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Why I Changed My Mind About Data

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This post is by Ben Daley and Rob Riordan

In the past two decades, some health care systems have achieved dramatic improvements in health care through a process known as "improvement research," which is about gathering evidence of present conditions, introducing a small change, gathering evidence about the impact, and iterating from there, with an emphasis on scalable practice. One example of this work is found in the Institute for Healthcare Improvement's Breakthrough Series Collaborative.

The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching has been trying to bring improvement research into education, with a focus thus far primarily on improving community college developmental math instruction.

As Chief Academic Officer at a public charter school, responsible both for innovative practice and "accountability," I (Ben) often feel that I have one foot in the Deeper Learning/constructivist/progressive/Coalition of Essential Schools world and one foot in the education reform world. One thing I find exciting about improvement research is that I see a path for my two professional worlds to come together. One hope I have is for my friends in the ed reform world to take on deeper learning as their agenda, and I think improvement research could help that to happen.

As the ed reform world has gone crazy over the past 15 years about "data based decision making," I have been very resistant, because too often the only data anyone is ever talking about is student performance on poorly constructed end-of-year standardized tests. My reading on improvement research has helped me see that there is actually a lot of data that I do care about. My goal now is to help High Tech High become data driven, but towards a broad range of data. Likewise, in my own small way, I am trying to nudge my friends in the ed reform world to consider a broader range of data in their thinking and actions.

A major motivator for me is that as HTH has grown from 200 students to almost 5,000, and from 20 employees to 550, I am finding that I need a better range of tools for helping to lead a larger, more complex organization. I see improvement research as a way for High Tech High to make systematic improvements within our organization.

There is no need to be alone in this. What if educators at High Tech High and other organizations interested in "deeper learning" came together to take a deeper dive into broader data, e.g., about students' experience at school, or the character and quality of adult networks in our schools?

As Bob Rothman points out in an earlier post to this blog, grit has been shown to be an important factor in student success, particularly in college persistence and completion. Here is an example of the kind of collaborative effort I envision within improvement research.

  1.  Six to 150 teams of three educators from around the world sign up to participate in a 6- to 15-month breakthrough series collaborative on grit.
  2. Teams first collect data on students' grit in their local organization.
  3. Teams gather for a two-day face-to-face Learning Seminar (evening, full day, half day). Evening is about making connections. Day 1 they hear from experts on grit and other practitioners who have successfully increased student grit at their schools. Day 2 is a half-day where teams make plans for implementing ideas back at their site.
  4. An action period of one to three months, where teams implement ideas and collect new data on student grit.
  5. Second Learning Seminar for sharing initiatives, examining, reflections, new ideas.
  6. Second action period.
  7. Third Learning Seminar with final presentations on lessons learned, new steps planned, farewell.

This kind of collaborative "deep dive" into data that we care about would help us generate structures and practices for deeper learning in our respective sites. Moreover, it could possibly build and strengthen the kind of community of practice necessary to both define and disseminate deeper learning while scaling interesting educational innovations across multiple school contexts.

Ben Daley is the Chief Academic Officer at High Tech High, a group of public charter schools in San Diego County, California. He is currently studying improvement research as part of a doctorate in educational leadership at the University of California, San Diego.

Rob Riordan is a co-founder of High Tech High and President of the High Tech High Graduate School of Education.

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