Who Is In Charge

Indiana's goal: use data to reimagine education

PHOTO: Fredrik Olofsson via Flickr

If Indiana starts now, Steve Braun thinks the state could be the first to take a serious run at using its education system to dramatically cut unemployment.

The Zionsville Republican has been nurturing an ambitious idea for the Hoosier state: applying cutting-edge data techniques from the business world to harness information he thinks could solve what today seems like an impossible mystery — knowing in advance what skills will kids need for the kinds of jobs that will be available on the days they graduate high school or college.

Steve Braun
PHOTO: Oliver Morrison
Steve Braun

Braun, a Harvard graduate who built a successful company into a leader in business intelligence — a process of using wide arrays of data to solve complex problems — thinks those very techniques could provide an answer.

“If we get it right we will really set ourselves apart,” he said. “But this is not easy. This is hard. It took big companies 20, 30 or 40 years to figure out how to use data and hold people accountable for using data.”

But that notion of accountability for schools, especially the suggestion that it’s a responsibility for educators to assure their students are prepared for specific jobs, raises eyebrows.

Even if that sort of expectation is years, if not decades, in the future, as Braun suggests, just pursuing it as a goal would mean at least some redefinition of the very purpose and process of public education.

That makes some educators nervous.

“I don’t know what the workforce will look like in eight years,” Indiana State Teachers Association President Teresa Meredith said. “Technology is changing faster than I can afford to buy it. I would hate to build (education) around what businesses today think they’re going to need.”

Even so, Indiana is quietly taking steps to position itself for a future where data drives much of what is learned in school.

Gov. Mike Pence has made connecting education and workforce development a centerpiece of his administration’s agenda, and Braun has been a partner from the start. As a state representative he co-authored the bill that in 2013 created the Indiana Career Councils, which seek to coordinate efforts of those involved in education and workforce development in 11 regions around the state.

This year, a bill he wrote created a new state office, under Pence’s direction, with a director who has been nicknamed the state’s “data czar.” That office will manage an expanded network of K-12, higher education and workforce data, working with an outside company to identify trends and opportunities to connect what is learned now to what students will some day need to know.

Just last month, Pence named Braun as the state’s new director of the Department of Workforce Development.

“I’m extremely enthusiastical about the opportunity to bring an entrepreneur like Steve Braun to the task of rethinking workforce education from high school through adult workforce to the state to Indiana,” Pence said. “It’s just a part of our larger vision for really rethinking career and vocational education in the state of Indiana from high school forward.”

In that role, Braun will expand on efforts to involve Indiana companies shaping the state’s education and job training efforts.

“A key dimension completely missing from the equation was anything with any participation from the private employer community,” Braun said. “It’s apparent to me would could get better at that.”

Building business intelligence

First at the business consulting firm Price Waterhouse, and then in his own business, Braun spent his career helping companies better organize data so they could figured out how to best position themselves for future growth. In essence, it’s a process of trying to predict the future.

Private companies, particularly large corporations, today use data to try to guess what they will do tomorrow, such as what products and services to pursue, expand or discontinue and even who to hire. If a company can correctly predict how its market will change, it can help it plan ahead for what sorts of skills its future employees will need. Company leaders can know when it makes sense to retrain their employees or whether they will need to hire new workers.

For example, a large scientific company might be able to use data to predict whether market changes will require it to hire more engineers or more chemists. But even beyond that, the company might know what sorts of chemists it needs based on the work it anticipates they will do. This process works even for a job built on “soft” skills, like sales. Companies have already been able to use data to predict what sorts of interpersonal skills or personality types do best selling their products and test for those when hiring.

But it’s not only private businesses that can use this kind of data prediction — the state can, too, Braun argues.

“This was already being done in the private sector, and to me it’s exactly the same paradigm we need to go through from the standpoint of working with our workforce and education communities,” Braun said. “We know we have unemployed people that are out there. We know that we have a significant number of jobs that are going unfilled because of skills gaps, and starting that process is figuring out what those jobs are skills are.”

A new data network takes shape

To make similarly strong predictions that could help schools know what to teach, the state needs a lot of data.

Indiana’s plan for collecting all that information is called the Indiana Network of Knowledge, an expanded version of a the state’s existing education data collection system.

