Data-Driven Instruction Can't Work If Instructors Don't Use The Data

In education today, data, particularly testing data, are everywhere. One of many potentially valuable uses of these data is helping teachers improve instruction – e.g., identifying students’ strengths and weaknesses, etc. Of course, this positive impact depends on the quality of the data and how it is presented to educators, among other factors. But there’s an even more basic requirement – teachers actually have to use it.

In an article published in the latest issue of the journal Education Finance and Policy, economist John Tyler takes a thorough look at teachers’ use of an online data system in a mid-sized urban district between 2008 and 2010. A few years prior, this district invested heavily in benchmark formative assessments (four per year) for students in grades 3-8, and an online “dashboard” system to go along with them. The assessments’ results are fed into the system in a timely manner. The basic idea is to give these teachers a continual stream of information, past and present, about their students’ performance.

Tyler uses weblogs from the district, as well as focus groups with teachers, to examine the extent and nature of teachers’ data usage (as well as a few other things, such as the relationship between usage and value-added). What he finds is not particularly heartening. In short, teachers didn’t really use the data.

Greetings From Due Diligence, New Jersey

Earlier this week, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie announced that the state will assume control over Camden City School District. Camden will be the fourth NJ district to undergo takeover, though this is the first time that the state will be removing control from an elected local school board, which will now serve in an advisory role (and have three additional members appointed by the Governor). Over the next few weeks, NJ officials will choose a new superintendent, and begin to revamp evaluations, curricula and other core policies.

Accompanying the announcement, the Governor’s office released a two-page "fact sheet," much of which is devoted to justifying this move to the public.

Before discussing it, let’s be clear about something - it may indeed be the case that Camden schools are so critically low-performing and/or dysfunctional as to warrant drastic intervention. Moreover, it's at least possible that state takeover is the appropriate type of intervention to help these schools improve (though the research on this latter score is, to be charitable, undeveloped).

That said, the "fact sheet" presents relatively little valid evidence regarding the academic performance of Camden schools. Given the sheer magnitude of any takeover decision, it is crucial for the state to demonstrate publicly that they have left no stone unturned by presenting a case that is as comprehensive and compelling as possible. However, the discrepancy between that high bar and NJ's evidence, at least that pertaining to academic outcomes, is more than a little disconcerting.

Still In Residence: Arts Education In U.S. Public Schools

There is a somewhat common argument in education circles that the focus on math and reading tests in No Child Left Behind has had the unintended consequence of generating a concurrent deemphasis on other subjects. This includes science and history, of course, but among the most frequently-mentioned presumed victims of this trend are art and music.

A new report by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) presents some basic data on the availability of arts instruction in U.S. public schools between 1999 and 2010.

The results provide only very mixed support for the hypothesis that these programs are less available now than they were prior to the implementation of NCLB.

If Your Evidence Is Changes In Proficiency Rates, You Probably Don't Have Much Evidence

Education policymaking and debates are under constant threat from an improbable assailant: Short-term changes in cross-sectional proficiency rates.

The use of rate changes is still proliferating rapidly at all levels of our education system. These measures, which play an important role in the provisions of No Child Left Behind, are already prominent components of many states’ core accountability systems (e..g, California), while several others will be using some version of them in their new, high-stakes school/district “grading systems." New York State is awarding millions in competitive grants, with almost half the criteria based on rate changes. District consultants issue reports recommending widespread school closures and reconstitutions based on these measures. And, most recently, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan used proficiency rate increases as “preliminary evidence” supporting the School Improvement Grants program.

Meanwhile, on the public discourse front, district officials and other national leaders use rate changes to “prove” that their preferred reforms are working (or are needed), while their critics argue the opposite. Similarly, entire charter school sectors are judged, up or down, by whether their raw, unadjusted rates increase or decrease.

So, what’s the problem? In short, it’s that year-to-year changes in proficiency rates are not valid evidence of school or policy effects. These measures cannot do the job we’re having them do, even on a limited basis. This really has to stop.

The Uses (And Abuses?) Of Student Data

Knewton, a technology firm founded in 2008, has developed an “adaptive learning platform” that received significant media attention (also here, here, here and here), as well as funding and recognition early last fall and, again, in February this year (here and here). Although the firm is not alone in the adaptive learning game – e.g., Dreambox, Carnegie Learning – Knewton’s partnership with Pearson puts the company in a whole different league.

Adaptive learning takes advantage of student-generated information; thus, important questions about data use and ownership need to be brought to the forefront of the technology debate.

Adaptive learning software adjusts the presentation of educational content to students' needs, based on students’ prior responses to such content. In the world of research, such ‘prior responses’ would count and be treated as data. To the extent that adaptive learning is a mechanism for collecting information about learners, questions about privacy, confidentiality and ownership should be addressed.

Burden Of Proof, Benefit Of Assumption

** Also posted here on "Valerie Strauss' Answer Sheet" in the Washington Post

Michelle Rhee, the controversial former chancellor of D.C. public schools, is a lightning rod. Her confrontational style has made her many friends as well as enemies. As is usually the case, people’s reaction to her approach in no small part depends on whether or not they support her policy positions.

I try to be open-minded toward people with whom I don’t often agree, and I can certainly accept that people operate in different ways. Honestly, I have no doubt as to Ms. Rhee’s sincere belief in what she’s doing; and, even if I think she could go about it differently, I respect her willingness to absorb so much negative reaction in order to try to get it done.

What I find disturbing is how she continues to try to build her reputation and advance her goals based on interpretations of testing results that are insulting to the public’s intelligence.

In Ohio, Charter School Expansion By Income, Not Performance

For over a decade, Ohio law has dictated where charter schools can open. Expansion was unlimited in Lucas County (the “pilot district” for charters) and in the “Ohio 8” urban districts (Akron, Canton, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, and Youngstown). But, in any given year, charters could open up in any other district that was classified as a “challenged district," as measured by whether the district received a state “report card” rating of “academic watch” or “academic emergency." This is a performance-based standard.

Under this system, there was of course very rapid charter proliferation in Lucas County and the “Ohio 8” districts. Only a small number of other districts (around 20-30 per year) “met” the  performance-based standard. As a whole, the state’s current charter law was supposed to “open up” districts for charter schools when the districts are not doing well.

Starting next year, the state is adding a fourth criterion: Any district with a “performance index” in the bottom five percent for the state will also be open for charter expansion. Although this may seem like a logical addition, in reality, the change offends basic principles of both fairness and educational measurement.