NCAN at SXSWedu: Day 2 Recap

March 9, 2016

Bill DeBaun, Program Analyst 

Hello from Austin, Texas, where I’m in attendance at SXSWedu for the second year in a row. SXSWedu is a hybrid of a conference and a festival that brings together all kinds of education stakeholders to network, learn, share, and experience. Topics covered run the full gamut from pre-K to adult education and from communications strategies to data analytics. All week, I’ll be sharing dispatches about what I’ve seen, heard, and learned that might be useful and/or interesting to NCAN members. Here’s the recap from Tuesday. Find Monday’s here.

“What the Public Wants From Our Schools”

One of the neat session formats at SXSWedu is what they call the “Future15s,” which are 15 minute blocks of time for TED Talk style lectures. I attended “What the Public Wants From Our Schools,” hosted by Dr. Joshua Starr, CEO of PDK International and the former superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland.

PDK International and Gallup conduct annual polling of the public’s attitudes toward public schools. In their most recent poll, when asked about which ideas will most improve education, teacher quality was far and away the most cited selected response (95%). Other responses included expectations for what students should learn (67%), effective principals (61%), how much money schools have to spend (45%), and using tests to measure what students have learned (19%).

When asked about factors that were important for school choice, respondents cited the quality of teaching staff (94%) and curriculum (84%) as their top two choices, while performance on standardized tests was selected by just 15 percent of respondents.

Given how important teacher quality was to respondents, it’s perhaps unsurprising that about 75 percent of respondents want teachers to have to pass board certification in addition to earning a degree to be licensed to practice; 55 percent of respondents said that high achieving high school students should be recruited to be teachers. (To that end, PDK International has started Educators Rising, to prepare high school students who want to be teachers.)

“If we want high quality teachers and curriculum,” said Starr, “the two have to start meeting.”

He recalls how when he implemented heterogeneous tracking, got rid of low-level courses, and implemented other reforms around teaching and learning, there was some pushback. However, because parents care the most about who is teaching their child and what they’re teaching, the corresponding additions of more hands-on work, core research papers, and core books in English were well-received.

Starr concluded by talking about Woody Guthrie’s “I Hate a Song,” which includes the line, “I hate a song that makes you think that you are not any good.” Starr asked, “How many policies are out there making sure that educators feel bad about what they’re doing? There’s a narrative of negativity.” He pointed out that the public and parents want to trust the people who educate their kids every day and that parents need to be given the opportunity to see a direct connection with the education system. “Whatever position you’re in, take the responsibility seriously to change the narrative. Parents in particular but the public in general want to see a shift in the narrative around public education,” he insisted.

“How Universities Are Crowdsourcing Innovation”

The University Innovation Alliance is a coalition of campus leaders from 11 public research universities across the country. These leaders are collaborating to find new approaches to student success, especially for low-income students. Yesterday, representatives from the University of Kansas, Arizona State University, and Georgia State University gathered to discuss the impact collaboration has had on their campuses.

The UIA was formed in response to various challenges facing higher education: the projected shortage of 16 million college graduates by 2025, the fact that this generation is forecasted to be less well educated than their parents, and the fact that higher income students are seven times more likely to get a degree than low-income students. Beyond that, universities exist in a competitive environment, but there is a need for increased student success and to spread proven innovations and initiatives.

Panelists various described the retention-related work of the UIA as “a necessary challenge,” “disruptive,” and “tough,” but as ASU President Michael Crow pointed out, “Whoever is there through that process is usually the most committed.”

Some of the innovations the UIA has taken on include using predictive analytics to project which students will be at-risk for not persisting and to centralize student advising rather than leaving it in the hands of various departments and deans. UIA institutions are using data in a comprehensive way so we that they know where a student went to high school, which courses they took, and how they performed. Using data from previous students, institutions know how students with that background have performed in on-campus courses. Advisors, armed with that information, are in a much stronger position to give advice to students.

Initial results from the UIA’s work have been positive. Retention is up and time to completion is down, including for Pell grant recipients and other at-risk student groups. The results have been so positive that some of them weren’t believed, said Mark Becker, President of Georgia State University. “We were accused of lying,” he said, when he reported that his campus had eliminated disparities in outcomes on the basis of race, gender, ethnicity. But he says, “As soon as people saw the data, all of that went away.”

Michael Crow affirmed that, “All 11 of the schools are deeply committed to their public purpose….We are not going to be as successful as we need to be unless campus is completely representative of socioeconomic diversity of society. We need to graduate everyone equally regardless of family background. We could see in other schools solutions we hadn’t implemented.” He pushed back on the current paradigm of how colleges climb the rankings. “We live in this world where the prestige of universities is a function of scarcity…Some schools are known for who they exclude. We want to be known for who we graduate.”

Bernadette Gray-Little, Chancellor at the University of Kansas, agreed. “We make a commitment to students we admit. We say, ‘We admitted you because we think you can be successful.’” In general, panelists called for a shift away from the Baby Boomer “weed out” culture and toward one where if a student is admitted they should be expected to graduate.

