When Tennessee's Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) district began noticing continued challenges in student achievement, the state recommended it turn toward data -- and use data-driven decision-making to find both answers and solutions.

“It was difficult to get our hands around what the problems were,” said Laura Hansen, the district’s director of information management. “We were involved in random acts of improvements. Decisions weren’t done in a real collaborative, thoughtful way.”

To help drive student achievement, MNPS received a Race to the Top grant about four years ago for creating a data warehouse. MNPS leadership transitioned from using a robust technical tool to a program that new in-house staff could modify, keeping the district free from relying on vendors. Once the technical foundation was complete, the district conducted a close examination of how the tool would be used and who would use it.

“A lot of folks keep data and heavy analytics centered around leadership,” Hansen said. “Our strategy was to get data in the hands of teachers so they could drive improvement in the classroom.”

There are four primary ways MNPS uses district data to support student achievement.

1. Study individual, group and instructor data trends

Teachers, parents and leadership each use the data differently. Teachers are more likely to study a trend for a specific student and overall classrooms achievement. With this information, they may have a clearer picture of how to intelligently pair students and what kinds of intervention groups are necessary.

An administrator may look for teachers who are creating the quickest gains with students, and then pair these teachers with those who may be facing challenges.

2. Share student data with parents

Currently parents can view their child’s grades and attendance, but teachers share with them more extensive information and trends. MNPS includes more than 85,000 students, making security and role-based access an issue that is being given much attention.

“How do we manage accounts for every single parent?” said Hansen, “Managing a parent’s login and user name is challenging, so we’re looking at how to deliver data in an easy way.”

3. Use the data to predict student risk

One data set the district uses is of early warning indicators — such as attendance, grades and discipline — that can predict if students are at risk of dropping out of school.

“We can catch them early before things get worse,” Hansen said. “We can get a snapshot of a specific point in time so we don’t get to the end of the year and say, ‘Oh, what happened?’”

Hansen said that prior to using data to support students, the only scientific indicator was test scores, which were one-time snapshots at the end of the year. The ability to examine data allows district leadership, principals and teachers to be more flexible throughout the year and change course based on real needs.

4. Share data with after-school providers

One of the ways the district is working above and beyond students’ school days is to explore options for sharing data outside the district.

“Data sharing with partners wasn’t practiced,” Hansen said. “It’s a low-hanging fruit. Why not give people this information so that they can help our kids? It can be sketchy because of privacy rules, but when parents understand data is being shared to help their child, they are not opposed.”

MNPS shares data with Nashville’s Promise Neighborhood program, a federal program to improve the educational outcomes of children in distressed communities, so that providers can spend additional time talking through data with families. It’s also collaborated with the Department of Child Services for data and is currently working through some challenges to ensure more reliable data collection. The district is in discussion with the mayor’s office about how it can support social services and juvenile justice.

How does Hansen measure district achievement? “When I look at data reports and see more students succeeding for college and career readiness and fewer students struggling because their needs are being met," she said, "then that’s success.”