How Derran Wimer and Summit Education Initiative use data to improve education

Summit Education Initiative is a backbone organization that takes complex data mined from Summit County public schools and turns it into information that leads to action. That’s easy to say but can be hard to explain, and SEI Executive Director Derran Wimer knows that not having an easily digestible description can be a detriment.

“The challenge we face is conveying what we do and the value we provide in a concise manner,” Wimer says.

Telling its own story might be hard, but the crux of its mission is to help county educators and education stakeholders — a laundry list of organizations, foundations and private businesses — connect complex, otherwise disparate data into a story that can be used to improve outcomes.

Connecting the dots

The nonprofit helps these stakeholders as they work toward a shared goal, which is for students to graduate ready for success in whatever their career pathway might be — from continuing education, a career right after high school or the military.

SEI and its four full-time employees work with leadership teams at schools within Summit County to aggregate data applicable to what a school or district is trying to measure. SEI then presents them with its findings, which generates conversations. School leaders can talk amongst each other about how their data compares, map the cradle-to-career trajectory of students within their system or see where continuous improvement plans need adjustment.

“We take them right to the edge of action,” Wimer says. “We believe that they know best how to work with their staff, their community and their kids to improve the results, whatever it is that they want.”

SEI also believes there’s power in networking, which is why programs such as Ready High School Network exists.

“These are teams from high schools that come together using their data that we have reformatted for them in a way that tells a story about their kids,” Wimer says. “We bring those teams together through what we call an action network where we’re looking at the data, studying the data and then we’re facilitating action planning around how they can move those numbers in the way that we want them to move.”

Sharing data can mean discovering better benchmarks, success indicators and warning signs. For instance, data may show that scoring at a certain level on the first grade standardized reading test can predict a moderate probability of meeting the third grade reading guarantee. The first grade children shown to only have a moderate probability of meeting that standard can be identified, and action can be taken to improve their scores.

“Our mission is to make sure kids, when they graduate from high school, have choices rather than consequences based on their education,” he says.

According to Wimer, students who graduate with an 18 or lower on the ACT often face a year of remedial classes in college for which they’re paying full tuition and receiving no credit. At the end of the first year of college there’s no college transcript because they’ve earned no credit. It can be said, then, that those students weren’t ready. That’s an example of an educational consequence.

If, however, a student graduates with a 21 or higher on the ACT, he or she is four times more likely to graduate in four years from a university than if he or she had less than a 21 on the ACT.

Avoiding educational consequences

“I would say that the entire system needs to be rethought in that manner,” Wimer says. “The idea that it’s OK for kids just to graduate from high school and meet the minimum requirements of earning enough credits and passing whatever the required state test might be in order to receive a diploma, and then assuming that that will be enough for that student to go on to a career, those days are gone.”

Work ethic, persistence and grit still matter greatly, he says, “but the system, the school systems, and all the youth-serving organizations that work with these kids also need to be helping set these aspirations and then equipping the kids with the tools and abilities to be able to reach a higher standard than what used to be OK. So the system has a lot to do with it. It has a great deal to do with it.”

Summit County schools have seen an increase from 37 percent of students scoring a 21 on the ACT to 41 percent from 2012 to 2014. Eighth grade math, however, is flat, and has been for three years. Third grade reading has gone up, but kindergarten readiness has stayed flat, though the number of children accessing preschool has increased.

“When we look at third grade reading, we’re not looking at minimum passing, we’re looking at how many kids scored at the upper level, the upper two categories of the test because we know that 90 percent of the kids who score at the highest level in the third grade reading test will then score at the highest level on the eighth grade math tests,” Wimer says. “And we know that 80 to 95 percent of the kids that score at that level on the eighth grade math test will score 21 on the ACT. So getting more kids on that trajectory for success early is huge for us. Huge for the kids, too.”