Crunching data to figure out the best way to teach each student

Credit: Lifesize

For years, educators have wrestled with the "Achievement Gap," that gulf between the top-performing students and those at the bottom. They aren't worried about the kids at the top; they will do fine. The ones at the bottom are the ones most likely to become a government statistic -- and not in a good way.

The New York Times recently held its Schools for Tomorrow conference in where this issue came up, and part of the discussion centered around whether data analytics could be used to break up the old one-size-fits-all way of teaching.

Right now, schools teach and test every student the same way, even though children have different ways of learning not used in the classroom. But educators are starting to use data analytics to make in-depth assessments of each student and how he or she learns.

Alec Ross, a senior advisor on innovation at the U.S. State Department and former senior advisor to Secretary Hillary Clinton, feared the Achievement Gap would actually widen because analytics would favor those who could afford the examination.

He compared it to what's called a "CEO Checkup," where he claims CEOs of the largest firms will spend $75,000 for a seven to eight-hour thorough physical examination by the best doctors in the world, something the plebeians will never get.

"A lot of what I see is the ability to productize and commercialize very intensive assessments of individual limits. So what I imagine is parents getting their kids essentially a $30,000 educational checkup where they extract enormous amounts of data about the kinds of learners their children are, the kinds of education deficits they have," he said.

Ross went on to say he didn't oppose this, just that it would widen the gulf between haves and have-nots. "I can't help but see things that by their nature are often times rooted into the network, how it can be commercialized down to the individual and how it would create additional inequity," he said.

Paula Singer, CEO of global products and services for Laureate Education, a firm that specializes in online education, said that was not her experience. In one example, they found one particular assignment in a class was tripping up students and needed to be tweaked. It was found after the fact, but she felt in the future, analytics would help them find problem assignments as they pop up.

"When I think about data, I think about our faculty, who love this data, and they are matched with a small army of business intelligence folks and a product development team. So think about that. Great faculty, business intelligence, great program or product development that's happening and continuous improvement," she said.

Michael Horn, co-founder of The Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation said some public schools are taking the data to drive better learning experiences in an optimized model. "My sense is if we don't grab these aggressively, we're not going to close any gaps," he said.

Horn added "We're obsessed in this country around the achievement gap sort of the gap from students of different races or income levels. There will be big gaps in the future but the hope is to blow it apart so that your race or ethnicity or income level is not the determining factor in that going forward." He did not say what might be the cause of those gaps, however.

During a Q&A session with the audience, a person from the National Science Foundation asked the panel about what he saw as a problem with a lack of incentives for aggregators and collectors to share the data.

"What is the role in the federal government to incentivize it so you get something like National Weather Service, where the data is free but commercial entities can compete on the services they provide for that data?" he asked.

Ross replied he wanted to keep the federal government out entirely -- an unusual response from someone working for a government agency.  "I don’t think we can regulate our way to 50 effective standards. We need a private sector approach. People who build the broadest partnership will win the standards war," he said.

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