Achieving the Dream: Colleges Benefit from Data Coaches

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Achieving the Dream strives to create a culture of evidence and inquiry, systemically changing the way an entire college interacts with data, and ultimately, its students. Typically, colleges have large amounts of data, but historically, data have been stored in silos predominantly held in the administrative and institutional research offices, something that can make the college-wide adoption process daunting. Nicole Melander says the secret to changing cultures and getting high adoption rates in evidence-based decision making and instruction is to put the data in the hands of faculty. “If you put the data in their hands, they are interested consumers. They are hungry for basic information they often don’t have.  It is not unusual for a faculty member to have nothing more than a class roster available,” said Melander. “Colleges collect data that can allow faculty to be very smart and effective in structuring their curriculum and experiences for their students, but historically, the data often doesn’t reach them,” said Melander. Instructors can benefit from knowing if a student has taken the course in previous terms and failed, for example. “Knowing a student’s trend in successful course completion, or experience with success (or failure) in a previous term could help inform faculty interactions, interventions and practice.”

Data and Leadership Coaching Model

“At Achieving the Dream, experienced Institutional Research professionals serving as Data Coaches work with participating institutions to develop strategies based on data, to implement those strategies, and to evaluate whether they help students succeed,” said Melander. Each Data Coach works on a parallel path with an Achieving the Dream Leadership Coach who engages with high-level administration, presidents and trustees in strategic planning and budgeting to support the changes the Data Coach, institutional researchers, faculty, and student services leaders are striving to bring. Leadership Coaches are typically former college administrators and presidents, bringing a wealth of expertise to the college. The dedicated pair of coaches visits each of their colleges multiple times per year for the three years of the original participation agreement, and often for many years to follow.  “Coaches go to the college and meet on site to provide individualized coaching and to share insights from their work with other colleges in the Achieving the Dream Reform Network,” said Melander. “In this way, participating colleges benefit from the shared learning of the ever-growing network.”

Courageous Conversations

Participation in Achieving the Dream begins with colleges performing self-assessments, analyzing data, and then meeting with coaches to ascertain what is in place and best paths forward.  This early work often results in what Achieving the Dream describes as courageous conversations.  “Knowing where to start can be daunting, and discovering subsets of students that have not been well served can be deflating for teams prepared to implement changes,” says Melander. “Rather than just examining term-to-term course completion rates, we help the college to take a longitudinal approach and explore how individual students are doing over time, how subgroups are performing – looking at which groups are doing really well and which aren’t.  The first time you really look at the data in this way it can be uncomfortable,” says Melander.  “Often issues of equity arise and it takes courage to have the conversations that can truly impact change.” The value of Achieving the Dream’s Data Coach model becomes evident early. The Data Coach helps the college as they decide where to begin, what to evaluate, and how to create measurable impact that scales. “Philosophically, Achieving the Dream believes what benefits one student can benefit many,” said Melander.  “We encourage colleges to design programs that can have broad impact.”  Costing models can show which strategies will prove ineffective as they grow, so colleges can avoid implementing boutique strategies that are unable to scale.  Making data-informed decisions early, pre-intervention implementation – can help colleges use their resources wisely.  “Faculty and administration work with coaches to select strategies that can benefit the most students over the long run, and can be modeled to accommodate size and budgets as they scale,” said Melander.

The Power of the Network

“The true power is in the network,” says Melander. Some coaches work with 8 or more colleges and share the learnings among them. In addition, the entire population of participating colleges gathers annually for DREAM, an institute that brings together 1,600 – 1,800 higher education leaders and college representatives from diverse departments including faculty, institutional research, administration, student services and more. “It’s a very unique experience,” said Melander. “At many conferences people present about projects and initiatives, but with little evidence. At DREAM if you can’t provide empirical evidence that it is working, you don’t present. Every presentation and talk centers around key questions: What did you decide to evaluate? How did you evaluate it? What did you find? How will you scale?”

Interventions Showcase Opens to All

Last month, Achieving the Dream opened its collection of interventions to all via a user-friendly searchable database where interested visitors can access summaries about 463 interventions from 107 colleges. The Interventions Showcase can be explored by academic discipline, intervention type or college details.

To Get Involved:

The Achieving the Dream National Reform Network applications for the 2014 Cohort are currently being accepted. Interested colleges may access the application here. Registration for DREAM 2014: The Achieving the Dream Annual Institute on Student Success is open for participating and prospective colleges.


Dr. Nicole Melander

Nicole Melander, PhD, was the chief technology officer (CTO) for Achieving the Dream, Inc. at the time this article was written. She ensured programs and operations are informed, supported by, and integrated with cutting-edge technology. Dr. Melander brings experience in the consulting, education, and operations divisions of multi-national software companies. She currently works for Civitas Learning as VP Partner Success & Consulting.

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