Data-first thinking: DC, Deasy, Moneyball and Big Data

Data-First Thinking: DC, Deasy, Moneyball and Big Data

Data has been in the headlines lately, with Big Data and Moneyball mentioned in the same article more than once. And for good reason: we are living in an era of unprecedented data creation and mining.

As I’ve read through multiple articles and posts on the subject, a couple of things have struck me. The first is that, on personal and professional levels, we should all be paying attention to this phenomenon. Second is that having the data (or, worse, simply bellyaching about it) isn’t enough. The data is there. We need to do something with it.

DC:  Is it bad news?

The headline is certainly depressing ‘In DC schools, 59 percent of students graduate on time.’  That’s terrible news for DC and for the 41% of kids who are still trying to get out of high school.  But the story represents a monumental milestone. For too long, the District of Columbia had been systematically fooling itself, its students, families and community about the reality of graduation rates. Using opaque approaches made the rate appear, if not acceptable, at least palatable. Data analysis has shown, once and for all, that that particular emperor is pretty much naked. The picture isn’t pretty – a four-year completion rate of 58.6 percent is hard to swallow from any public education institution.  But the facts offer a real starting point for progress, and that’s important.  As Interim Chancellor Kaya Henderson said, “…we have a clearer understanding of the work we still need to do, and the public has a more reliable way to hold us accountable.”  Now it’s time to act.

Data and Deasy in action

For inspiration, DC and other districts can look to John Deasy in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Deasy is tackling some of the most persistent, entrenched problems anywhere. And he’s tackling it on a scale that would run weaker leaders off and daunt most Fortune 500 CEOs facing a similar turnaround challenge.

Depending on your attachment to the status quo, you might take issue with his tactics. But you can’t fault his courage in looking squarely at his schools’ performance stats or his drive to act in pursuit of what he believes is best for students and learning.

What has been missing is the ability to put it together in meaningful ways, serve it up on time to the people who can do something about it, and have the courage and willingness to take action.

Moneyball and education

Mickey Mantle’s quote at the beginning of Moneyball says it all: “It’s unbelievable how much you don’t know about the game you’ve been playing all your life.”

We think that sentiment is especially true in education. Data often debunks conventional wisdom about what you think you know and about what’s working and what isn’t. Take Pat Forgione, who served as superintendent of the Austin Independent School District from 1999-2010. A data-steeped educator who had an epiphany when his district started disaggregating secondary attendance rates, Forgione discovered, after implementing a new set of data tools that could report daily on key information about students, that the attendance problem to be solved was not what he thought it was.

“We have a report that comes back every day with the update on attendance,” he told us in a video about the impact of performance-driven education. “I used to think a few kids were missing a lot of days. I was wrong. A lot of my kids are missing a lot of periods. They’re not going to class.” And that epiphany made all the difference in the actions the district took.

Data in education is not new. Education entities already collect mountains of data on students and teachers.  What has been missing is the ability to put it together in meaningful ways, serve it up on time to the people who can do something about it, and have the courage and willingness to take action.

But the tools are there now. That’s the point behind the foundation’s data-driven education initiatives in places like Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Denver and Chicago, and the key principle that undergirds Ed-Fi, the free tool suite designed to support educator decision making and student success. We’ve collectively played the education game a long time; it’s time to face – and act on – the facts.

As president of the Ed-Fi Alliance, Lori Fey manages the rapid growth and adoption of the Ed-Fi data standard for states, school districts and vendors across the US. Prior to leading Ed-Fi Alliance, Lori served as portfolio director for policy initiatives at the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation and was responsible for the foundation’s policy initiatives focused on institutionalizing performance management in the U.S. public education system.

Read more of Lori’s posts here.