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FINE Newsletter, Volume V, Issue 3
Issue Topic: Creating a Culture of Continuous Improvement

Patricia Fahey, Principal Investigator, and Sherrie Rudick, Senior Training and Technical Assistance Associate, for the National Center on Program Management and Fiscal Operations (NCPMFO), housed at Education Development Center, Inc., spoke with Harvard Family Research Project about NCPMFO’s new interactive online learning module: Data in Head Start and Early Head Start: Creating a Culture That Embraces Data. Designed to be used by management staff in Head Start/Early Head Start (HS/EHS) programs, the module aims to help managers understand how to use data to inform their decision making.

As one of the National Centers for the Office of Head Start, you designed this module for an HS/EHS audience. How might other, non-Head Start programs find this module useful?
The scenarios we developed for the learning module are definitely Head Start–oriented, but the points that the module makes about using data for continuous improvement apply to any program. All programs need to develop a culture that embraces data use and bring all staff onboard. Programs also need to look at multiple data sources to get a holistic picture of what’s going on before making a decision about what needs to be done. And within any program, all staff members need to understand how the program is functioning and what their role is in working through challenges and achieving goals.

What prompted you to create the data module? What knowledge or practice “gap” were you looking to fill?
Head Start/Early Head Start programs collect mounds of data on just about anything that can be counted: service eligibility, program attendance, referrals to physicians, parent meetings, child vocabulary growth, and so on. These data are supposed to be used for continuous improvement efforts to strengthen program practices, but in working with programs, we learned that programs fell across a spectrum of data use. Many of them were skilled at using the data they collected and were engaged in meaningful continuous improvement efforts, while others needed guidance in these areas.

What were some of the reasons why programs weren’t using data for continuous improvement?
Staff members noted a number of reasons for this underutilization of data: program staff were overwhelmed, they were not comfortable using data, or they were nervous about what the data might reveal. At a recent conference where we demonstrated the learning module, many of the HS/EHS professionals in attendance were surprised to see that data could, in fact, show them positive things about their program—they were accustomed to thinking of data as something that would lead them to a negative place. With this learning module, we’re trying to break that cycle of avoiding data out of a fear of what it might reveal.

It sounds as if one of the biggest hurdles you had to address was helping HS/EHS professionals change their mindset about using data and how they approached the process from the very beginning—can you say a little more about that?
When the Office of Head Start first approached us to develop a resource that would help HS/EHS programs use data, we looked at many different publications and guides that had been done for Head Start and others in the field. We found that there were already many tools to help people understand things like how to calculate an average or aggregate data, but what was missing was the “So what? Why do it?” piece. We decided that rather than start off with a guide to help HS/EHS programs with the nuts and bolts of data use, we would first focus on helping them build a culture to embrace the use of data as a continuous improvement tool.

In the past, HS/EHS programs tended to view data collection through a “compliance” lens—people were checking off boxes and making sure they had done what was required of them, but they weren’t really using the data to understand how they were progressing toward goals. Program staff saw data as something that flowed “upward,” from the local program sites to the federal level, and the data weren’t consistently put to use at the program level. We knew that in order for HS/EHS programs to use data for continuous improvement in meaningful ways, they first needed to change the way they thought about data so they could get excited about how they could use data to understand what their programs were doing well and identify areas that needed to be strengthened.

This learning module is highly interactive—users react to scenarios by selecting answers to a series of questions and then receive feedback on their selections. They are prompted to take the perspective of different staff roles when considering different courses of action. How did you decide to structure this aspect of the learning module?
We needed to find a way to have users meaningfully engage with the material and learn something from their experience with the module. We knew that, in face-to-face learning, unless the presenter is incredibly gifted at connecting with the audience, there just isn’t a lot of knowledge that is transferred. And we knew that providing documents on a screen for people to read and then file away as a “static” resource wasn’t an active way to promote learning, either.

Data in Head Start and Early Head Start: Creating a Culture that Embraces Data
We have had a lot of success in the HS/EHS world with the use of scenarios, where the learners are presented with a problem, or situation, that they have to solve. We felt that anchoring the learning module activities in scenarios would allow users to engage in active problem solving as they took in the content of the module, which would help facilitate learning and information retention. We also designed the problem-solving scenarios so that it wouldn’t be totally obvious what options users should choose; we provide enough prompts so they understand the direction we are pointing them in, but there is still room for users to have many “aha!” learning moments of their own as they progress through the module. In addition to the interactive components, we included a number of video clips that feature HS/EHS staff talking about how they used data to understand their program’s work. The videos help to illustrate the value of using data for continuous improvement in very concrete and relatable ways, since the staff members describe actual experiences of HS/EHS programs.

What are some of the ways that HS/EHS programs have used data to improve their family engagement work?
In one of the video clips1 within the module, an education manager and a classroom teacher discuss children’s positive literacy scores from a recent child assessment. The education manager suggests that the teacher bring these data to family conferences to help parents understand the relationship between what the children are learning in the classroom and broader school-readiness goals, and suggests that the teacher use the assessment data to identify activities that parents can do at home to further strengthen their children’s literacy skills.

In another video2, a home visitor discusses how using a computerized data system has allowed her program to maintain real-time information on family engagement, such as data on which parents have participated in different types of program services, so that staff can quickly reach out to the families they aren’t connecting with. This system has allowed staff to plan outreach and intervention efforts on a weekly basis, whereas when they relied on their older, pen-and-paper data filing system, months would go by before they realized that a particular family hadn’t yet engaged with the program. This program’s data system also allows other staff members who interact with a family (e.g., a home visitor assigned to a sibling) to understand what issues have already been addressed with the family so that they can build on these earlier efforts rather than just repeat them.

Have programs begun to move past the fear of data taking them to a “negative place”? What has helped programs persist with data use after they have uncovered areas that aren’t working well?
We have found that once programs really embrace the use of data, it creates a virtuous cycle—that is, when program staff members use data to identify and correct a problem area, they see how data can be put to good use in ways that strengthen their work. Then, instead of just feeling discouraged when the data reveal a problem, programs get excited about figuring out how they can turn that data point around and improve. Success then breeds success. As programs become more comfortable using data to set goals and develop action plans to turn around a negative outcome, they’re more likely to continue digging into data in the future. The final activity in the learning module is all about celebrating good times so people see all of the positive things that can result from using data for continuous improvement.

What’s next for NCPMFO’s data work? Are you creating any other learning modules?
We are in the process of finishing a user’s guide for the existing learning module, which will include follow-up activities for HS/EHS management staff to help extend their learning beyond the module and suggestions for how managers might share these activities with a larger group of program staff. We are also developing another learning module that will focus more on the mechanics of actually using data to make decisions about program processes and practices. As with the current module, the next one will be online and interactive. It should be ready in early 2014. 


1. View video by clicking here and scrolling down to the second video shown.

 2. View video by clicking here and scrolling down to the second video shown.

Click here to access other articles and resources in this FINE Newsletter, "Creating a Culture of Continuous Improvement."

This resource is part of the September 2013 FINE Newsletter. The FINE Newsletter shares the newest and best family involvement research and resources from Harvard Family Research Project and other field leaders. To access the archives of past issues, please visit

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