The idea is to collect long-term data from three state agencies — The Indiana Department of Education, Department of Workforce Development and Commission on Higher Education — and, hopefully, merge it with data tracked by private employers. Four other states — Washington, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Maryland — have similar data systems but none have yet harnessed the information in the way Indiana envisions.

Privacy concerns, which were raised when Braun introduced a bill to create the network, should not come into play, he said. The network aims to study trends, not look at individuals. As the network is built over then next year, a new executive director and staff will identify what data will included.

There are three finalists to be the network’s executive director, said Jackie Dowd, a close adviser to Pence who is leading the the effort to build it. All three come from the education world, not business: Jeffrey Hudnall, assistant director of the ISU career center; Karen Jones, dean of the School of Applied Sciences and Engineering at Ivy Tech in Fort Wayne; and Jack Powell, director of development at Lutheran High School in Indianapolis.

When it’s operational, state officials hope Indiana can use the network to be a national trailblazer for using data and collaborating with business.

“There is big social and economic value if we do better,” Braun said.

But much still has to be done before the system can become a reality. One important consideration is how people will get access to the data once it is put together and published. Teresa Lubbers, a member of the network’s governance committee representing the Commission on Higher Education, said the action piece should come together once the network has a working staff and begins to move forward.

“That’s critically important,” Lubbers said. “It’s not going to do any good to do a report if it sits on somebody’s shelf.”

Looking ahead, not behind

Indiana, and other states, already collect huge amounts of education data: test scores, graduation rates, demographic information, spending figures and much more.

But there’s a problem, Braun argues, with the way Hoosiers look at, and use, all that information. All of it looks only at what happened in the past.

“These are snapshots or looking back,” he said. “When employers are doing workforce analytics, they are looking at the future market and mapping how they need to grow into it.”

The state can use its new network to do the same thing, he said.

“If we can align education process around that, we can do a  better job of counseling our kids about what jobs available and what area of study will likely result in employment,” Braun said.

Thinking of education that way is sometimes hard for teachers, however. School certainly is supposed to prepare children to be ready for jobs, but that’s not all its about, Meredith said. It’s also about producing good citizens with well-rounded knowledge. Too heavy a focus on career preparation, she said, can lead to teaching kids only specialized skills for jobs they think they want while missing out on other things they need to learn.

“I still believe you have to give kids a core education so hopefully it can help them figure out where they go at the end of high school, whether that’s specific classes in career education and vocational tech, or whether it’s courses to prepare for college or whether it’s military,” Meredith said. “I think we just have to be so careful when we talk about getting kids on specific career paths too soon.”

Companies already are moving in the direction of demanding specific skills and identifying education institutions that can provide students who are prepared with those skills, Braun said.

Take General Electric. The global company in March announced plans to build a $100 million jet engine assembly plan in West Lafayette. A key factor in the company’s decision was the proximity to Purdue University. It’s engineering school, the company said, consistently produces graduates with skills that match it needs. More than 400 Purdue alumni work for GE’s aviation division along with a total of 1,200 Purdue graduates companywide.

“Purdue is building those exact types of engineering skills in aerospace that they really need,” Braun said. “If we aspire to grow certain types of industries we need to start building those skills sets.”

Applying business techniques to government

Having data guide decision-making, said Jerry Conover, executive director of the Indiana Business Research Center, could prove to be a good long-term planning tool for the state.

“The state wants a healthy, vibrant economy where people have skills that are in demand, where they can live comfortably and pay taxes,” Conover said. “Rather than just guessing or being intuitive about what kinds of programs should help make that happen, a longitudinal data system makes it possible to empirically learn which past situations are likeliest to lead to those desired kinds of outcomes.”

But Meredith fears if Indiana’s bets on future jobs turn out to be wrong — after all, the data predictions are nothing more than a best guess — it could lead to even more young Hoosiers leaving the state, taking their talent and earning power elsewhere.

“Let’s face it. Look at businesses that haven’t stayed open, that say they’re coming but then they don’t,” Meredith said. “Training kids for something that isn’t could lead to more brain drain.”

Pence is convinced that Indiana needs a stronger connection between its education system and it’s business community.

The career councils do that by bringing leaders from both sides of that fence together to try to assure that students are prepared for the jobs that are available in the community when they graduate, he said.

