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10/23/2008
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Can Data Mining Save America's Schools?

Schools have more data than ever, and there's a major push on to make better use of it to identify students who need help.

During the 2007-2008 school year, students in New York City weren't the only ones getting report cards. So did the city's 1,500 public schools.

New York City's Department of Education, responsible for 1.1 million children, began issuing annual "progress reports" to each of its schools last fall, with grades ranging from A to F. Principals of the top 20% of schools received bonuses from $7,000 to $25,000. Teachers at schools with high poverty rates qualify for a bonus program. And over time, schools receiving D's or F's face possible changes in leadership, restructuring, and even closure.

Yet grading schools is kid's stuff compared with what a growing number of school districts around the United States think they can do with data mining and data analysis. Combining standardized test scores, attendance, grades, and other data sources, districts are trying to spot weaknesses and strengths of not just schools, but groups of kids and even individual students. For example, the Plano, Texas, district scanned data across eight schools and zeroed in on 60 kids who looked at risk of failing a standardized test, and created plans to help them.

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This is just the start. While there's much criticism of the federal No Child Left Behind legislation--mainly, that it's left teachers teaching to test requirements, not student needs--it has undeniably created a mountain of data, all of which can be analyzed. "Without data, we just went on opinion. There was no data to back up instructional needs of kids," says Cindy Goldsworthy, assistant superintendent of Derry Township School District in Hershey, Pa. "It takes what in education was often driven by intuition into showing quantitative proof."

In New York City, the effort centers on an $80 million Web-based data mining and business intelligence project called Achievement Reporting and Innovation System. Beginning this year, all 80,000 of the city's public school teachers will have access to the ARIS system and get training in the analysis tools. Parents also will have Web access to data about their children this year.

The school-by-school grades are based on a complex analysis of an array of information about each school, including students' year-over-year academic progress, state test performance, and attendance, as well as surveys of parents. "Any metric we have in the progress report, you can drill down on," says Jim Liebman, who champions ARIS as the chief accountability officer for the city's schools. So a principal can see the school's grade on ARIS, which might indicate the school is lagging in math. The principal can drill down to find the school's math scores are in the bottom third of city schools, then look further to see the individual students who make up that bottom group. A step further shows what math skills they're weakest in. Principals can spot, for example, "these 10 kids" who are having trouble in math and English and need extra help, Liebman says.

The effort to give teachers these tools began last fall as New York began rolling out access to ARIS to all principals and small "Inquiry Teams" of teachers in every school, who are using the tools to analyze the performance and growth of the most at-risk students.

This year, it's being rolled out to every teacher, and the Inquiry Teams are asked to hold training sessions at their schools just as all those teachers get their login information. There's deeper training for teachers who want it--in two waves, one starting next month and another in the spring, since new functionality and data will be added later in the year.


The Inquiry Team at I.S. 143 Eleanor Roosevelt School in New York City -- Photo by Erica Berger

The Inquiry Team at I.S. 143 Eleanor Roosevelt School in New York City

Photo by Erica Berger
Those Inquiry Teams have been focusing on identifying troublesome areas--say, one group of fifth-grade boys in a particular school having difficulties in math--and diagnosing the problem so the school can consider how to react. New York also wants teachers to use the system to figure out what works.

So if a teacher tries a new way of presenting lessons for students struggling with multiplying fractions, the ARIS system can be used to track progress from one month to the next based on students' periodic assessment test results, compared with other student data in preset reports and customized reports functions.

"These are diagnostic tools for teachers to use every day, not just on the side," says Liebman.

Later this fall, teachers and principals will be able to share ideas and information via Web collaboration tools that are part of the ARIS project rollout. Using a module of the open source content management software Drupal, teachers will be able to create communities of like-minded collaborators, using blogs, wikis, and private community spaces. Educators can add to their profiles to create "instructional identities" to make it easier for teachers to find others who share interests.

The effort involves up to 100 TB in a data warehouse, with enrollment, assessment, and biographical data for all 1.1 million students, plus profile data for every staff member. Today, teachers are tapping mostly preset reports, which they access through a browser using the same login as the e-mail system, but by midwinter, the school system expects to have added business intelligence tools--it has considered software from Cognos, which is owned by IBM, the project's lead contractor--to allow more complicated queries.

The New York City teachers' union, the United Federation of Teachers, has backed the ARIS program, as long as it isn't used to judge teachers and the school provides teachers with programs that have proven to help with particular problems. "Teachers want to use it," says Michael Mulgrew, the union's chief operating officer. "They want to make their instruction better."

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For those who see education's rush to data analysis as a bad thing, as just a more individualized way to "teach to the test," Liebman has little patience. "This process is no more 'teaching to the test' than a doctor diagnosing and then treating a patient for a bacterial infection of the kidney is 'treating to the test,'" says Liebman, who's also a law professor at Columbia University. Teachers will consider the data along with everything else they observe and change their "treatment" if the student continues to struggle. "This is what professionals do," he says.

U.S. schools need change. The Program for International Student Assessment, which gives math and science exams every three years to about 400,000 teenagers in 30 countries, found U.S. students ranked 24th in math and 16th in science in 2006. U.S. graduation rates, long thought to be about 85%, could be as low as 70% finishing in four years, concludes a shocking report issued in April by the nonprofit Editorial Projects in Education, with backing from America's Promise Alliance and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In the largest cities, it's only 50%, and in some of them it's 35% or lower.

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