Former Kaplan executive Charles Thornburgh, who describes himself as an “education entrepreneur” on Twitter, recently formed Civitas Learning, a new software company that, according to The Austin Statesman, has raised over $4 million in venture capital funds and “collaborates with higher education entities to analyze student data to help predict which students are at risk of dropping out. Civitas then guides and advises the student on how best to go forward.” Thornburgh makes an excellent point about how students plan their higher education experience:
“Right now, academic decisions are made largely on anecdotes and serendipity. A minor decision like which class to take can have a major bearing on a student’s overall academic success. We can identify classes that have been successful for similar students in the past, and we can warn them about taking class combinations that have been toxic in the past.”
I can vouch for this based on my years of advising college students. When they come to me to plan their next semester, they generally know what courses they want to take, but not necessarily why they are taking them or how they might work together- or against- each other in their learning process. They also rely on such sites as RateMyProfessor.com to decide which courses to take from which instructors-even though they do not take into consideration that all students have different experiences with professors. I have even had to remind students that they can’t take an upper level course in a subject before they fulfill their lower level requirements.
Are We Gambling with Education?
While I certainly think that projects focused solely on targeting at-risk students are worthy endeavors, and welcome any new tools that will help students, whenever I hear about a new data-based initiative or a new number-crunching company in education, I immediately hear the score of the musical “Guys and Dolls” in my head. A story of gamblers finding true love and reforming themselves, the play is based on the street-wise stories of Damon Runyon, who wrote about what one writer described as a “variety of characters that inhabited a fast paced, hand to mouth, rough and tumble New York City.” The connection between Damon Runyon’s characters and education is clear: all you need to do is switch out the words “New York City” and replace them with the words “public school system,” because that’s a rough and tumble world if ever there was one.
But that’s not the only, or most important, connection. In “Guys and Dolls,” jocular, inveterate gambler Nicely Nicely Johnson sings “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” a rabble-rousing song about learning that gambling is wrong. The lyrics are instructive:
I dreamed last night I got on the boat to Heaven
And by some chance, I had brought my dice along
And there I stood and I hollered “Someone fade me!”
But the passengers they knew right from wrong
For the people all said, Sit down
Sit down you’re rockin’ the boat
People all said Sit down
Sit down you’re rockin’ the boat
Objections to Data-Driven Reform
I hear “Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat” because there’s a huge part of me that wonders if the emphasis on data-driven education reform is often really just a high-risk numbers game. I’m not alone in this concern:
- Last week on the Daily Kos website, Furman University Associate Professor of Education P. L. Thomas pointed out that data-driven initiatives have failed many times because those doing the number-crunching often lack the skills needed to accurately analyze the data, and because “Data in education, specifically quantified data, are not perfect reflections of learning and teaching. Standardized test scores are approximations, at best, of teaching and learning; and standardized test scores remain powerfully correlated with factors beyond the control of schools or teachers.”
- Jaclyn Zubrzycki, writing for Education Week, pointed out that we have jumped into data-driven reform without really measuring its effectiveness: “As schools around the country use students’ test scores and other data to determine who needs to learn what (and how), there have not been many large-scale studies on the effectiveness of data-driven reforms.”
- Faculty members do not necessarily know what to do with data, because it may not be relevant to their situations. Rushton Harley, executive director of Next Vista for Learning, argues that “the data may have to do with students who have an entirely different set of challenges and opportunities than my students have. They may reflect the use of the tool or technique in a way that I could or would not replicate. Most importantly, the research may not account for important variables in such a way that there is any reason to apply it at all. Put simply, you may be looking at a set of numbers that doesn’t mean squat.”
These are important points to consider. It would be nice to believe that the problems in our education system could be fixed through the use of data alone, but that is just not the case. Statistics and test results are only part of a much larger piece of the puzzle. The average classroom teacher does not need software to point out which students are in trouble. We often recognize it way before the student, parents, or anyone else does. The problem is not identifying those students- it’s being able to use the right tools to help the students. With shrinking budgets, that has become more and more difficult.
That’s why the Civitas approach is worth considering for college students. By focusing on the students themselves, and giving them advice rather than preaching to faculty about their “failures,” data might be used in a productive way to truly affect individual students and their futures. I do think that some data must be taken with a grain of salt- who am I to tell a student not to rise to a challenge but to always seek the easiest path? But some more information may at least provide students with some more guidance- and maybe they’ll listen to statistics more than to their old fogey advisor.
My one concern- my eternal concern, actually- is that the experience and insight of educators is given short-shrift by data-driven reformers. Like Nicely Nicely Johnson, the number-crunchers need to listen to the passengers on the education boat: the students, teachers, and parents whose futures are at stake. After all, we’re the ones who are going to go under if they rock the boat the wrong way. As the chorus tells Nicely-Nicely Johnson,
And the Devil will drag you under
By the sharp lapel of your checkered coat
Sit down sit down sit down sit down
Sit down you’re rockin’ the boat!