Defeating the Predictability of Failure—Using Data to Shape School Culture 

Presented by Patricio Vargas, Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District, CA

Would you rather have headwinds or tailwinds? Patricio Vargas, Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services at Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District in CA posited this question as part of his captivating presentation. Vargas pointed out that while “scoreboard data” can elicit reactions, it doesn’t tell you what to do. “What forms of data will propel you to do something and show you what you can and cannot do?” he asked the audience.

Vargas aspires to use data to unlock his district’s potential. In Vargas’s model, tailwinds are protective factors whereas headwinds are at-risk factors. These factors can be demographic, academic, and socioemotional. He explained that students with tailwinds have characteristics such as high socioeconomic status (SES), high attendance, high parent education level, and growth mindset while students with headwinds have characteristics such as low SES, learning disabilities, lack of English proficiency, poor attendance, low parent education level, and a lack of belongingness. When Vargas's team re-examined the state test data after factoring in the number of headwinds, they saw that 100 percent of students who had eight or more headwinds were performing below the standard on the California state test. 

“The goal is to turn data into information, information into insight, and insight into action. What actions must we take in helping students overcome their headwinds?” Patricio Vargas, Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services


Vargas didn’t stop there. “The goal is to turn data into information, information into insight, and insight into action,” he said. “What actions must we take in helping students overcome their headwinds?” His staff identified all the students who had more than seven headwinds and then asked themselves. “Do we know their names? Do we know their stories?” Vargas’s team also looked at students who have either no headwinds or only one headwind factor and asked themselves, “Why are nearly half of these students who come in with all of these advantages underperforming? What is going on?”

In Norwalk La-Mirada, the administration puts the data in the hands of the principals and teachers and offers a system of additional supports to the students who have more tailwinds. The district also puts formal structures and processes in place for systemic collaboration and shared decision-making. In 2018, the district reduced the percentage of students with zero or one headwind(s) who were performing below the standard on the state test. This is a testament to the district’s goal of closing the achievement gap one step at a time and to Vargas’s belief in what is possible.

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