Apr 11 2007

Reading the Signs

Bringing It All Together

Five years ago, President Bush signed No Child Left Behind into law as the cornerstone of his administration’s plan to overhaul the country’s K–12 public education. The act’s mission is to raise educational standards, close the achievement gap in schools across the country, test for results and hold accountable schools that don’t measure up.

No Child Left Behind has been controversial from the beginning and reviews of its effectiveness have been predictably mixed. But it unarguably has catalyzed school districts to turn to longitudinal data when making decisions about how students are learning.

The capture of so much information has created an unprecedented opportunity for educators to make smarter choices. For the first time, the possibility exists for data-driven decisions to determine everything from curricula and attendance policies to resource allocation and improvement plans tailored to individual students.

In some cases, urban school districts with the most to prove have accepted the law most quickly and a few districts are ahead of the curve. Their lessons learned could help school leaders throughout the country see how best to use the collected data.

Boston Public Schools (BPS), for example, recently updated its data center and business intelligence capabilities to comply with NCLB. The goals of the undertaking, says Shamil Mohammed, Boston’s Data Center director, are to “provide access to information and resources to support data-driven decision-making, to focus on the whole student and to facilitate communication.”

Data harnessed by the Boston Public Schools will be used to track patterns in student performance and to inform instruction. BPS collects data on a myriad of factors that may impact achievement, such as attendance, grades, demographics, district benchmarks and disciplinary issues.

“The ‘aha’ moment people have is when they are able to access information [and ask] if there is a correlation between attendance and achievement on the [Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests], says Melissa Dodd, deputy CIO at BPS. Such discoveries have helped the district realize gains from closing the achievement gap between whites and minorities to providing the specific help needed to raise all students’ math and reading scores faster than the average of other large American cities.

In Florida, Miami-Dade County Public Schools hopes its data analysis efforts will help discern trends and cut the time it takes to make a course correction in instruction and other areas.

“We really love that we can drill down to the individual child and be very aware of what is going on for each student,” says Debbie Karcher, district CIO. “We can spot problems and weaknesses in schools and individual students more quickly than before. We can deliver this information to a wider audience and are able to let teachers and schools know where action needs to be taken.”

Boston Wins Education’s ‘Nobel Prize’

After four straight years as a finalist, Boston Public Schools finally nabbed the Broad Prize for Urban Education in 2006. To win the Broad Foundation’s top honor, Boston outperformed other Massachusetts districts with similar low-income populations in all six areas tabulated and showed greater improvement by African-American students than the other districts.

Since 2002, Boston has also realized stark increases in the number of minorities taking Advanced Placement math and English exams. The number of Hispanic students taking such tests jumped 237 percent, while African-American students achieved a 78 percent increase in participation.

Miami-Dade’s Turnaround

In the past year, officials from at least seven school districts throughout the country have visited Miami-Dade County School District to help gather information about how they can reform their school systems, according to The Miami Herald. Superintendent Rudy Crew, who came to the district in 2004, immediately took over 39 chronically underperforming schools, instituting longer school days and years and creating curriculum specifically focused on those schools’ needs. Miami was a finalist for the Broad Prize that went to Boston last year.