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Data-Driven Direction: Simple but Important Insights

by Dave Stanfield, Head of Research & Development, Council of International Schools

It was mid-2014, and CIS was deep in development mode, collecting perspective from members as we began to design our new International Accreditation Protocol, and at the same time, working closely with ten schools to pilot our new International Certification Service. In the midst of this development, I arrived at CIS in a newly created role, Head of Research and Development, one designed to ensure the integrity of the data we collect through our services to schools – and to purposefully share it in usable form to drive school improvement. The vital role of Research and Development in international primary and secondary education drew me to join CIS, where I’ve witnessed first-hand the huge opportunity we have to use data to support schools. My discussions with international school leaders and board members reflect their own realizations that effective decision-making and strategic planning should be informed by objective and contextually appropriate data, but many have told me they struggle to systematically and routinely integrate the use of data across their schools.

The concept of being a “data-driven school” is elusive and intimidating to many. School leaders ask themselves;

To help them begin to answer these questions, CIS launched Research Symposiums this year – to bring together school decision makers and university researchers to explore and debate critical aspects of international education. In 2016, our focus is on Intercultural Learning. These events will evolve to deepen understanding on this and other key topics in the future.

Engagement in CIS services such as CIS International Accreditation, 2016 and International Certification provides additional means to integrate data-driven assessment and resulting action in schools. In addition to myself, we have another full-time staff member dedicated to research and development along with 17 School Support and Evaluation Officers to ensure that these services are grounded in the latest research and support schools in making decisions informed by a diverse and reliable evidence base. As an organization, we collect a significant quantity of data from nearly 700 schools and we are committed to redistributing it in the aggregate to members to inform strategic decisions in areas such as student enrolment, tuition fees, and staff compensation.

In addition to relying on CIS services, our member schools use data in a number of creative ways. In reaching out to our members to learn about their experiences, David Willows, Director of Admissions and Advancement at the International School of Brussels, shared how the use of data does not have to be a complex undertaking (read more below). Many schools already have the data they need to answer important questions about strategic direction. Often, it’s just a matter of compiling existing data, conducting a basic analysis, and engaging in thoughtful interpretation. It certainly doesn’t always necessitate a PhD in educational measurement or an expensive consultant to gain important data-based insight that will lead to better-informed decisions.

David Willows, Director of Admissions and Advancement, The International School of Brussels

One of the lessons that we have begun to learn as an organization is the importance of data management.  Put simply, better management and analysis of data at ISB over the past 2 years has broadened our understanding of what is currently going on and, in the end we hope, enabled better decision-making on the part of the Board of Trustees and school management team.

Allow me to give an example.

International schools are notorious for their lack of institutional memory.  With 25-30% turnover in most schools every year, even amongst the Board of Trustees, it is often difficult to remember why decisions were taken or what happened as long as five years ago.  Faced with the threat of a downturn in enrolment, we therefore decided to take a 50-year perspective on school enrolment.  What this showed us was that enrolment had steadily increased over this time, but that there were a number of dips in this line graph that tended to last 2-3 years before new peaks were reached.  Critically, though, our moment of insight came when we began to see a direct correlation between these dips and major US or global recessions.  In short, every time there was a major economic recession, ISB experienced a downturn in enrolment that was staggered and lasted 2-3 years before steadily growing to a new ‘high’.

 A series of scenarios were then planned – from ‘business as usual’ (we ruled out the further growth scenario) to anything up to 30% drop in enrolment.

As a new school year opened that was only marginally short of ‘business as usual’, we began to look again at why we seemed to be bucking the trend of history.  Was it perhaps that the impact on our enrolment was still to come?  Was it that we had simply taken a larger share in a shrinking market?  We continue to think carefully about these questions.  However, as we dug deeper, we noticed two remarkable trends relating to the demographic make-up of our community that may well explain what was happening.

First, we continue to see a decline in the number of US families at ISB.  In 1999, US families comprised 42% of our community.  Today, whilst the US is our largest community and continues to be extremely well represented in all sections of the school, this percentage now stands at 20%.  And it is not at all the case that they are leaving ISB to another school.  Our colleagues in other international schools in Brussels are reporting as seeing the same kind of demographic shifts.

Second, we continue to see a rise in the number of local Belgian families joining ISB.  Five years ago, this figure was 5%.  Today, it is 13% - a 4 point rise even over the past 12 months.  And we are seeing the same increase amongst our French and Dutch communities – many of whom are choosing to relocate and live in Brussels for a variety of reasons, including the quality of the international schools in Belgium.

So what does this all mean?  It appears that the traditional notion of ISB as a school for globally mobile families is changing.  Today, in other words, we are perhaps not just a ‘local school for global families’.  We have also become a ‘global school for local families’ - responding to the growing number of local parents who want to offer their children a different kind of education in a truly international environment.

Our inquiry into the role of data in schools has really only just begun at ISB and is taking us in a number of directions – from the development of a school-wide data dashboard to questions about the use and role of KPIs in a learning environment.  What is clear, though, is that the new economic reality that we now face is only going to drive us further in this direction in the future.  We cannot any longer be blown around by the winds of chance with our fingers crossed.

Posted by CIS on Tuesday March, 1, 2016

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