Interview with Abbie Forbus: One Way Data is Being Used in Schools to Personalize Services to Students

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Drake Bryan and Abbie Forbus discuss how data can be used to help personalize learning and services for students in a competency-based learning environment. Data is being used in every profession across the globe to expedite services, to increase product effectiveness, to predict consumer desires, and so much more. How and why is data being used in schools across America and where do educators face barriers? I’ve asked my colleague, Abbie Forbus, Lead Learning Designer and Facilitator, to speak about how she used data in her former position at Lindsay Unified School District as a counselor and later as the Dean of Culture.

Drake: Hi, Abbie. Thanks for joining me! On what looks, feels, and sounds like a rainy, chilly, Cincinnati day in early May.

Abbie: No problem, I’m glad to be here.

Drake: Now, let’s be honest with our readers. You are actually speaking to me from Dallas, where I assume you are enjoying nicer weather?

Abbie: (Laughter) Yes, I can’t complain!

Drake: Well, let’s get down to it, shall we?

Abbie: Fire away.

Can you briefly tell me about your former position at the Lindsay Unified School District?

I was a high school counselor for six years at Lindsay High School and then went on to be Dean of Culture where I helped learners with academic and/or social needs.

What data systems did you use and were they used across the district?

We used Empower by 3 Shapes to monitor learner progress data and Aeries was our student information system. Both are used district-wide.

What indicators did you utilize to identify at-risk students?

The two biggest indicators we used were, one, data that signified students were behind pace for the target graduation date and, two, data that identified students that were behind pace in a current course. Our goal was to catch learners who were falling behind in a course and offer interventions and supports to prevent them being behind for graduation.

After the data system identified students who needed extra supports, what actions would you take?

We offered lots of interventions that we tried to tailor to the needs of the learner. Examples of interventions include tutoring in the after-school program; extra support during weekly “Personalized Learning Time,” a flextime offered to all learners during the school day, spring break and summer interventions and parent meetings.

What challenges did you face with the data systems available?

We often struggled with getting all the information we needed in one report. Sometimes the information we needed was stored in the SIS and sometimes it was stored in the learning management system (LMS). Getting information together that would help us make the best data-driven decisions sometimes took a while, but was worth it if it helped us better meet the needs of each learner.

Did you have to do any communications with the community and families to help them understand the supports?

Yes, our parent population was mostly Spanish-Speaking and lacking computer literacy, therefore communication with parents was most effective when we reached out to them via phone or in person. The Lindsay community wanted their children to be successful in school and was very receptive to extra support for their learners.

In an ideal world, what data or data system would have allowed you to do your job better?

If all our systems could talk to each other, that would have been great! Sometimes we had to hand enter information from a program that we were using just so it could be stored in a place where learners and learning facilitators could access it, and could easily be queried. For example, we would use Reading Plus and Scholastic Reading Inventory for literacy data but had trouble getting this info in a place where it could be accessed by each of the eight learning facilitators a learner might have in high school. And then to go a step further we were looking to pull reading levels of learners by period class alongside their English language level, a report that would take several days using loads of queries from several systems.

Is there a difference in the role that data use plays in a competency-based education (CBE) school when compared to a traditional school?

The biggest difference I noticed in Lindsay’s journey from traditional to CBE is that in CBE the data is continuously changing, since you are looking at growth not set grades. As a high school counselor in a traditional system, it was “easy” to pull the D and F list at the end of each grading period. However, in a CBE system a D and F list does not exist. We would look at progress or lack thereof. Once we got a list of learners who were not making significant progress, we would drill-down even further and figure out where each learners’ gaps were and which interventions would be appropriate.

Can you describe the advantages of being able to provide students with personalized data-driven services?

As a counselor, it’s so refreshing to be able to look at the whole child and have a conversation with them to see how we can best meet their needs. Generally, we found that our high school learners knew exactly what they needed to do to get back on pace; this is a byproduct of a transparent curriculum. The counseling team empowered learners to choose appropriate interventions based on individual needs and the number of targets they needed to complete.

Drake: Abbie, thank you for answering my questions and giving our readers a little taste of how and why education professionals are using data and where barriers may exist.

Abbie: It’s been my pleasure!