Genesis Group Op-Ed -- Education analytics

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In the early 2000’s the Westmoreland Central School District was looking to improve high school academic results. Despite best efforts, innovative approaches and extra supports, some students still struggled to complete high school.

District leaders turned to the data, and their search and ultimate answers illustrate the power of data analytics, or the ability to gather information, interpret it and make informed decisions.

Westmoreland learned that the strongest indicator of high school success was a student’s grades on his or her first report card in ninth grade. Those grades were accurate predictors of a student’s future success or struggles.

Students who did well tended to keep doing well. Students who failed a few courses that first marking period never seemed to recover. It was a powerful discovery, but it did not tell district leaders what to do about it. That answer came with a deeper dive into the data.

Students who struggled all had similar characteristics, but there were outliers. These outliers were students who shared the same characteristics of other students who struggled but were still succeeding. Westmoreland started to study these outliers. What made them different?

Successful students from this group had a significant relationship or connection to an adult within the school community. It may have been a coach, a band director, a specific teacher, a bus driver or an administrator. At least one adult knew them well. At least one adult was “there for them” in the school.  

With that realization, Westmoreland launched an advisement program for ninth grade students the following year. The program connected small groups of four to five students with teachers, administrators, coaches and other adults in the school on a regular basis. The goal was not academics. The goal was relationship building.  

The district’s data changed dramatically with this non-academic intervention. Passing rates for ninth grade soared. Disciplinary issues plummeted. Student involvement in school activities increased.  

The Westmoreland success story drives home what volunteers from the Genesis Group’s Data Analytics Task Force have heard often during the past one-and-a-half years as they explore how to promote and capitalize the use of data analysis in the Mohawk Valley.

Data analytics is everywhere in education.

In kindergarten we collect readiness data. Did you know that a student’s ability to put on his or her own jacket is a better indicator of success than knowledge of the alphabet?   

In elementary school we collect and study data on a student’s fluency when reading. We know that a child’s ability to read smoothly will help with the transition from learning to read to reading to learn. 

In those tough middle school years, we analyze students’ participation in extracurricular clubs and activities vs. students who do not because we know this type of connection to schools leads to success. 

In high school we look at attendance data. Many schools now are analyzing school start times. Do schools that start later have better attendance and subsequent improved academic results?  

Then, of course, there are the much-maligned standardized tests. The length, frequency and difficulty of those tests are discussions for another day, but they do give schools valuable data. They help school districts develop curriculum priorities by identifying areas in which students need more practice.

Education finds itself in an interesting position when it comes to data analytics:

It’s a powerful tool to help reshape and improve education.

We understand our ability to use data can help to analyze programs and student performance, but we can’t lose sight of the fact that it is a tool we must use responsibly in guiding individual students to successful outcomes.

Finally, we also are preparing students to enter a world of work featuring data analytics.

When students walk to the bus at dismissal and see the auto-notification “16 minutes to get home” on their phones do they know that someone wrote the algorithm that supplied the information? Do they know that they could be writing similar algorithms or working in the data analytics industry someday? 

The recent explosion in STEM-based programming in schools with coding classes, engineering sequences and advanced statistics courses will empower this future workforce. The next step is more direct data analytics “pipelines” like we see at the college level.

Our digitally connected students are living in a data-rich world. We need to empower them to work in it.  

Christopher Hill is the Assistant Superintendent for Instructional Services at Oneida-Herkimer-Madison BOCES and chairman of the Education Subcommittee of The Genesis Project’s Data Analytics Task Force.

About this project:

Over the past 16 months, more than 100 Genesis Group volunteers have joined with leading area industries and enterprises to encourage the development of data analytics — making informed decisions based on the gathering and analysis of large volumes of data — in our region. The Data Analytics Task Force is comprised of six subcommittees (education, insurance, banking and finance, agribusiness, public safety and health and wellness).

The subcommittees are studying the rapid growth of data analysis in their fields and exploring how a cooperative effort to develop data science practitioners might help existing enterprises and community service organizations grow and expand and assist new enterprises to take root in the Mohawk Valley. Today’s report is another in a series of efforts to share that work with the community.

The project takes its inspiration from the founder of the Genesis Group, the late Joseph R. Carucci, whose vision was to promote and sustain a shared sense of purpose in imagining and fostering a bright future for the Mohawk Valley. We see this work as an important next step in fulfilling that mission. To read previous reports and learn more go to: www.thegenesisgroup.org

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