A Date with Data
Rookie Season Recap: Two New Data Managers Describe Their First Year
October 13, 2022
At some point, every one of us has been new at something. A hobby. A job. A relationship. On this episode of A Date with Data, host Amy Bitterman talks about first steps and initial impressions with the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction’s Alyssa Kramer and Part B data management coordinator with the West Virginia Department of Education, Traci Tuttle. From internal data collection and reporting to strategies for other new data managers, together Alyssa and Traci discuss tips, resources, and EDFacts file specifications, all from the newbie perspective. Whether you’re a rookie listener or seasoned veteran, this is one play-by-play you won’t want to miss.
SEA Data Processes Toolkit | IDC - IDEA Data Center
LEA Data Processes Toolkit | IDC - IDEA Data Center
File Specifications -- EDFacts

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### Episode Transcript ###

00:00:01.52  >> You're listening to "A Date with Data" with your host, Amy Bitterman.

00:00:07.34  >> Hey, it's Amy, and I'm so excited to be hosting "A Date with Data." I'll be chatting with state and district special education staff who, just like you, are dealing with IDEA data every day.

00:00:19.50  >> "A Date with Data" is brought to you by the IDEA Data Center.

00:00:25.22  >> Welcome. Today, I am joined by Alyssa Kramer, Special Education Regional Coordinator with the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction, and Traci Tuttle, the Part B Data Management Coordinator with the West Virginia Department of Education. Both Alyssa and Traci are newer Part B Data Managers, and we're having them on today to reflect on their experiences as they've taken on this role and also hear some lessons learned that might be useful for other new, as well as probably even experienced, data managers. Alyssa, let's start with you. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how long you've been in the role?

00:01:01.06  >> I started last October, so almost a year now. It's been about 11 months. I was formerly a special education teacher for 6 years and have been a teacher for 14 years.

00:01:14.95  >> Thanks. How about you, Traci?

00:01:16.78  >> I have been in just a little bit longer than Alyssa. I started last May of 2021, so just slightly over a year. And like Alyssa, my background is a special education teacher, and I actually came from higher education, and so from teacher preparation. So a switch to the role.

00:01:38.83  >> Yes, but both of you come with that great field in classroom experience, which I'm sure has really been helpful in this newer role, even though it's been, now, about a year for both of you. So congratulations.

00:01:50.63  >> Thanks.

00:01:51.21  >> Thanks.

00:01:52.56  >> And having been now for about a year doing this work, can you share what you wish you had known when you first started out as a data manager?

00:02:02.34  >> Sure, so I think the biggest things that I wish I had had more information on were some of the reporting timelines, not really the federal pieces, but what we did at the state, because for us those don't always line up. We usually have things collected far before when they are due federally, so that shifted what I actually did. The other thing I didn't have right away was who or where to get information from. So it took a little bit of time to figure out who were in the roles or ... and I don't know if this is ... I think it's kind of what happens in most states at this point, but those roles switch, and so who used to do something is no longer there. And it took me a little bit of time to figure out who I was supposed to be talking to. The other thing I wish I would've known is a little bit more about what other states do. So I don't think I started picking up on the differences in how states collect until maybe about 6 or 7 months into my position, and that's been very helpful for me, actually, because it gives me reassurance that it's not always wrong what we do. It's just different sometimes, so that I did wish I had known far sooner. And the other thing that has been most helpful, I think, in the last probably 3 or 4 months is I've established some relationships with our LEAs, so our local educational agencies, and I'm starting to understand a little bit better how they do things and what their procedures are. And that definitely plays a role in the quality of data we get and how we're getting it from them, so understanding about what they do to get information to us has been incredibly helpful towards the end of this first year.

00:04:01.53  >> Great, so a lot of those kind of internal processes and having to figure those out, especially as things are always changing. New people coming into the role, the roles themselves changing, and that point, too, about it's not just learning your role and learning the steps and what the data are, but building those relationships that are really critical, too, with your districts. Thanks, Traci.

00:04:23.38  >> Absolutely.

00:04:24.76  >> Alyssa, what about you?

