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June 6, 2016

Behind every data point is a child

statistics-822231_640At CPE, we are data driven. We encourage educators, school leaders and advocates to be data-driven as well. (Indeed, we have a whole website, Data First, which is dedicated to just that. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth your time to check out.) So while we think an over-abundance of data is a good problem to have, we often remind ourselves and others to take a step back before acting on it, and consider that every data point represents a living, breathing, complex, does-not-fit-the-mold child.

Clearly, good data can lead you to solutions for improving policy and practice in the aggregate. It can also provide insights into particular classrooms or even students. But ultimately what an individual child needs is going to be, well, quirky. We may well find out that Joey struggled with fractions this quarter even though he did well in math the quarter before. If we keep digging, we might also discover that he was absent eight days. But the data won’t tell us why. We won’t even know if the inference that Joey’s fraction trouble was due to his multiple absences is the right one. There could be a million things going on with Joey that only he and his parents can help us understand. But we need to find out before we can effectively intervene.

NPR recently ran a story on Five Doubts About Data-Driven Schools that highlights some of the risks with an absolutist approach to data. I will just address two in this space, but encourage you to read the article itself. It’s short.

One: some critics believe a hyperfocus on data can suppress rather than spark motivation to do better, particularly for low-scoring students. Publishing data that points out differences by individuals or groups can lead to what psychologists call a “stereotype threat.” According to the article, “[M]erely being reminded of one’s group identity, or that a certain test has shown differences in performance between, say, women and men, can be enough to depress outcomes on that test for the affected group.”

I have had my own qualms about the practice in some schools of displaying student test scores, whether of individual students in the classroom or reported by teacher in the school building. There can be great value in having students examine their own data, and helping them use it to take greater charge of their own learning. But there’s also a fine line between encouraging constructive self-examination and reinforcing a potentially destructive perception of failure. Before instituting such a policy or practice, principals and district leaders should think very carefully about the messages being sent versus the messages students, parents and teachers actually hear.

Two: Just because we can collect the data, should it be part of a student’s permanent record? Most would agree that universities and potential employers should have access to student transcripts, grades, test scores and other academic information when making admissions or employment decisions. But, as the article points out, we are entering an era when psychometricians will be able to measure such characteristics as grit, perseverance, teamwork, leadership and others.  How confident should we be in this data? And even if it is reliable, should we even consider such data for traits exhibited in childhood and adolescence that are arguably mutable, and therefore may no longer be accurate descriptions of the individual? I have similar concerns about a child’s disciplinary record following him or her into adulthood.

Over and over again, the availability and effective use of education data has been shown to have a tremendous impact on improving performance at the system, school and individual level. Back to Joey and fractions. Had she not looked at his data, Joey’s teacher would not have identified his struggle, and it might have remained hidden only to become worse over time. This way she is able to dig more, ask questions, find out what Joey needs, and ideally, provide extra help so he will succeed.

But we also need to guard against the overuse of data, lest we allow it to reduce all of a student’s intellect, growth, production, and character to a number and lose a picture of the child.

Filed under: Accountability,CPE,Data — Tags: , , — Patte Barth @ 1:39 pm

December 15, 2015

It’s Official: HS Grad Rates Hit another All-Time High

I feel like am beginning to sound like a broken record as I seem to keep repeating “HS Grad Rates Hit another All-Time High”. Once again this is true as the U.S. Department of Education made it official today that the on-time high school graduation rate for the class of 2013-14 reached 82 percent.

This news does not come as much of a surprise since preliminary results back in October showed most states increased their graduation rates, but it is still worth celebrating. After decades of data showing graduation rates stuck around the 70 percent mark rates have increased significantly in just the last decade alone.

Keep in mind, however, the 82 percent actually understates how many students earn a high school diploma. That’s because the 82 percent is simply the on-time rate, meaning, only those students who entered 9th grade and graduated four years later are counted as graduates. But as our Better Late Than Never report showed, including those students who needed more than four years to earn a standard diploma or better would likely increase the graduation rate to around 87 percent — just a few percentage points shy of the 90 percent mark and a goal that seemed unattainable just a decade ago.


