is not just the title of a best-selling book; it's a mantra for many high-performing districts. The Mansfield (Texas) Independent School District adopted this motto in 2007 and hasn't looked back.

The district—the second-largest in Texas with over 35,000 students—was far from low-achieving, although it was experiencing rapid change with the addition of over 2,000 students each year. Located outside Dallas, Mansfield has had to add a new school each year for the last 13 years to keep up with enrollment. It currently has 40 schools.

When Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced the Race to the Top program in 2009, he added two success factors to the plate of school districts, which are traditionally measured by students’ high school success in math, reading and science: college enrollment rates and credit accumulation. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which launched Race to the Top, asks states to set up a longitudinal data system to report back on students’ progress after they receive their diplomas.

As districts collect increasing amounts of information on their students, from assessment scores to attendance records, many are finding new and better ways to use the information to catapult student achievement. They are implementing solutions such as data warehouses and data dashboards, electronic tools for storing, viewing and analyzing data, which provide immediate updates on everything relevant to their students, and adjusting instruction accordingly.

"Children with disabilities will only meet their potential if they have effective teachers," says John O'Connor, executive director for special services at DeKalb (Ga.) County School System, a metropolitan Atlanta school district in the second-largest county in the state.

Through an intense collaborative effort, O'Connor has helped reinvent instruction for special education students who, combined with ELLs, amount to about 17 percent of the total student population.

Houston, we have an opportunity.

Detroit is the next city to throw away the administrative reins and open the doors for an all-teacher-led school. Serving pre-K through eighth grade and roughly 450 students, the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy (P3A) will open in Detroit Public Schools this fall— sans principal—replacing the Barbara Jordan Elementary School, which closed in spring 2010 to become a turnaround school after being identified as low performing. The school, which DPS students and families will apply to, is modeled after similar schools in Boston, Milwaukee, Denver and Los Angeles.

"What have you done for me lately?"

“Give the people what they want!” That could be the slogan for the Digital Door Project at Denver Public Schools (DPS).

When the district decided to gather the data from shelves, binders, books, and warehouses and turn them into something useful, the first step was financing. The Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, and a general bond provided the necessary funding.

“Once funding was in place, we started working with focus groups to outline their data needs and connect it to the curriculum,” says Connie Casson, deputy strategy officer.

In districts with Hispanic populations, English language learning is a priority, particularly in the elementary grades, which many students enter still speaking Spanish as their primary language. In affiliation with the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), a private, non-profit organization focused on reducing poverty and discrimination and improving opportunity for Hispanic Americans, about 100 community-based charter schools serve districts like these across the United States.