Data Dashboards 101

Alison Cumming, Wickenden Associates
September 8, 2019

Independent school Boards don’t actually lack for data—what they are missing is context and meaningful analysis. Particularly in areas related to the core mission of teaching and learning, trustees (most of whom are not educators) find themselves stymied as they grapple with their responsibility to monitor and support improvement in the school’s performance. Specifically, they are asking:

  • How do we measure the true impact of the education we provide—the value we add after we take into account the many elements that are outside of the school’s control?
  • Is there a way to aggregate individual student academic and non-academic experiences to understand how we graduate students consistent with our mission?
  • How do we incorporate the views of various constituencies (parents, students, faculty, young alumni, and prospective families) into our deliberations and decision making?

Many trustees are accustomed in their professional lives to reviewing performance metrics. So it’s not surprising that they are asking their Heads to generate similar tools.

As an oversight and policymaking body, the Board of Trustees can meaningfully employ well-designed dashboards to support the following key responsibilities:

  1. Monitor performance against its policy directives
  2. Monitor performance and progress toward strategic goals
  3. Evaluate the extent to which the school is accomplishing its stated mission
  4. Monitor institutional health and viability
  5. Benchmark the school against peer institutions

Metrics included in the dashboards can take several forms: historical trends, comparisons across grades or divisions, performance against external benchmarks (peer schools or association data), performance against targets set by the Board and/or administration, student experiences, and constituent input. All of these data can be truly enlightening to Boards eager to understand how effectively the school is accomplishing its mission.

But data-driven governance carries potential dangers as well. Bombarding trustees with a blizzard of facts and figures can actually distract the Board’s attention from big-picture performance measures by encouraging detours into interesting but ultimately unrewarding debates or by over relying on static performance measurements (test scores, win-loss records, selectivity of college placements).

The essence of a dashboard is the distillation of data so that the truly important emerges. Thoughtfully developed dashboards can lead to real improvements in the school’s program, since determining what you intend to measure, says a lot about what you value and, ultimately, how you want the school to change. The challenge is to design dashboards that productively engage both the Board and the faculty/administration in a united effort to promote continuous improvement in your educational outcomes and in the experience of your students.

Well-designed dashboards can inform Board governance in many ways:

  • At-A-Glance Metrics Dashboard, consolidating enrollment, admissions, budgetary, and fundraising data.
  • Strategic Planning Dashboard to periodically monitor progress toward the accomplishment of goals and action steps.
  • Annual or Semi-Annual Dashboards for major areas of school operations: admissions and financial aid, budget compliance, college placement, diversity initiatives, standardized testing, fundraising, endowment performance, etc.
  • Policy Dashboards, aggregating relevant data to inform the Board’s decision-making about a proposed policy change. For example, a Board considering a proposal to eliminate the AP program would benefit from a dashboard with data about participation, performance, college credit received by students and recent graduates, peer school benchmarks, and constituent satisfaction data.

Finally, dashboards must be visually well designed. The most effective charts and graphs are data-intensive but not visually cluttered—not always an easy balance to strike. A confusing presentation of data can strip your dashboard of value. Charts are most informative when they integrate information from multiple sources (e.g., peer school data in addition to in-house data) or supply a context in which to evaluate the data (e.g., changes over time). Ideally, each chart included in your dashboard should tell a story.

To ensure that dashboards are accurate, readable, and context-rich, seek in-house or outside expertise in information design. Two excellent resources are Edward Tufte, author of The Visual Display of Quantitative Information and several other books, and Stephen Few, author of Information Dashboard Design and many other informative publications.

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