Measuring Student and Teacher Success

On July 21st, Bill Gates spoke to the National Conference of State Legislatures meeting in Philadelphia. His main point: using education stimulus money to create common standards and data systems to measure and document student and teacher achievement and effectiveness, in order to find ways to move forward and improve our education system and our economy in turn. Video and a transcript of his speech are available at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Website.
We spoke with Harry Barfoot, VP Marketing, Vantage Labs and VP Sales & Marketing, Vantage Learning, about some of Gates’ assertions concerning the use of technology and data systems in the classroom.
Gates suggests that, often, the most successful workers in our economy have a postsecondary degree or credential. But, to achieve that, students must be prepared properly in their primary and secondary education. How do you see technology, available today for teachers, figuring into this preparation?
Harry Barfoot:
I think that a “successful worker” can mean many things to many people.
In a recent report titled The Ill-Prepared U.S. Workforce, sponsored by The Conference Board, survey results from employers raised critical questions regarding corporate practices on training newly hired graduates at three educational levels: high school, two-year college, and four-year college. Almost half of the employers surveyed provide workforce readiness (remedial) training programs to erase deficiencies among their newly hired entrants in skills they expect them to have when hired. Yet, the majority of companies find these programs to be “moderately” or “somewhat successful” at best.
Are high school students prepared to enter the workforce?  Are high school graduates prepared for two or four-year colleges? And are graduates of these colleges prepared as well? The answers typically are “no” at all levels.
In fact, there is data compiled and published by researchers such as Dr. Doug Reeves, founder of the Leadership and Learning Center, that strongly suggests that K-12 teachers with advanced degrees who are paid more by their respective school districts are not necessarily “better teachers” or more “successful workers” just because they have advanced degrees. I do not think anyone would argue that postsecondary degrees provide the “ability” to be successful, or provide a stronger foundation for a variety of jobs in our economy.
We cannot mandate that all students go on to college or higher education, even if we desire for all students to achieve this. Regardless, all students deserve to master the skills at the level of education they exit and enter the workforce.
The fact is, that in school districts across the country, particularly urban school districts, which represent about 25 percent of our K-12 population, improvements have been achieved but a much larger percentage of our graduates do not have the basic skills demanded by even a service economy where advanced degrees are not the norm. Just yesterday, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman of Philadelphia commented that fewer than half of city school children can read at grade level, and only slightly more can perform math at grade level, despite years of dedicated effort by previous administrations and millions of dollars being spent. This is not exclusive to Philadelphia. And, when we look at overall high school graduation rates, there are many students who leave school by 9th or 10th grade. What skills do these kids have to become a productive member of our society and a “successful worker?”  Superintendent Ackerman knows that we cannot wait for the current trends of incremental improvement to continue, otherwise students wouldn’t be proficient for many years into the future.
We need bold new steps to better serve the students of our great country. NCLB has served us well and was a great first step to ensure stronger standards and accountability. But it has been either too rigid or not flexible enough for many. The current administration, led by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, recognizes this and knows that education is our “moonshot” for our generation of students.
Technology still is an “assist” tool that enables school districts to be more productive and efficient. How can a teacher teach 30 unique students in a classroom if they have differing abilities, levels of knowledge and skills? Technology helps, but the velocity of technological change is so great that districts struggle to implement changes in ways that the private sector can today.
Technology will succeed or fail depending upon how it is used and if the people using technology are trained adequately. For example, there isn’t a single successful organization, public or private, that doesn’t look at data daily, doesn’t adjust their tactics and strategy often as conditions require, and doesn’t try to segment their markets and strive to be the best they can in them. The same applies to schools. Data must be used regularly to drive instruction. Using common formative assessments provide individualized “headlights” for teachers to adjust their strategies to serve all students and assure success. We can use assessment to screen, diagnose, indicate and even predict how kids will perform in the future. How can a student learn if they aren’t in school? And would we wait until year-end to find out who has missed 35 percent of the subjects taught? No! We need to look at all aspects of a district and use technology to answer the “what if” questions and drill deeper into the root causes of certain problems or challenges. This includes the skills and success of teachers in the classroom. After all, the majority of funding still centers on teacher salaries, which, in my estimation, still do not adequately address the importance of the work they do for our society relative to other jobs out there.
Why do we rely so heavily on a single, annual assessment given during a very short window of time? People are measured all the time! We should use technology to adapt to different forms of assessment. Widening the testing schedule to be throughout the school year allows more online testing to occur with existing infrastructure, saving millions.
Advanced technologies that can grade thousands of essays within seconds, providing more frequent opportunities for students to write and gain critical thinking and literacy skills are available today and have been for a number of years. Yet districts still think that the “old tried and true ways” of teaching are sufficient. I question whether any teacher, teaching this fall, but using the same tools and strategies she or he did three or four years ago, is serving the needs of any student.
In his speech, Gates references successful charter schools. Do you think charter schools have a better success rate with implementing technology in the classroom?