00:04:26.20  >> First, I would agree with everything that Traci said. But one thing for me that I wish I would've known before is just that there's a whole side of special education that I had no idea existed. As a special education teacher, we are in the field with the students doing those ... the paperwork pieces, the documenting pieces, but I don't think I ever knew where any of that data ended up, or where any of that ... what that data was used for at the state level. And so when I first started reading into and understanding all of the indicators ... I think on the field we always hear about Indicator 13, so we all know what that is, but there is Indicator 3 and Indicator 4. And just, I had no idea that that was a piece of data that the state had to collect and that the things I was doing in the field was contributing to those pieces. So that was ... Just that amount of information there is was eye-opening for me.

00:05:28.08  >> Yeah, and to see how that trickles in and what impact even just collecting that information on one child has all the way down up to the state level. And that's something I think we really focus on a lot at IDC, is how everybody plays a role in influencing the quality of their IDEA data, whether they really know it or not. So I think it's understanding that why and how the data are used and getting that out to the local level as much as possible.

00:05:55.59  >> Yup, absolutely.

00:05:57.20  >> Can you share any resources or support that you've really found to be the most helpful in learning this role as a data manager?

00:06:04.94  >> For me it's definitely been the data manager meetings and the discussions that they have monthly from IDC to WestEd to just all of those opportunities we have as data managers across the US can get together and talk and bounce ideas off and understanding what people are doing in other states. So that's been huge for me,. And just the openness of the veteran data managers, the willingness for them ... or the willingness they have to help the new data managers has just been incredible for me. So I felt really supported by that group in those meetings.

00:06:43.24  >> That's great to hear. Traci, what resources or supports would you mention?

00:06:48.30  >> Yeah, I agree with Alyssa. And my ... Just because Amy does it, but my favorite is the IDC Data Manager Connection. No, it's not just because you facilitate that, Amy, but I don't think I got onto the Data Manager Connection until I had been in my role for about 2 or 3 months. And that is one of the groups where I feel like I can ask what I think are dumb questions and be ... in realizing that it's probably not a dumb question. So I love all the groups, but some of them, I think, can be incredibly intimidating, especially, like Alyssa said, if you're coming from not a data background, from more of a classroom perspective and you don't have a good grasp on all the indicators because it's not been your world. That group, I think, is a very good group to get involved with. The other thing that has been really my saving grace have been the process documents. So IDC puts out the process documents, and same thing. I had been in my role for probably about a month or 2, and my EDFacts coordinator came up and introduced herself and handed me the process documents and said, "Do you know these exist?" And when I started reading those through ... Now, ours needed revision. They were a little bit out of date, but it was this incredible, glowing book that I think said, "Ah," at one point because it really ... Like I said, earlier with the reporting timelines and how we do things differently from the federal timelines, it outlined all of those ... It outlined all the people, and again, I still had to go figure out who had taken over roles, but it was my road map for figuring out what it was I was supposed to be doing.

00:08:47.07  >> Great. Yeah, those ... The purpose behind those, a big reason we ... IDC developed those and have been using it with states is for that turnover. And when you have a new data manager or others new to the role, then you have a lot of those internal processes documented and hopefully helping in your new role to get started. So great to hear how useful those are.

00:09:11.29  >> Yes, I'm not getting paid either. I really do encourage people to take a look at those and get those if you're not using them. They are just so helpful.

00:09:21.59  >> Do you have any advice for those new data managers who are just starting out?

00:09:27.09  >> I think if I had to boil it down to just one phrase it would be, ask if you're unsure. I know sometimes it can be very intimidating when you're taking a new role. You want everybody to think you know everything, but this is one of those roles that changes, or things are interpreted differently when we take a new look at it. So if it ... If you're not sure, it's really important that you ask. And I have found reading the EDFacts File Specifications ...

00:09:55.66  >> Such fun reading.

00:09:57.03  >> ... as boring as that seems, but it just ... if you can figure out ... One, they're an easy way, in my opinion, to start figuring out how to read the way the federal government writes. So it's ... A lot of what we do have technical documentation that are just written in a way that most people don't speak, and I feel like those file specifications, in my opinion, help you kind of ease your way into that kind of writing. And I think we talked a little bit in the last question, stay connected and be open to change. So those connections, I think, are so important. There's usually only a few or one person in our roles in each state, and people don't know what we do. So you try and talk to other people in your office, and they don't know. So yeah, staying connected and asking if you're unsure and trying to learn that new language of federal writing is great.

