BrightBytes

Rob Mancabelli on Using Data to Make Better Decisions
Education Week

By: Tom Vander Ark
Original post from Education Week

Hashim Anwar asked his business school friend Rob Mancabelli for advice on his children’s education. As a former teacher and school administrator, Rob knew how hard it was to find good data to guide education decisions.

The two had attended MIT’s Sloan Business School to prepare to work on global innovation, but their conversation led to a big idea—bring the big data tools common in industry to education to help educators make better informed decisions.

The business school friendship of an educator and data scientist led to the formation of BrightBytes, and in this podcast, Rob shares more about how they work to help educators find and use the right data to improve student achievement.

Podcast Highlights

Five years ago there were people thinking about education data but none connecting it to research. Rob observed, “It takes three things to make a good decision: to know the research, to collect and use the right data, and to identify the right next steps based on what similar schools have done."

Leaders from almost 2,500 school districts representing about one in five U.S. students are informed by BrightBytes. The Clarity platform combines research and analysis to improve decision making by turning complex data into actionable information.

In addition to standardized test results, BrightBytes helps administrators collect broader proxies for student success. “We work with institutions on their priorities, and help them improve their return on learning by doing more of what the research says they should be doing,” added Mancabelli.

For example, a new superintendent in a district with a high dropout rate could use the platform to compare their district data to research on 23 factors. After developing a strengths and gaps analysis of their schools, BrightBytes supports an early warning system that identifies students at-risk of dropping out.

Unlike consulting firms that inflict a van full of new MBAs on an organization for months at a time, BrightBytes extracts information from existing systems and provides analytics through a cost-effective software subscription.

Five years ago, the application of a crude checklist was the best early warning system for at-risk students, but resulted in a large number of false positives. "Machine learning allows us to predictively look at historical data and get to more granular answers," said Rob.

"Machine learning is changing so quickly, it’s an exciting area to work in. We’ve come so far since we started,” said Mancabelli.

As a former school administrator now working on bleeding edge decision support systems, Mancabelli advises Ed Leaders to focus on their own learning. “We often don’t know what we don’t know,” said Rob. He urged leaders to make time every week for learning,

On building an impact organization, Rob said, “Check in with customers but build to your vision.”

He added, “Think about organization building as much as product development. Hire smart caring people and focus on culture."

BrightBytes Presentation at Litchfield School Board Meeting
Litchfield Independent Review

By: Leah Byron
Original post from "Litchfield School Board Makes Decision on Re-Roofing Project" Litchfield Independent Review

This summer, the Litchfield School District plans to replace sections of the high school and middle school roofs, as well as the entire roof over Lake Ripley Elementary, per a 10-year maintenance plan approved by the Litchfield School Board Monday.

Re-roofing is just one component of the district’s maintenance plan, outlining a schedule for facility improvements through 2027. The plan, approved annually by the School Board, also calls for re-paving the Wagner Education Building parking lot this year.

While the board has spending concerns, Jesse Johnson noted that designating funds to complete the replacement of a quality roof would cost less overall.

Andrea Uhl, a financial specialist from Ehlers and Associates, the district’s financial advisor, presented the board the information about general obligation bonds in order to finance the project.

The project is estimated to require a $2.5 million bond issue, which the board unanimously approved obtaining, along with a pre-sale report and notice of intent.

Enrollment Declines Steadily
Because Minnesota public schools are funded on a per-pupil basis, Superintendent Daniel Frazier expressed concern over the district’s declining enrollment. Currently, the total number of students enrolled in district is at 1,549. But Frazier predicts that this number will drop in the next five years to 1,328, a loss of 221 potential students.

Declining enrollment may be attributed to more than one factor. By 2021, Frazier projected that the kindergarten class size will be at 99 students, while the senior class size could be at 104 students. Compared to the 150 students that were enrolled for the year 2015, that is a significant decrease, he noted.

The number of births in Meeker County has dropped as well. Five years ago, in 2011, there were 136 births. In 2015, the birth rate was 123. It was noted that lowest number of births was in 2014, at only 100.

The board concluded that members need to keep watching enrollment numbers. The board needs to find a way to mitigate declining enrollment, Frazier explained.

Director Discusses Technology Implementation
Since the board’s first focus is on technology, members were eager to learn how technology is being used by the student body and faculty, according to chairman Marlin Schutte. Jennifer Ridgeway, technology director, gave a presentation on BrightBytes, a learning data and technology assessment tool.

BrightBytes assesses technology-based learning data nationwide and for individual districts based on a framework known as Classroom-Access-Skills-Environment, or CASE. In its assessment, Ridgeway reported that Litchfield Schools are above average for the state and the nation in terms of proficiency in technology. Overall, the district scored exemplary, with a higher score than both the state and nation.

Ridgeway explained that the students are using Apple computers and tablets as a tool to learn and study better in and outside of school. The fact that students will have to update their computer systems in a couple of years was a primary discussion point between Ridgeway and the board. Ridgeway agreed to talk to her administrative team to get a better sense of how to best keep up the systems.

Almost every job now has at least some usage of the computer and using it in schools helps teach problem-solving, Schutte said.

“We are committed to helping our students prepare for life, citizenship and work in an ever-changing business and technology world,” Ridgeway said.

