ON CAMPUS: Austin seminar reveals numbers' naughty, nurturing sides

naustin@modbee.comFebruary 23, 2013 

— This is the second-day Austin in Austin blog. I’m in the Texas capital after being selected by the Education Writers of America for a seminar called Diving into Data. Spent the last 4½ hours learning SPSS, a mega statistics program that makes Excel look user friendly and simple. Saturday night in one of the music and dining capitals of the nation and the most tempting thing is a soft pillow. But I still don’t have any Austin tees, so I’ll be venturing out.

First, though, I wanted to send an update on the dozen speakers we heard before the workshop – no kidding, there were 12. Some focused on using data in school districts to improve instruction. Several talked about ways to graphically present data. Others talked about how to find or request data, and stories they discovered looking at the data, especially financial data.

Tawnell Hobbs tracks spending by the large Dallas school district for the Dallas Morning News. She doesn’t compare budgets. She tracks their credit card bills, purchase orders, checks and grants – every transaction. Sounds excessive, doesn’t it.

But here are some of the things she found out. Dallas administrators and many teachers used to have district credit cards, which were used for district needs, but also for personal items that were not reimbursed.

At the same time as the district was cutting salaries and laying off teachers, charges rolled in for expensive scooters, luxury sheet sets, online dating service fees and tens of thousands of dollars in purchase-cloaking gift cards, often bought in chunks just under the reporting limit with another chunk bought just minutes later.

During summer months, when schools buildings sat unused, administrators held catered meetings for small groups at big name hotels. Dallas staff attended overnight retreats at Dallas hotels. Meals – breakfast, lunch and dinner, were routinely charged (including $86,000 at Chick-fil-A). Yep, data has the muscle and Hobbs had the moxie for some great muck-raking. But numbers also have a nurturing side. In the right hands and with next-gen software, data is being used to support instruction tailored to be what each child needs when they can best use it.

University of Texas at Austin Professor Jeff Wayman’s message is that data needs to integrate with what teachers use in routine practice. Data use can’t be a separate event; it has to be an everyday tool.

To help college students succeed, Mark David Milliron of Western Governors University Texas targeted the top five “wipeout courses” and laid out essentially best practices for students. When they follow a successful study regimen, a green light shows on their screen. If they take a turn off the beaten path, a yellow light shows. If they veer toward failure, a flashing red light tells them to ask for help.

Real time, intuitive feedback to the front lines is where education’s data delivery needs to go, Milliron said, citing online retail sites’ instant, seamless sales suggestions to shoppers.

Lynda Villanueva of Brazosport College, a Texas JC, helped her school make big gains in student success using data showing which students were most likely to drop out of college (those taking remedial classes).

Talking to students and studying the stats was eye opening, she said, and led to the development of a how-to-do-college class now taken by most incoming students. The drop out rate after the fall semester went from 35% to 8% for students taking those classes.

“Decisions must be based on data, or you’re not going to move the needle in any significant way,” Villanueva said.

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