00:10:59.95  >> Yeah, I think that advice of no question is a dumb question, really, in this situation. That when you're just starting out, if you aren't ... If you're kind of even new to the state, to special education data, there's going to be a pretty steep learning curve, so ask lots of questions of other data managers, of the TA centers, all of that. What about you, Alyssa? What advice do you have?

00:11:25.31  >> To piggyback off Traci as well, there's been many times where I'm sitting in my cubicle myself reading the EDFacts specifications out loud, so I can try to just ...

00:11:35.39  >> Absorb them.

00:11:36.33  >> Yes, yeah. But those ... That information is very helpful. It looks intimidating at first, but as you kind of get to read through it, it is definitely very helpful. The one piece of advice I have for new data managers would be, be patient with yourself. I think some of us come in wanting to know everything right away. We want to be able to contribute to the team right away. And for me, I was a former teacher coming in now doing numbers in Excel spreadsheets, and that was intimidating. But our former data manager, he was a statistician and had no special education background or education background at all. And so whether you're coming from one background to the new one, or vice versa, just be patient with yourself. There's a lot of information to learn. And the one thing I noticed is I tried to learn everything all at once. I tried to learn every indicator. I tried to learn every piece of information I needed, but as I noticed is you can't really do that until that file is due or until that information comes in. Or for child count, you aren't really able to see what that really looks like until December when you're really working in it. And so just kind of being patient and learning piece by piece and not needing to learn everything all at once.

00:13:04.97  >> Right. Alyssa, can I just add to yours? I have said to people, "I don't know. That's not my world right now." Because there are so many indicators, and it's like, as a first year, second year, or I've said, "This is my first time through that. I'm still learning. Let me get back to you." It just ...

00:13:24.80  >> And that ... Yes. And that's tough, too. You've been in it for a year, but it's the first time you're seeing ... For me, it's focused monitoring. I've been in my role for 10 months, but now this is the first time I'm seeing this, so you feel new all over again.

00:13:40.87  >> Right, right.

00:13:41.60  >> Yes. Yes.

00:13:42.98  >> It's a whole year of being new all the time.

00:13:45.46  >> Yes, yes.

00:13:48.59  >> Yeah, and until you've even done things a couple times, that come around just once a year, it's still ... you're still learning, I'm sure, and trying to replicate and improve every time, too. So as I mentioned before on IDC, we talk a lot about being a data quality influencer and how all of us are data quality influencers. How would you say you influence the quality of your state's data?

00:14:12.50  >> So for me, it's really ... And I don't know if it's good or bad, right or wrong, but taking the data and bringing it back down to the district level or the unit level or putting students behind that data. Like I said before, our former data manager was a statistician, not a teacher, not an educator, and so for him it was just looking at the numbers. And so for me, I really want to take a look at the numbers and think, "Does that make sense? We have x number in this file. Does that even seem realistic?" And so for me, it's taking those numbers back down to the ... We have special education units in our state, and so taking it back down to the unit or even the district level and putting student names behind those numbers and really taking a look at the data in-depth that way.

00:14:59.53  >> Yeah, telling a story with the data, making it more personal.

00:15:02.63  >> Yup, absolutely.

00:15:03.14  >> I think we've all heard ... yeah, that that really helps to improve and understand and better use the data, if you kind of have those feelings behind it and know the importance. Traci, how do you influence the quality of your state's data?

00:15:19.77  >> Very similar to what Alyssa is talking about. My background is I'm that assessment nerd, and I believe in the assessment cycle. And that's what I did a lot of in my teacher preparation program is getting future teachers to understand the importance of assessment and using the data to drive and better your instruction. And so that's the approach I bring to my role as data manager, is to make sure that we are getting the data back to the LEAs as quickly as we can and in a format that they can easily understand. So they're able to apply it, make decisions and improve, especially with our results, indicators but actually make some progress on the results for the students. And the other thing that I've been finding, again since I'm just over a year now, is improving what's being put in. Because I don't know if our LEAs really understand that what we are giving back to them is coming from them.

00:16:22.77  >> Mm-hmm.