In Other Action
The board hired Ann Selix as a special education paraprofessional at Lake Ripley Elementary working for 5.75 hours per day at a starting wage of $12.64 per hour.
The board accepted the following staff resignations: paraprofessionals Jan Johnson and Shannon Bode, physical education and health teacher Jo Carlson and physical education teacher John Carlson. The Carlsons are retiring at the end of the school year.
The board approved two overnight trip requests: one for the girls golf team to attend a tournament in Brainerd in May and another for the robotics club to attend a competition in Duluth in March.

The board approved the district’s 2017-18 school calendar.

The next School Board meeting is Feb. 27 in the Wagner Education Building.

How Schools Improve
Getting Smart

By: Tom Vander Ark

Original post from Getting Smart

Frustrated by the lack of widely used improvement frameworks in schools, a colleague emailed some questions. Following is a quick attempt to outline approaches to improvement and innovation.

I see teachers sitting around the table with reports and then deciding to do a program or do more PD. How can we develop a more formal improvement framework that would drive effectiveness and efficiency?

There are five important steps to developing or adapting an improvement framework.

1. Prioritize outcomes. Hold community conversations about what graduates should know and be able to do–like those in El Paso, Houston, and Marion, Ohio. An updated graduate profile can help create role and goal clarity by identifying priority student learning outcomes and ways of measuring (or estimating) those outcomes.

2. Do the research. Create a shared vision of what good practice looks. Unless you’re inventing a new set of practices, that picture should be research-based. BrightBytes is a decision support tool used by almost 1500 districts that allows teams to compare their outcomes with research recommendations.

3. Build a learning model. A common approach to supporting powerful learner experiences may include shared

  • Content, tasks and assessments (i.e., curriculum);
  • Teacher practices (e.g., Teach Like a Champ);
  • Values and behavioral norms;
  • Guidance and youth and family support services; and
  • Structures, schedules and staffing strategies that support learning.

Voluntary and managed school networks (and districts that act like networks) are disciplined about defining and supporting a learning model including some or all of these factors.

Some districts and networks go a step further and identify core processes and support systems for each (listen to an interview with Colorado’s District 51).

4. Identify metrics and source the data. In the 90s, best practice was a war room of handwritten data that allowed teachers and leaders to visually spot problems. By 2000, Excel spreadsheets were common. Data shops like Schoolzilla, spun out from Aspire Public Schools in 2013, help organize district data. Unfortunately, it’s still challenging to combine all the data schools are receiving.

5. Adopt a shared improvement framework. “School leaders need to focus their attention on creating the conditions where teachers have the resources, courage and support to experiment with improving their practice, and then the space to share what they are learning with other educators,” said Justin Reich, executive director of the MIT Teaching Systems Lab.

An improvement framework identifies core processes (e.g., reading instruction), shared practices (e.g., guided reading), quality metrics (e.g., observations, running record), improvement tools, and review cycles.

The improvement framework for the New Tech Network (below) incorporates shared values, process tools and common structures.

Who is doing this well?

Total quality management (TQM) tools and strategies have been used by some schools for 30 years. Church, Alaska, was an early adopter and first to win Baldrige Award. Former superintendent Rich DeLorenzo describes the journey and toolset in Delivering on the Promise.

APQC has been advancing similar process tools for more than 20 years.

Process tools are important, but continuous improvement starts with what Rob Waldron, Curriculum Associates, calls a “Tell it like it is” culture—a shared commitment to honesty, transparency, and accountability.

So where does innovation fit in?

Improvement is doing things better. Innovation is doing things differently hoping for breakthrough results. School districts and networks must constantly negotiate the balance between improvement efforts and phases of innovation.

Take competency-based learning for example. It implies new learning and assessment strategies, requires new structures and supports, and it demands a new way of thinking about success—it’s a big innovation. You won’t get there with cycles of continuous improvement. It requires a design process that reconsiders every aspect of education. It may be implemented in a few phases but once the new system is in place, you can go back to continuous improvement to make it work better for teachers and students.

Improvement can be undertaken with internal faculty agreements. Results are reported to stakeholders, but you don’t need permission to do better. An innovation, like the shift to competency-based learning, requires a broader community agreement because it involves investment, risk and new desired outcomes.

What about Design Thinking?

Design Thinking starts with an investigation of customer needs and imagining possible futures. It’s more about inventing than improving. 

A growing number of schools help students and faculty use design thinking to attack problems (see posts on Olin Colleged.Tech and DSISD). It’s often used in the inquiry phase (i.e., problem finding) preceding project-based learning (a sprint to a defined deliverable).

Based on the book Designing Your Life, One Stone students spent a time in January applying design thinking to their lives by imagining possible futures (i.e., what problem would I like to solve) and designing quick prototypes (e.g., a job shadow). 

Sometimes a problem spotted in a continuous improvement cycle is tough enough to warrant a quick design thinking exercise that may lead to a full process redesign (akin to business process reengineering). 

How about Lean Startup?

Coined by Eric Ries, lean startup is an approach to organizational development that (like design thinking) values hypothesis development, prototyping, and rapid iteration.

It’s usually applied at an early stage than continuous improvement—often well before shared and documented processes are adopted. The lean mindset and practices are similar to and useful in continuous improvement.