Unfortunately, not all states currently report data that includes late graduates so it is not possible to get a true national graduation rate. But the late grads are students who should be recognized for meeting the same requirements as their classmates who graduated on-time. And schools and districts should be recognized as well for identifying these students who fell behind their classmates and providing the support to them and their teachers to get them back on-track to earn a high school diploma. As our report showed, earning a high school diploma, even if it takes more than four years, significantly improves the chances a student will find success after high school. And both students and schools should be encouraged and rewarded for graduating all students who earn a high school diploma, not just those who did so within four years—Jim Hull

Filed under: Data,Graduation rates,High school,Public education — Jim Hull @ 1:47 pm

September 16, 2015

Budgets, data and honest conversation

Balancing school budgets in a time of shortfalls is a thankless job. Whatever gets cut will nonetheless have its champions, many of whom are willing to let their unhappiness known. Really loud. But one of the nation’s largest school districts is meeting this challenge with a new app that gives the community a channel for telling school leaders exactly what expenditures they want preserved. The hitch – users keep their preferred items only by eliminating others.  In this way, the app delivers an object lesson in how really tough these decisions are.

Fairfax County school district in Virginia serves nearly 190,000 students with an annual budget of $2.6 billion. Despite the community’s affluence, enrollments are rising faster than revenues, and the district is facing a $50-100 million deficit. An earlier citizen task force was charged with recommending ways to close this gap. After reviewing the data, the task force suggested, among other things, eliminating high school sports and band. To say the proposal was not well received is to state the obvious. And the public howls and teeth-gnashing have yet to subside.

So what’s a broke district to do? Give the data to the community. Fairfax released this web-based budget tool to the public this week as a means to call the question: In order to keep [your priority here], what do we get rid of? Users are able to choose from more than 80 budget items to cut in seven categories: “school staffing and schedules,” “instructional programs,” “nonacademic programs,” “instructional support,” “other support,” “employee compensation” and “new or increased fees.”  Each item has a dollar figure attached and the goal is to reduce the budget by $50 million.

I happen to be a Fairfax resident so I was happy to test-drive this web tool. The first thing that struck me was the near absence of low-hanging fruit. All of the big ticket items hurt, mostly because the savings come from reduction in staff or valuable instruction time. Increase elementary class size by one student: $12.9 million. Reduce daily course offerings in high school from seven to six: $25 million. Reduce kindergarten from full-day to half-day: $39 million. Yikes! Given these choices, I could see why eliminating high school sports at nearly $9 million could start to look like a lesser evil.

On the other hand, items that seemed to do the least damage to the educational mission also saved a relative pittance. Raise student parking fees by $50: $300,000.  Reduce district cable TV offerings: $100,000. Increase community use fees: $70,000. Clearly, the nickel-and-dime strategy was not going to get me close to $50 million.

In the end, I came within the 10 percent margin of hitting the target (while keeping high school sports) and I submitted my preferences. But I’ll be honest. They include some choices that I do not feel the least bit happy about. And that’s the point. In 2010, CPE published a report on the impact of the recession on school budgets across the country. The title, Cutting to the Bone, pretty much tells the story. The current Fairfax deficit represents only 2 percent of its yearly budget. But after years of cost-cutting, there’s no fat left to trim.

Clearly, if I were a school board member, I would want to know more about the impact of these programs and policies before making any final decisions. But presenting the data on their cost and what the dollars buy – as this tool does — is a really good way to educate the community about the challenge and engage them in an honest conversation about how they can best serve their students, especially when revenues run short. — Patte Barth

Filed under: Data,funding,Public education — Tags: , , — Patte Barth @ 10:11 am

July 30, 2015

DQC visualizes Q&A’s of data

CPE has worked with the Data Quality Campaign a number of times to shed light on how and why student data is collected and used.

They’ve answered many of the most common questions in this handy infographic, which you can click to enlarge.




Filed under: CPE,Data — Tags: , , — NDillon @ 8:00 am

July 23, 2015

CPE releases second part of study analyzing how schools prepare non-college goers for success

CPE_HomePage_SliderLast fall, we introduced the first installment of a series that examined the characteristics and outcomes of high school graduates who don’t go on to college.

We called it The Path Least Taken because, much to our surprise, the percentage of students who had not advanced to college by the time they turned 26 was remarkably small.

But more than just identifying which students had and hadn’t gone on to college, we wanted to know which of those non-college going students found “success” in spite of taking the road less traveled. And further, how high school had prepared them to achieve similar if not better outcomes than their college-going peers.

Jim Hull, CPE’s senior policy analyst, sifted through A LOT of data from NCES’ Educational Longitudinal Study of 2002 to answer these questions and more. Read what he discovered in our second installment of The Path Least Taken.

Filed under: 21st century education,college,CPE,Data,Report Summary,research — NDillon @ 7:12 am

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