Minneapolis public school principals and teachers are getting mounds of new real-time student information to help them shape classroom teaching decisions.

The district is one of the first in the country to merge everything from attendance to test scores to discipline data into one easy-to-understand computer dashboard for teachers and administrators.

School officials are hoping the new information will help close what has been one of the largest achievement gaps in the country between whites and students of color. The information could also aid a district wrestling with dramatically disproportionate suspension rates of black males and low graduation rates for students of color.

“Our challenges are so great that we don’t have time to guess,” said Eric Moore, the district’s director of Research, Evaluation and Assessment, who is leading the initiative. “This is allowing us to make better decisions.”

Now teachers can monitor a student’s behavior, test scores, course work and even potential growth. The information is already revealing some startling trends.

Drill down to the school level and the information shows suspensions peak at 2 p.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 10 a.m. at Edison High School. Want to see which students received those suspensions? Just takes one click.

District officials always assumed troublesome student behavior peaked around the holidays, when students may be more emotionally vulnerable. But when they looked at the data, it showed suspension referrals were highest at the end of each quarter. That’s when teachers have piles of paperwork to complete.

Moore said central office administrators have no idea why those suspensions happen at that time, but when the data is presented to the school staff, “they can tell you just like that what’s going on,” said Moore, snapping his fingers.

Before the data dashboard, principals had to request information from Moore’s office, which could take days or even months, he said.

“We’ve grown as a system in terms of our appreciation of data and how it can be used,” Moore said. “We are moving from data for accountability purposes to data to support instruction.”

Aimee Guidera, founder and executive director of the Data Quality Campaign, a nonprofit group that advocates for easy access to educational data, commended Minneapolis for its efforts.

“It drives decisionmaking and drives actions,” she said. “It drives achievement.”

The goal is to equip the school leaders with these trends and bits of information instantaneously so they can then make immediate changes and adjustments.

At Loring Elementary, principal Ryan Gibbs noticed suspensions were highest for his 4th- and 5th-graders and they usually happened right after lunch.

Those students went straight from recess to lunch then to a specialized class like art, science or technology.

“We built a completely different type of schedule and we’ve seen a huge decrease in suspensions in that afternoon period,” Gibbs said.

Students now go back to their main classroom before they head off to a specialist.

Academic interventions

Principals can also track student growth on standardized tests.

Moore said before the district created the dashboard, administrators never would have detected a student who was exceeding state standards but whose growth was tapering. Without a change, the student would no longer be proficient two or three years down the line.

“A lot of times we miss those students because we are so focused on students who are not proficient or partly proficient,” Moore said. “We can prevent that slide and come up with interventions earlier so we don’t lose that student.”

The new system isn’t only for tracking student performance and discipline. Principals and key central office staff can also have access to a dashboard that tracks teacher performance.

Gibbs, at Loring Elementary, said he uses it to better support his teachers.

“It helps drive my [professional development] decisions,” Gibbs said. “A particular grade level may need support in reading, so I can do that.”

The district is also working to create a public dashboard for parents and other community members to see broader district and school level trends. No private information on students or teachers will be released to the public.

Moore said they have been able to land private grants to pay for most of the new system.

The district paid $145,000 as a start up cost to Tableau Software, a company that provides the data visualization technology for the district to create the dashboards. It will cost the district $30,000 each year to continue its 700 licenses. If the district chooses to expand the number of licenses, total start up costs could top out at $400,000.

School officials are already exploring more ambitious uses for the data and dashboard software system. Moore said he has been meeting with the teachers union to discuss what data teachers want to access.

“The teacher doesn’t have the time to hunt around for different pieces of data,” Moore said. “What we are trying to do is create more time for that teacher to get that information with greater ease.”