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Educators see value in using data to better prepare students and improve workforce

Education
Travis Boland
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When you see your doctor about an illness, you trust they are using the best information possible to come up with a diagnosis on how to treat you. Ellen Mandinach wants to use that same model when it comes to education in the United States.

Mandinach is a senior research scientist and the director of the Data for Decisions Initiative at WestEd, a nonprofit research, development and service agency working with education in the United States. She recently spoke to a group of educators and business leaders at the Transform SC conference in Columbia.

Transform SC is an education initiative of the S.C. Council on Competitiveness that prepares public education system graduates for careers.

Mandinach’s message was to make education evidence-based.

“In 2005, there was a real push in Washington, D.C. to make education evidence-based practice using data analytics,” Mandinach said. “Data analytics is being used by business people, lawyers and even athletes to better their performance.”

During the last 17 years, Mandinach has focused on understanding how educators are using data to inform practice, with a goal of putting students on a successful post-graduate path.

“Experience is great, but you have to be armed with evidence,” Mandinach said. “In the increasing world of complexity around education, children are either career-, military- or college-ready. There are so many issues around educating children, and all must be taken into consideration.”

Some relevant factors Mandinach said teachers should be aware of include student transience, homelessness, school climate and bullying. Data can be gathered either through classroom instruction or by assessment tests given periodically through the school year. The data collected can then be shared by teachers to help in instruction planning.

In a study by WestEd on helping homeless students, teachers learned to ease enrollment policies and procedures such as requiring birth certificates or similar documents. Schools accepted other forms of identification in order to let the student begin attending classes.

In the classroom, teachers worked to assess students’ “readiness to learn” skills such as listening, following directions and asking for help. Such an assessment gives teachers a better understanding of how the student learns.

Mandinach said teachers must be armed with data to help do a better job of understanding the needs of students and the context of their backgrounds.

“It’s not just about test results or student performance anymore,” she said.

Tim Arnold, president and CEO of Colonial Life and a Transform SC board member, said it’s imperative to arm South Carolina’s next generation with the tools necessary for later success.

“We’re investing in our educators who, in turn, invest in our students, and data is the leading topic in classrooms right now,” Arnold said.

Mandinach said there are pockets or exemplary work being done across the state. She said South Carolina is the first state to adopt in-classroom standards for teaching based on data.

These standards vary depending on each level of education. Early learning standards provide a common set of goals and developmental indicators for kindergarten students.

“The state department of education received over $20 million over two grants to build up state data systems, which helps with infrastructure for the collection of data for continued improvements,” Mandinach said. “Others are slower to come on board.”

Lexington-Richland District Five director of elementary education Michael Guliano said his district has been using training models including teacher leaders, data team facilitators and school administrators to certify more than 90 faculty members to coordinate efforts in collecting data in their classrooms.

“In our district, data is used to inform instruction,” Guliano said. “Teachers use both formative and summative data which includes information gathered from testing and observational feedback.”

Formative assessments monitor a student’s learning to provide ongoing feedback that can be used by instructors to improve their teaching, while summative assessments evaluate student learning at the end of an instructional unit.

Mandinach said education is no longer sending in a teacher into a classroom, closing the door and having him or her go it alone. She said collaboration is an important skill set that educators are starting to find useful.

Guliano said Lexington-Richland District Five has data teams that collaborate to discuss data obtained through common formative assessments, such as identifying the main point of a lecture or turning in research proposals for early feedback.

“Using this data, teachers analyze the strengths and obstacles for groups of students, make inferences to determine the root cause and prioritize the next steps of instruction,” Guiliano said. “Data teams allow teachers to have meaningful, collegial discussions around data that informs teachers to make sound instructional decisions to meet the needs of all students.”

Knowledge of these practices at the college level is key for future educators. Mandinach said many universities are working to develop materials to gather data to be used in teacher preparedness programs.

“The best way is to integrate these skill sets in a variety of different courses such as math, science and history,” she said. “99.9% must happen in teacher preparation.”

Mandinach told a story of working with Arizona mayors on a study of dropout prevention. The study examined the cost to cities of a student who drops out of school and doesn’t get a job. The research concluded such a scenario cost taxpayers nearly half a million dollars.

Data analytics can help keep those costs down by identifying at-risk students and working to reach them, proponents say.

“These programs continue to help nurture children to graduate and be productive citizens that are better prepared to enter the workforce,” Mandinach said. “It helps the business community. The study showed when teachers use data to inform their decisions, it improves student performance, helping mitigate dropout rate and create a better workforce. Everybody wins.”

Reach Travis Boland at colanews@scbiznews.com.

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