“There are so many low-income students. If we don’t serve them well, we will be so far behind where we need to be in terms of graduates,” said Gray-Little.

“Can the Finnish Miracle Be Replicated?”

Pasi Sahlberg is something of a rock star in the world of international education. He’s a Finnish educator and scholar, currently a visiting professor at Harvard, and formerly of Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture. Yesterday he discussed the “Finnish Miracle,” which refers to Finland’s position at the top of the PISA rankings in 2000, 2003, and 2006.

He pointed out that, broadly speaking, struggling education systems tend to have the following qualities in common: competition, privatization, accountability, de-professionalization of teaching, standardization, and privatization. Meanwhile, successful systems tend to demonstrate creativity, personalizing, customizing, trust, cooperation, professionalization, and equity.

He said that there is a strong correlation between the amount of equity in an education system and that system’s learning outcomes. Contrary to many attendees’ predictions yesterday, America’s education system, Sahlberg says, is not broken. “It’s not great, but it’s not horrible either.” In fact, the U.S. performed close to the international average along with countries like the United Kingdom and Australia.

Sahlberg was joined on stage by fellow Finn Saku Tuominen, the creative director of SCOOL, “an innovation company concentrating on K12 education with a mission to help schools change,” according to his SXSWedu bio. Tuominen explained that his company is working to bring “fresh, validated ideas” to schools.

“The world is full of great ideas that travel well,” Tuominen said. “The key problem in education is we are not good at analyzing what it takes to make the ideas travel. They have to be tested, validated, and formatted. And tested in different environments, too.”

Both speakers emphasized the idea in Finland that, “If it works, fix it.” “There is never a better time to fix or improve something than when it is working,” says Sahlberg.

Tuominen, for his part, says that SCOOL asks the following questions of prospective initiatives: Is it fresh? Creative? New? Does it make pedagogical sense? Can it scale? He’s accumulating these initiatives, and the people behind them, in an initiative called HUNDRED to coincide with Finland’s centennial.

Some of the associated programming with HUNDRED includes a country-wide documentary festival called “Against Racism,” where every theater in Finland has been rented to show high school students documentaries produced by other high school students. Another includes the world’s biggest parents’ night, which will take place simultaneously on the same evening to convey to parents the importance of Finnish education initiatives.

The speakers concluded with three defining Finnish education ideas:

Let them play! – Too many students in America are seeing recess curtailed to make room for more instructional time.

Prepare kids to be wrong; teach them to fail – Socioemotional learning is a key part of the Finnish education system

Build on the ideas that work

Although this panel was not as closely related to NCAN members’ work as others at SXSWedu, the idea that we should be examining promising practices in other places is one that certainly resonates strongly.

“We Have Data: Now What?”

The day concluded yesterday with a panel on how to turn data into effective interventions. It was moderated by Joe Schaefer of Strayer University, and featured Arthur Blakemore of Arizona State University, Karan Goel of GetSet Learning, and Elena Cox, co-founder and CEO of vibeffect.

“We have so much data; why aren’t we seeing nationwide persistence rates go up?” asked Schaefer.

Elena Cox noted that, “I don’t think a lot of places who are trying to use that data to make change don’t understand how to use data to make change….You have to know the question you’re going for and find the data that answers that question.” For his part, Blakemore said that, “We have been using data for a long time at ASU, but the technology is just now catching up to the data. The industry is now starting to produce the technology to let us use all that data to give us the signals we need to intervene faster.”

“We confuse data for insight and insight for understanding,” Karan Goel explained. “When there’s too much to look at, we can’t hone in on what really matters. Having too much data is creating too much noise.”

Arizona State has been acclaimed for their various student initiatives, but how do they coordinate them without comingling the effects, Schaefer asked. “Different students have different needs,” explained Blakemore. “The ability to target these things on certain needs of students has really allowed us to improve the performance of all students. We are building in quite a bit of redundancy. We have an arsenal, and we use the whole arsenal on our students, it need not be fully integrated.”

Schaefer then asked what makes so many interventions fail when the research behind it looks so promising?  Panelists explained that the amount of collaboration and processes required to implement often derails the process because taking something to scale can be very intimidating

Goel pointed out that some interventions fail because they’re too obviously interventions: “The moment students become aware that something is an intervention, that very thing can hurt them. As soon as students know they’re doing a program because they’re ‘at-risk,’ it flips the script on them. We don’t want kids to think they got chosen for a program/intervention because there’s something wrong with them.”

The panelists cited information that goes straight to the student as some of the most promising interventions. “I commend the education management systems,” said Elena Cox. “But there still is a student that can directly benefit from hearing things that will improve their futures and choice-making. Making information digestible can change behaviors that can be addressed.”

Blakemore agreed. “We’ve developed a lot of technology, but not a lot of robust student-facing applications. It’s on the drawing board, but we haven’t developed it. When we do, students will feel more in control and we want them to feel in control from the very beginning.” Beyond that, he says, interventions we don’t use often enough are to congratulate students on a job done well. “If students get used to positive feedback as much as the nudges, then I think it won’t be as intrusive.”

Check back tomorrow for even more from SXSWedu!

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