“I believe its imperative every one of our kids graduates from school prepared to either go onto college or a productive career,” Pence said. “I think Indiana has a chance to really reestablish the importance of career and vocational education.”

That goal connects with the ideas behind the data network: using what businesses know to figure out what kids need to be learning.

“It is going to put Indiana on the leading edge of workforce innovation in this country,” Pence said. “Using input from business leaders, and using business data gathering and intelligence, we can design these pathways for young people that are looking to go from high school to get a job.”

Should schools be accountable for jobs?

Braun thinks the Indiana’s forecasting can be good enough that training kids to assure they get jobs should be more than a goal. It should be expected.

In the future, he said, that state should consider tying data about how many graduates earn good jobs to its school accountability system.

“You have to talk about identifying what outcomes you want to drive and get everybody involved in the process for driving those outcomes,” he said. “It’s the way any business would be run. We do not hold our higher education or K-12 schools accountable against job placement success. Nothing forces them to develop curriculum and build skills that are relevant to that student getting a job when they graduate from high school or college.”

And yet, there is more to school than preparing for job-related skills, Meredith said. Schools also teach important social, emotional and analytical skills that employers value, too. To make school only about getting a specific job misses the bigger picture of what school can do.

“How can I possibly prepare a high school student for life will be like when they finish college or high school in terms of a career?” Meredith said. “But I feel like I can get them ready for the things that I know will be true. I know they’re going to need to figure things out on their own, read and follow directions and use basic technology. That job that exists in eight years is one that I may not even be able to dream of today, one that might not exist today.”

If schools are eventually held responsible for student job placement, then maybe the state has a responsibility to them to give more support said Todd Bess, executive director of the Indiana Association of School Principals. Under Daniels, Bess said, schools were pushed to bulk up Advanced Placement programs and college prep, and now under Pence, career and workforce are a focus.

“Schools understand they are part of the economic engine for our state,” Bess said. “We’ve got to still understand what skills they need. So we have to continually try to imbue them with the correct skills and opportunities, and when they’re ready to take advantage of it, we’ll be there to assist them.”

Civil action

Detroit school board to protesters: Please remain civil. Protesters to school board: You’re naive

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore speaks with her supporters from the stage at Mumford High School. Her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to the meeting's abrupt ending.

A day after the Detroit school board abruptly ended a meeting that was disrupted by protesters, the meeting is being rescheduled, while the board president is making an appeal for civility.

“The board is extremely disappointed that the regularly scheduled meeting tonight was adjourned early due to extreme disruptive behavior from several audience members,” school board president Iris Taylor wrote in a statement issued late Tuesday, several hours after the meeting’s chaotic end.

“It is our hope moving forward that the community will remain civil and respectful of the elected Board and the process to conduct public meetings. We must be allowed to conduct the business the community elected us to do.”

The drama Tuesday night came from a large group of parents and community members, led by activist Helen Moore, who packed the board meeting to raise concerns about a number of issues.

Moore had sent the school board an email requesting an opportunity to address the meeting Tuesday on issues including her strong objection to the news that Taylor and Superintendent Nikolai Vitti had attended a meeting with Mayor Mike Duggan and leaders of city charter schools to discuss the possibility of working together.

The mayor, in his state of the city address last week, discussed the meeting, calling it “almost historic,” and said district and charter school leaders had agreed to collaborate on a student transportation effort, and on a school rating system that would assign letter grades to Detroit district and charter schools.

When Taylor told Moore during the meeting that she would not be allowed to give her presentation Tuesday night, saying she had not gotten Moore’s request in time to put it on Tuesday’s agenda, Moore and her supporters angrily shouted at the board and proceeded to heckle and object to statements during the meeting.

The meeting was ultimately ended during a discussion about the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, a school whose classes are being relocated to other district buildings for the rest of the year because of urgent roof repairs and the possibility of mold in the building.

As Moore shouted over Vitti’s discussion about the school, Taylor ordered that the 81-year-old activist be escorted from the Mumford High School auditorium where the meeting was being held. That triggered an angry response from her supporters and ultimately brought the meeting to a close.

The current Detroit school board came into existence a little over a year ago when the state returned city schools to Detroiters after years of control by state-appointed emergency managers.

The board’s swearing-in last January was heralded as a fresh start for a new district — now called the Detroit Public Schools Community District — that had been freed from years of debts encumbered by the old Detroit Public Schools.