Harry Barfoot:
Charter schools certainly have received a lot of attention lately by the Obama administration. But they aren’t new. There are many successful charter schools throughout the U.S. However, the original premise of charter schools is that they provide a service that wasn’t being provided by the public schools themselves. I still believe that if there aren’t services offered by the public schools, that there should be alternative options for parents, including home-schooling, online education (either pure online or hybrid), private schools and charter options as well. This, by definition, makes the funding for schools more competitive, and everyone must look to serve the needs of their respective constituency. All parents should have a choice, and that choice should be something that provides them a K-12 education for their child that meets the child’s needs. Education is a “civil right” of all kids; to the extent public monies are used to provide options makes it more competitive.
Gates states that we need common standards, with curriculum and tests aligned to the standards. What kinds of technology-based products do you see emerging that could help promote this?
Harry Barfoot:
Do you realize how much money is wasted on vendors aligning test questions to 50 different state standards? But they have to because everyone wants to know what standards these items test. If all 50 states reduced the size of the staff in their respective departments of education, would it save money if we had one large DOE at the federal level? Is a 9th grader in Iowa that much different than a 9th grader in Pennsylvania or New Jersey? There is a huge financial gain to be made if common standards, curriculum and tests were used in the U.S. That money could be pumped back into improve tools for teaching and learning. But that is too practical! Additionally, bureacracies over time tend to diminish the effects of a chance like this; I cannot imagine states will fully support nationalization of standards, curriculum and tests even if it makes the most sense.
Technology can help by improving alignment processes, so they are less labor intensive. Learning modules or objects can be more easily pulled and dumped into a technology platform for use as educators see fit. Pulling content off the Internet easily and creating virtual libraries that can be accessed by students and used in a consistent, common manner at a district level are certainly available today. Providing a way to cull the best and most effective resources on the Internet and offering this tool for free to school districts nation wide makes it easier to leverage what has already been developed. These exist today to streamline the process of either improving consistency or mapping one standard to another.
How can technology-based products help schools collect data that tracks student performance over time, rather than just at the end of the year?
Harry Barfoot:
This is actually one of the easiest questions to answer. If all records are kept electronically, then one can truly ask a questions like the following: “Tell me all of the 7th grade boys who missed less than eight days of school this semester, and have greater than 80 percent on their weekly reading and math formative assessments.” And you’d get the answers! We can track student performance over time easily! Spending hundreds of millions of dollars just isn’t necessary any more. We must have a unique student identification system, but after that, it’s all about answering the questions — not tracking the data. Triangulation of data is easy when you have it in a data cloud somewhere and can report on it without having to have a staff of 50 data manipulators or statisticians. State longitudinal data systems are important, but if all we end up doing is tracking, over time, the once-per-year high-stakes test, we are wasting money and only addressing a fraction of what is possible.
One of the Gates’ proposals is implementing a national standard that can define teacher performance as a way to reward our best teachers, rather than those who have just taught the longest or achieved a master’s degree. What kind of data-collecting systems are available or could be available to help facilitate this process?
Harry Barfoot:
This is an exceptional idea and is supported/backed by research. But again, we have to electronically capture the data to assist this goal. Teachers attend conferences or workshops and receive credit for attending. But did we measure the effectiveness of the training via survey or actual assessment of skills learned? Did we measure and capture the skills or standards we were applying? The same data collection and reporting systems that collect and report on student data can be used to collect and report on teacher data. But any data “warehouse” implemented in isolation is not the answer. We need to have an easy way to bring the data together and ask “what if” questions easily and receive answers immediately.
And, overall, what trends are you seeing in the kind of technology being implemented in classrooms, whether to bolster curriculum initiatives or to support administrative needs?
Harry Barfoot:
Certainly a more modularized approach to curriculum content is leveraging technology today. Teachers can choose the tools necessary to teach the students and individualize instruction. This must go hand in hand with short, 10-question, weekly, common formative assessments, and online assessment is the only answer that satisfies this need. But we can’t just rely on dumbed-down multiple-choice testing; performance tasks and other higher-level questions can be used today with technology.
1:1 computing is enabling numerous opportunities to advance student learning. For example, 1:1 combined with tools like an instructional writing program, which enables hundreds of thousands of student essays to be graded instantly with students revising five, 10, even 15 times per essay versus zero revisions without the technology assisting.
Online learning is what allows greater flexibility in determining the best delivery vehicle for education, whether it is via a teacher live but over the Internet, or content that is shared with other students physically not in the same building as the teacher. Technology provides so many more opportunities for collaboration among teachers with other teachers, students with other students, teachers with students, and teachers with parents.
And to support administrative needs, we must take $.70 to $.80 of every $1 spent in school and district administration and transfer that money to teachers and students to better serve them. Software is available that literally can turnkey run all of the district administrative functions at a fraction of the cost that is being spent today. What better way to serve administration than putting better and less expensive tools in their hands and transferring that money into the classroom?