The Data Always Tells a Story

By Patrick Zoccali, Senior Data Analyst

In working with independent schools, faith-based organizations, and nonprofits, it has been enlightening to see how data always tells the story of how a given institution is performing. As a senior data analyst at Measuring Success, one of my jobs is to look at the numbers and discern what is really happening. Sometimes we are contacted to ensure that an institution stays on track. Sometimes we are hired to help a school make necessary course corrections to maintain long-term viability.

Let’s look at two examples: School A is a successful school that is hoping to stay on-track. School B has had a long history of success but has seen declining enrollment and heard from one too many dissatisfied parents in recent years.

School A is humming along with a steady faculty and staff, low student attrition, healthy enrollment at the entry grades, strong inbound inquiries, and supportive funding coming in from the alumni and business communities. On the surface, it would seem a school like this would have little need for a big data solution. What problem are we going to come in and solve?

These kinds of schools usually want to ensure that their current success holds into the future.

For School A, what is important is not to make a lot of changes, but to be aware of the trends among their students, faculty, parents, and alumni over time. In these cases, we may be engaged over several years to survey parents, students, or alumni (or all three) to determine if the school is maintaining confidence among parents, strong academics for students, and positive long-term outcomes for alumni.

One such school is a 9th through 12th grade independent co-ed day school in the South. Each year, we ask both parents and alumni about the school administration, academic rigor and preparedness, and quality of life.

Tracking their performance every year paints a clear picture on any trends that may appear in parent and alumni feedback. This enables the school to consistently measure the progress and effectiveness of any new initiatives or curriculum changes. Simultaneously, the school can also identify areas that may be declining or performing comparatively worse to proactively address the issue before it becomes a significant detractor.

Having a targeted set of questions and comprehensive data over a number of years can be much more powerful than simply having parents and alumni answer a couple general satisfaction questions and then evaluating performance based off a simple Net Promoter Score (NPS).

While a NPS can be useful for educational markets where word-of-mouth carries significant weight, it does not effectively represent the distribution of sentiment or provide insight into the motivation behind a person’s particular response. If a school wants to know what is really going on, a simple formula based on a few questions of who is happy and who is not does not provide enough information to lead to satisfactory decision-making for administrators.

On the other hand, let’s look at School B. It has been around for a long time and is located in a vibrant community, but has seen a slippage in applications and enrollment. It could be they’ve also lost students to a competitor school and they’re under capacity in some of the upper grades that aren’t the usual entry points for new students (aside from out-of-town transfers).

In these circumstances, we are an unbiased third party that provides security for parents to ensure that their feedback and input will remain anonymous to the school. This helps to uncover the most candid answers. Sometimes this feedback isn’t what a school wants to hear. Often, the news is good and indicates that the administration needs to double down on what they are doing right instead of focusing on what they are doing wrong.

We had an independent school client with a concern that being religiously affiliated was turning parents off and keeping them from applying and enrolling. After we conducted a survey, we found that the religious aspect of the school was a real asset to parents, who were looking for that as a main selling point.

In an independent school that serves special needs students in a major metropolitan area, it was determined that one of the strongest factors driving inbound inquiries was referrals from physicians. We helped the school to create a plan for cultivating deeper relationships with those medical professionals from whom parents were seeking advice and input on educational opportunities for their children.

Using data visualizations, we get to tell a detailed story about the data for our clients that makes the information we deliver engaging, easy to navigate, and – most importantly – actionable. If you haven’t yet, please check out Daniel Kapavik’s blog on data visualizations.

Patrick Zoccali is a senior data analyst at Measuring Success.