SSWN Top 5: Questions to ask of your SSW data to tell your “Data Story”
Often when we think of data-informed decision making we think of a singular process of looking at data. But it is much more than that. How we approach our data and which questions we ask can help define both its importance and usability. Today we are going to go into a little more detail about different levels of data questioning.
Each step provides a more sophisticated approach and the further we go into asking questions the more targeted our data-informed decision making can become. Each level is useful for a specific purpose, so knowing what you want to know upfront can save time, headaches, and even improve data-informed decision making.
Generally, when we start as school social workers or working with others who want to use their data, the first level of question we might hear is, “I have data and I want it to show this …” This data often doesn’t align and isn’t going to tell the story that we want. This can be about trying to fit an answer into our data. Perhaps we are interested in looking at the effectiveness of school social work services but the data we have tells us how many services we’ve provided. While that data is interesting and useful for some things, it is not for answering the questions we might want to be answered. In this example, we don’t know how these services produced any outcomes toward student success.
A second way to look at the data is to ask, “What does this data tell me?” This level of questioning involves taking a look at the data you have and seeing what insights you can glean from the data. It also means going in with no preconceived notions of what the data says but rather analyzing and letting the data guide the story. Maybe you will notice some trends in the data that you can then connect to school social work services or explanations of why students might be struggling.
Moving a step further, we might start with a question and then ask, “What data do I need to answer this question?” This is starting with the end in mind and then figuring out what data will best answer what you want to know or show. In this level of questioning, we are starting with the end in mind and figuring out what we need to answer that question. There are a host of factors to consider here, including what you have access to, how easy it will be to collect, which impacts you have control over, etc. We don’t want to use data that isn’t directly impacted by our work to speak for our outcomes. If you are running a group in a school your direct impact might be what they learned, with the idea of an application being a little further down the line. Keep in mind, we are looking at a very narrow data focus usually centered on one question.
The next level of data questioning involves thinking more broadly about supporting initiatives that begin to impact a broader host of questions. At this level, we might ask “What do I need to support those around me (principals, departments, or initiatives)?” This type of questioning may involve processes (how things are being done) or outcomes, however, they are not limited to a single question. Rather we begin to look holistically at the issue and all of the factors that might influence the outcome. We might want to address chronic absenteeism in a school and want to look at all of the reasons why and which solutions are working best.
Finally, we may look at the broadest level and begin to think about “What does a comprehensive data system look like?” In this highest level of questioning, we are working to integrate data, data collection, and data analysis into an overall data-informed decision-making approach to school social work services. This encompasses embedded processes for collecting, analyzing, and using data to make informed decisions. When we begin to look at this level of data questioning it involves planning ahead for how we ensure that data is part of a regular process in school social work services.
No matter where you are on your data journey, thinking about how to link the work we are doing in schools with specific outcomes can provide a stronger case for the effectiveness of school social work services. The challenge for each of us is to make this connection as one of the first things we do as we consider our work. This upfront planning can pay huge dividends as school social work marches forward in using data to inform our decision making.