“Data Is An Onion … You Have to Peel Back the Onion”

May 17th, 2013 by Leave a Comment

(Editor’s Note: Matchbook Learning founder Sajan George discusses proven ideas to upgrade learning at the Foundation’s May 23rd Leadership Breakfast.  Click here for details.)

By Mike Klein

Mike Klein Editor Georgia Public Policy Foundation
Mike Klein
Editor
Georgia Public Policy Foundation

Imagine this scenario:  An automaker prepares to launch a new car amid much fanfare.  The car launches to modest immediate success and then it flops.  This is a real story.  The Ford Edsel was an epic failure because Ford was wearing blinders in its commitment to the Edsel.  Had the company listened to consumers it would have known that auto owner tastes were changing and the Edsel was no longer what people wanted.  Edsel was the wrong car at the wrong time.

It’s all about data.  Business has known for generations that the most successful launches and ongoing companies are those that constantly absorb data, intently study what it contains, reach unemotional conclusions about what it means, and establish a focus armed with knowledge.

You might think that would also be second nature to education but not so much.

“We use data in all other sectors.  It’s new in education,” says Paige Kowalski, director of state policy initiatives at the Data Quality Campaign, a non-profit education think tank in Washington, D.C.  Kowalski told an Atlanta conference this week that although some believe data is ‘the hammer, you’re going to get punished with it,” she prefers to think data is the “flashlight to really be able to shine a light on what we are doing well and where we need to improve.”

The Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education brought Kowalski to Atlanta for its spring forum, “Data Driven Decisions – Dynamic & Daunting.”  GPEE President Stephen Dolinger opened the conference with his observation that, “We have wallowed in a land of not having the data that we need but we are on the front now in Georgia and that’s a good thing.”

Bob Swiggum spent 27 years at Georgia-Pacific where he was VP of Information Technology.  Three years ago he crossed into public sector education to help the state rethink everything it knew – or at least whatever the state thought it knew – about how to use data analysis to produce better experiences for students both during and after their K-12 education years.

Swiggum received less than a warm reception from local public school systems who thought they had seen this horse ride into town before.  “We went out to the districts and said; what do you want?”  Swiggum told the GPEE conference.  “They wrote me what I call an eleven-page epistle.  It was ten pages of what they didn’t want and one page of what they did want.  Pretty much they didn’t want the state to get involved in their stuff.”

Today the state is very involved.  Swiggum has appeared before more than 150 groups to explain how a suite of new digital products will help learning professionals and parents more precisely understand what student groups and individual students need to achieve success.

Data that originates with local district annual reports is housed on state servers and can be recalled as fully collated information.  District leaders can recall data on schools, the schools on their classrooms, and teachers can sort individual student data.

Identity is protected where data needs to remain anonymous.  It is now possible to assemble and make easily accessible a student’s entire public school academic history in Georgia.  This is an enormous benefit in today’s mobile environment; for example, the annual student turnover is 30 percent in Atlanta schools.

“Data is an onion,” says Rubye Sullivan, Atlanta Public Schools director of research and evaluation for school improvement.  “A metric is just the number at the top.  Knowing a number does not give you action.  You have to begin to peel back the onion.”  Sullivan said that historically public schools have not been very good at having or interpreting their data.

“We now understand that students in the ninth grade who fail both math and English are nine times more likely to be a dropout,” Sullivan said at the GPEE conference.  “We didn’t have the data before to be able to unpack it in a way where we truly could pinpoint this group of students, where their risk factors were, provide that information back to counselors or graduation coaches to turn that data into action.  It is the power of big data and education coming together.”

The ability to track how students perform academically after high school, especially when they attend state universities and colleges, should have a positive impact on K-12 preparation.  “If students leave us and we don’t know what happens to them we’re not able to build our school goals,” said Brian Cook, head counselor at Morgan County High School.

Here is the challenge: Take any sample group of 100 Georgia high school students and just 67 will graduate.  One-third never graduate.  Eleven who enroll in higher education will graduate from four-year schools after four years and just two from technical colleges after two years.  “This is not what we wanted for our state,” said Mary Ann Charron, chief program officer at the Georgia Leadership Institute for School Improvement.  GLISI managed a data pilot project that brought ten public school district teams and the technical college system together, focused on how to help students become better prepared for their post-secondary choices.  That’s what this is all about.

(Footnote: the Ford Edsel debuted in 1958. Production was canceled after 1960 when Ford manufactured fewer than 2,850 Edsels.  About 34,000 Edsels were never sold to anyone!)

Additional Resources:

YouTube Paige Kowalski Presentation

YouTube Bob Swiggum Presentation

YouTube Georgia Partnership Panel Conversation

Website for the State Department of Education Longitudinal Data Systems Project

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