When Parents Lead, Children Succeed

B2W Radio - Understanding the Data That Shape Education Curriculum and Policy, pt 1

B2W Radio - Understanding the Data That Shape Education Curriculum and Policy, pt 1

Elane V. Scott
Rick Stephens
Featured Guest:
Jim Cox

“Education is a people profession. Not a program profession.” – Jim Cox

Dear Valued Stakeholders,

I used to be one of those people who thought that I wasn’t very good at math. I didn’t have any strong feelings about it, but I didn’t put a lot of effort into excelling at it either. Somehow, like many youngsters then and now, I had deluded myself into thinking I just wouldn’t use math when I got away from school and into my “real life”. If you’re smiling now, you are likely one of those who did well in math from the get-go. Or you are one of those who, just like me, figured out later that mathematical thinking is required for life. (Period!) No one can get by without mentioning something in the language of numbers – distances, sizes, frequency of occurrence, savings, retirement accounts, bank balance, bandwidth, costs, percentages, time, weight, intensity, endurance, dates – the list is endless because every action we do in life can be measured as some fraction of a bigger picture. Data that drives our world is delivered as numbers, then analyzed, studied and reported out as proof of change, no change, or need for change. We are a data driven world. The question is, with all the numbers that are tossed about in the media and between colleagues, how do we know what the numbers mean?

For educators and the general public, school-wide test scores are an example of numbers acquired to assure the public that their schools are delivering a quality education to their young. These test scores have become so pervasive in the conversation about quality education that many people accept them as being just that - accurate measures of quality. But is that really true? Our guest on today’s B2W Radio program, Jim Cox, is about to give you the rest of the story. Jim is held at the highest level of respect and trust among education leaders throughout the state of California and the rest of the country as someone who knows how to make difficult measurement and statistical concepts easier to understand and apply.

Jim doesn’t claim to be a statistical expert in all economic areas, but in his charmingly curmudgeon style, he makes it very easy for others to learn some tough mathematical processes needed to operate in today’s data driven education environment. He has a love of numbers and is clear about what they do and don’t tell us. He is a consultant, facilitator, and evaluator for school districts engaged in school restructuring, testing, and other forms of assessment and program evaluation. But Jim’s enthusiasm for data isn’t so much about the numbers themselves; it’s about what the numbers hide and what they reveal. He’ll talk about how, when used thoughtfully, measurements can have a huge impact in support of truly valuable programs, or they can be used to destroy others. As a citizen, a business leader, and a parent, you need to know the difference.

The key to using data is to first define the word. One of the six steps in the Birth2Work process for aligning communities to solve some of today’s complex problems is to “agree on common language.” That means we don’t assume we agree on what key words mean when we are working together. Here’s an example. My radio co-host, Rick, often talks about an experience he had when listening to a county superintendent give data some years ago, about how few students drop-out from the schools he was in charge of, compared to the rest of the state and the country. The superintendent reported his drop out average in a single digit number. Just that morning, in the local paper, Rick had been reading about the astonishingly high number of dropouts in the state and found the superintendent’s number suspect. “Really?” he questioned. Rick thought for another moment, deciding he and the superintendent weren’t defining the term “drop out” in the same way. He framed a different question, “What is the average drop out rate of students who start high school as freshmen versus finish high school their senior year?” “Oh, well, that’s a different number,” said the superintendent. “That’s more like 20%. We track that differently. We track the hard drop out numbers by who actually comes in the main office and tells us they are dropping out.” From Rick’s business perspective, the number of students who start high school as freshman and make it all the way to end are called the “thru put.” For example, if you start with 100 hammers and 98 come thru at the end of the production, you’ve lost 2%. Not too bad. On the other hand, the 20% loss of students cited by the superintendent was troubling. If any businesses consistently lost 20% of the inventory it started with every year, they wouldn’t be in business very long.

So, we now understand the first important idea about working with data is the importance of defining words which name the data being talked about, so people can agree on what they are talking about when they use them. For Jim, the second important idea about data is to understand the type of data being discussed before analyzing it. There are two kinds of data, he explains. The first type of data to be familiar with reports results or outcomes. But use caution here. Inappropriate conclusions are often drawn from this type of data. As Jim wryly says, ###“Weighing a pig doesn’t make it grow.”### That is to say, looking at the outcome data is status reporting, but it doesn’t tell you how to make a better program. You have no hints about what to change. To affect change relative to outcome data, you have to consider the second kind of data, which is process or program data. These data tell us something about the things we DO, our actions. We do not DO outcome. We get outcomes. We do not DO a drop out rate. Kids drop out if schools and communities aren’t doing what they need to keep kids moving through. If you see a report of a drop out rate at 20%, that is a status report. It does not help improve the programs in place for decreasing the drop out rate. Data that reports the quality of the work being done will actually help. And that’s where the skills and energy of educators and education leaders (and community leaders) need to go in order to have outcome data balance with process data to cause change.

In the end, education test scores as numbers and data alone will never give us more than a snapshot about how our students are doing in school that one day. What we need is a better understanding of the processes, the activities, the people, and the materials being used to teach and enrich the lives of our youngsters, both in school and in the communities where they live. What messages do our students get from the people who work in their community? How much thought do city leaders have for providing quality parks, bike trails, and recreational facilities for citizens? Are there leadership development opportunities, businesses eager to have students job shadow, public events that are lauded, and a conscious effort to find ways to tell the stories of the people who founded and shaped the history of the community? “Education is a people profession. Not a program profession,” says Jim. Outcome data may tell us what students know at a given moment, but it’s not clear that the ability to take a test well is sufficient to prepare them for life and work outside the classroom.

Engaged people, stakeholders and stakeholder leaders who speak of their community as a great place to live, are just as significant in the education of the young as the classroom. To assure a quality education for youngsters, we must understand what constitutes quality programs AND how they drive outcome data. Otherwise, we will never have the whole story about how to continuously improve education for the future. We at Birth2work share this concept with Jim.

If you want to know more about a county of stakeholder leaders who are working through the Birth2Work six-step program, listen to our radio programs with Vermilion County, Illinois business leaders Lou Mervis and Jeff Mays, and Vicki Haugan. This county had already spent 9 years trying to improve education alone before beginning its work with us. Today, leaders are creating a future for the county by working across all economic sectors, sharing common data, and aspiring to a shared vision. Learn more about it on the Birth2Work website by SEARCHING Vermilion County.

Elane V. Scott

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