It’s not all about big data

(From left): Sonja Brookins Santelises of Baltimore City Public Schools; Donna Linderman of City University of New York; Meghan Irons of the Boston Globe; Rucker Johnson of University of California, Berkeley; and Andy Smarick of the R Street Institute. (Photo: James Minichello, AASA for the Education Writers Association)

BALTIMORE — For years big data has been touted as the go-to source to determine student success. But that view may be changing as the education field looks at other factors in determining success, from students’ happiness to finding jobs with a family-sustaining income.

During a panel discussion on student success Monday at the Education Writers Association national seminar, education researchers and administrators agreed that more than data is needed to determine student success. Too often, data only provide freeze frames — something Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Sonja Brookins Santelises called “incidental moments of data” — and they don’t factor in other important elements.

“In the era of big data, we’ve become enamored with short-term test scores,” said Rucker Johnson, a public policy associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Andy Smarick, a former White House aide and deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Education Department who now works for the R Street Institute, a policy research group, said he too was deeply engaged with the accountability movement as the way to determine student success. He came to realize that elements such as students’ happiness and teaching good citizenship are also an important part of learning at school but more difficult to measure.

“Reading, math and graduation numbers, yes. But what about things beyond the metrics?” he said.

Rucker added that other factors such as leadership skills, high quality teachers and the ability to adopt to diverse settings also fall into that category.

Similar challenges

The panel also discussed similarities facing urban and rural schools and communities. While the two are often distinguished by their differences, there’s quite a bit they have in common. Smarick noted that both have a large number of low-income residents with high-level needs. And in both areas the communities often feel like they have been forgotten or that leaders don’t care about them. They also resent the feeling that outsiders come in as experts who think they can turn the tide, though they know little about the communities.

That’s the same feeling city residents feel regarding good-intentioned investments from local governments and foundations that don’t result in change, Santelises added.

The panel did look at promising programs, particularly the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) in New York City. Donna Linderman, associate vice chancellor of academic affairs at the City University of New York, highlighted the program’s success in focusing on completion at community colleges rather than just access. By addressing challenges beyond paying tuition, ASAP has resulted in higher completion rates over the past decade, so much so that now four-year colleges are taking a closer look at the program, Linderman said.

A word from DeVos

Later in the day U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos addressed the education journalists, focusing mainly on school choice and the department’s proposed Education Freedom Scholarships, which would be funded with voluntarily donations in exchange for tax credits. States could apply the scholarships toward an array of programs, including apprenticeships and dual-enrollment programs, she said.

“Each state has the opportunity to be uniquely imaginative,” DeVos said.

The secretary has been promoting the scholarships this spring before Congress as well as in the field. In April, she visited a Kentucky community college where she joined in a round table discussion with the governor, state education commissioner and more than 20 families, educators and other stakeholders about the proposal.

During her talk at the EWA meeting, DeVos again touched on career and technical education and community colleges, noting that many available jobs require a postsecondary education but not necessarily a baccalaureate.

Other topics the secretary addressed included: proposed teacher vouchers for professional development, affirmative action, guidance on school discipline and the department’s addressing a backlog of requests from student borrowers who are seeking relief from their federal loans after the for-profit institutions in which they were enrolled suddenly closed.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
is editor of Community College Daily and serves as publications director for the American Association of Community Colleges.