WestEd conducts descriptive studies to provide educators with a detailed analysis of current conditions that can be used as an important foundation for determining how best to address a problem.
Educators sometimes want to better understand what’s happening around a topic of interest: How are students achieving in school? What are the trends over time? Are achievement gaps closing or widening? How are English learners doing? Where are classrooms, schools, or districts that are doing especially well? Who needs more help? Questions like these call for careful descriptive analysis of relevant data.
Anecdotal reports may suggest that particular students are having difficulty, but a descriptive analysis of a comprehensive dataset can confirm a general trend, perhaps providing justification for allocation of additional resources for a group of students.
Surveying a target group can often be helpful for understanding how people are thinking about a topic. For example, do teachers who participated in professional learning activities believe that they have gained new insights and skills? Their answers can inform enhancements to the program. Do students feel safe in school? Their perceptions and suggestions are important input for shaping school climate interventions.
Illustrative examples from our work
Policymakers and educators in California and Arizona wanted to understand more fully how students in foster care were doing in school. But the education data were not in the same dataset as the foster placement data. So, WestEd researchers used sophisticated data-matching techniques to create a first-ever dataset across education and child welfare systems for an initial snapshot of students in foster care. The first study, in California, found a previously invisible achievement gap between children in foster care and other students, including students with low-socioeconomic status, English language learners, and students with disabilities, which informed legislation in the state. A later study in Arizona showed similar trends.
Survey data on attitudes and perceptions
The California Healthy Kids Survey (CHKS) is the largest statewide survey of resiliency, protective factors, risk behaviors, and school climate in the nation. Across California, the CHKS has led to a better understanding of the relationship between students’ health behaviors and academic performance, and is frequently cited by state policymakers and the media as a critical component of school improvement efforts, helping guide the development of more effective health, prevention, and youth development programs. It can be easily customized to meet local needs, interests, and standards, and provides a means to confidentially obtain data on student knowledge, attitudes, and perceptions about the topics it covers. Modules are also available for surveying staff and parents. WestEd researchers analyze and report survey results, and help districts interpret and apply the findings.
The next best thing to a site visit is a good case study. For example, WestEd researchers published Incorporating Early Learning Strategies in the School Improvement Grants (SIG) Program: How Three Schools Integrated Early Childhood Strategies into School Turnaround Efforts to Improve Instruction for All Students. To develop the case study, researchers visited three elementary schools in different states and identified a number of factors that showed up in all three sites. They also provided detailed profiles of the schools so that readers could understand the practices more fully and decide which might apply in their settings.