What’s Data Got to Do with It?
Data allow us to see where we have been, an important role for these facts and figures. But perhaps more critically, data should help us to know where we are going.
The National Coordinating Center (NCC) is required to collect data each year from the federally funded Transition and Postsecondary Education Programs for Students with Intellectual Disabilities, or TPSID. These data enable us to learn about the characteristics and experiences of the students, and to gain insight into promising practices at these college programs. We have been collecting these data since 2010, when we were first funded as the NCC and there were 25 grantees. Since that time, we have collected data from programs at 119 colleges and universities, and with their help have created the only national dataset on postsecondary education for students with intellectual disability.
Every five years, there is a new competition for funds from the US Department of Education, resulting in a new cohort of TPSID grantees. In October 2020, 22 colleges and universities were funded. As these newly funded projects begin their work in developing and enhancing their programs, the NCC also has already begun to collect data on their activities. These data provide critical information about the growth and development of the inclusive postsecondary education movement, and is shared through national reports, journal articles, and conference presentations.
As data are entered and examined at the aggregate level for dissemination, the NCC also shares data at the program level, implementing what we call data-driven technical assistance. Helpful data can sometimes be buried in spreadsheets, never fully examined. The NCC encourages this examination by engaging annually in the program data with every TPSID site. This joint data exploration then informs our technical assistance.
We recently completed the 2021 data-driven technical assistance process with the 22 grantees and their partner sites and as always, it was invigorating, informative, and engaging. During the hour-long Zoom meetings, each program had the opportunity to look at the data collected and begin to see how it could inform their actions and support needs in the upcoming year. These meetings provide an opportunity for NCC staff to understand and explore the distinct character and culture of each TPSID program and institution and the unique ways each serves and supports their students to succeed in their college coursework and community life. TPSID program staff share program highlights and program support needs as the NCC staff share tools, strategies, and connections to assist each program’s growth, in line with the TPSID model.
As the first year with a new cohort of TPSIDs, there were several programs who had little or no data yet – there are eight grantees in the planning phase, accepting their first students in the fall of 2021. Others have been operating a program for a few years, and five have been funded as TPSID since 2010. Even with these various stages of development, each program comes away from the meeting with a new sense of where they are and what’s next. NCC staff learn the stories behind the numbers, and through an examination of data important conversations emerge. For example, the percentage of inclusive and separate classes students are taking can lead to valuable dialogue on how to best support students in typical college classes, how to teach campus and career skills without the use of separate classes, and the role of peer mentors. The process provides the opportunity to reflect on the data, to consider the stories it tells, and to inform practice. While it is important to collect data that tell us where we have been, it is even more critical that it inform where we are going.
Through this annual process, we illustrate the important idea that merely having data in hand is not a solution. Data require monitoring and discernment, and with regular review, informative patterns emerge. Becoming familiar with data’s high and low points, and then translating them into actionable insights, helps TPSID projects seize opportunities and gain clarity in decisions about program operations and student experiences.
Post author: Cate Weir is the project director for the Think College National Coordinating Center, a position she has held since the Center’s inception in 2010. Working with college programs to reflect on their practices through the lens of data is one of the most fulfilling and interesting aspects of her job.