00:16:23.13  >> So we will get complaints on our graduate rate is wrong. "Where did you come up with these?" And it's like, "Well, that's what you gave me." And there are certain edit checks that we do, and so really working with getting the LEAs and our directors to understand the process of how we check their data and try and make sure what they're giving us is correct, but the importance of them putting some of those things in place so they are giving us high quality data as well. Because we can't make sound decisions if ... Garbage in, garbage out. And I try not to use that too much because I don't want to call it garbage, but it really is. If you're not giving us good information, we can't make good decisions based on it.

00:17:12.49  >> So I want to wrap up by just asking, is there something that you're working on now, or something you have coming up in the future related to improving the quality of your state's data that you can talk a little bit about?

00:17:24.60  >> One thing that's kind of always been ongoing the last few months for me is finding new and user-friendly ways to report that data, both to outside stakeholders and to our LEAs. Like Traci said, showing those LEAs and our units that it is ... the data that we're using is the data you're giving us. And to find different ways that it's not just a ... "Here's a Excel spreadsheet of your data, or here's a fun, pretty graph that we're using." So just finding different ways that it makes sense to them, and they can personalize it. And also, I don't ... and this is ... Again, I've only been in this role for a year, but for me it seems like outside stakeholders, as in parents and parent agencies and things like that, they seem to be more interested in the data lately. And that could just be in North Dakota, but it seems like they're more interested in the data. And so trying to find a way to portray that data correctly and user-friendly for them, so one, they don't think that were hiding anything or covering anything up, but then also they can see really what's going on in their units and what's going on in the state.

00:18:43.61  >> Nice. Well, you'll have to tell us more as you do more of that, what you have found that has been successful and ...

00:18:50.79  >> I will. And if anyone else has any other ideas, please let me know.

00:18:54.95  >> Yes, great. Traci, anything you want to highlight?

00:18:59.06  >> Sure. Actually, we are ... There's a bigger team, and we are working on two things that I'm excited about. One is ... kind of picks up on what Alyssa was talking about. I don't think you're unique in North Dakota. People are looking at data more, so as a data nerd that is exciting to me. And it kind of shifts what we have to do in making sure they understand all of the confounding variables that are included with those data. So we have what we are calling the SRRP team here at the state level. It's Sustainable Reportable Repeatable Processes. So basically our English learning office, our title office, most of us are involved in federal reporting, working together to see how we're doing things because for special education, our reporting processes a little bit more guided and we're held way more accountable than some offices. So just sharing those and seeing what we repeat. I think the biggest example is graduation. So it's so confusing because the way we calculate graduation for special education is not the way we calculate graduation for ESA. And so when you're trying to be the special ed director and inform practices based on your data, and you're talking to a principal who's using a completely different set of calculations, it makes those conversations difficult. So we're working at the state level to try and compare notes and make sure we're giving guidance to facilitate that effective use of data and processes. And then, one of the things I'm excited about in my personal role is I already did my cheerleader dance on the process documents, but when we were revising I did find that IDC also puts out LEA process documents. And even though we're generally a small LEA state, we do have some bigger county systems that sometimes struggle with getting everybody on board with what should be happening with their data collection. And so I have a couple directors who are willing and eager to work on their own LEA process documents and getting those processes and procedures written down so they can get some consistency and, for lack of better of words, have some teeth when it comes to people doing what they need to do with data collection. So I'm pretty excited about that. I can't wait to see if that actually happens because those are summer conversations when people aren't teaching, and then everybody gets overweighted with the actual school year. But we will see.

00:21:56.44  >> Well, that's all very exciting stuff, and so glad to hear about the LEA data processes. Hopefully those, like you said, will actually happen, and I think that'll be so useful to the LEAs and you at the state. So great. Thank you both so much for being on. You've shared some really amazing lessons learned, information about your experiences that I know will be really helpful to others out there. So thank you again.

00:22:25.40  >> And thank you for having us.

00:22:27.12  >> Yes, thank you.

00:22:29.76  >> To access podcast resources, submit questions related to today's episode, or if you have ideas for future topics, we'd love to hear from you. The links are in the episode content, or connect with us via the podcast page on the IDC website at ideadata.org.