Since then, meetings have been interrupted by the occasional heckler or protester, but they’ve largely remained orderly, without a lot of the noise and drama that had been typical of school board meetings in the past.

In her statement Tuesday night, Taylor lamented that the new school board wasn’t able to get to most of the items on its agenda.

“Detroiters have fought long and hard to have a locally elected board to govern our schools,” Taylor wrote. “It would be shameful to have our rights revoked again for impediments. It sets a poor example for the students we all represent, and it will not be tolerated by this Board.”

Wednesday morning, Moore said she plans to continue her vocal advocacy, even if it’s disruptive.

“If that’s the only avenue we have to get our point across, when they don’t allow us to speak, then we must take every avenue,” Moore said. “Time is of the essence with our children. And they spend too much time with distractions, listening to the mayor, listening to the corporations, and not listening to people who have children in the public schools.”

Moore, who is active with an organization called Keep the Vote/No Takeover Coalition and with the National Action Network, said she fought for years for Detroiters to again have a locally elected school board. City residents did not have control of their schools for most of the last two decades.

“We worked like crazy,” Moore said, but she asserts that most school board members are “naive.”

“They don’t know the history,” she said. “They need to be educated and that goes for Dr. Vitti too. We need to educate them and that was a first start.”

The board has scheduled a special meeting for 12:30 p.m. Thursday at its Fisher Building headquarters where it can return to its unfinished business from Tuesday.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore waved to her fellow activisits from the stage at Mumford High School. She returned to the room after her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to a school board meeting’s abrupt ending on March 13, 2018.

parent voice

It’s not enough just to stay open, say Memphis parents of their struggling elementary school

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Sonya Smith, a longtime community organizer in Memphis Frayser, speaks to parents at Hawkins Mill Elementary School on Thursday during a community meeting about state intervention plans.

For six years, Hawkins Mill Elementary School has been on the state’s radar because of students’ low scores on standardized tests — an issue cited again last month when Tennessee officials urged local leaders to close the Memphis school.

Shelby County Schools is passing on that recommendation, but agrees with the state on one thing: Hawkins Mill faces big challenges, including declining enrollment and a mostly impoverished student population.

Now the question is what to do about it. Among the issues is whether Principal Antonio Harvey should stay on for a sixth year, and if the district’s first $300,000 investment in Hawkins Mill went toward the right interventions this school year.

During a Thursday evening meeting, about 50 parents and community members got their first opportunity to ask questions about competing visions for their Frayser school.

What parents like

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Principal Antonio Harvey, front, and parents listen to a Shelby County Schools presentation on the state’s new accountability model.

Parents applauded the district’s stance to keep Hawkins Mill open, in defiance of the state’s recommendation, in order to give their school a fair chance to improve.

Many also spoke in favor of Harvey, describing him as a stabilizing and nurturing force who has ushered in new opportunities in the arts, sports, and other extracurricular activities. The school’s suspension rate also has declined in recent years, except for a slight uptick last year.

“I saw how he took unruly, disrespectful kids and they shake his hand now. He sits down and talks to them. … We’re constantly adding programs,” said PTA member Sharanda Person. “Doing things that way makes me think he cares about the kids.”

Several spoke favorably of their children’s school experience.

“Since she’s been here, I’ve seen exponential growth,” said Tonyas Mays, who transferred her daughter from a state-run school last August. “My child’s potential has been recognized here and she’s testing out of (special education) now.”

What parents didn’t like

A presentation on the low percentages of students on grade level in reading and math drew moans from parents as the data was explained by Antonio Burt, the district’s assistant superintendent for its lowest performing schools.

Notes: 2013-14 science and 2014-15 social studies test scores were not listed in the state report card. Elementary students did not take TNReady in 2015-16. The 2016-17 social studies test did not count toward school accountability measures.

But some questioned the validity of the state’s new test called TNReady, which has been marred by technical glitches in administration and scoring during its first two years.

“The state of Tennessee has made excuses as to why the test wasn’t ready. They get a pass while our children don’t,” said Sonya Smith, a community organizer. “Every time our children meet the test, they tell us that test was no good.”

Another disappointment is declining enrollment. Hawkins Mill had 357 students when Harvey started in the fall of 2013. Last month, enrollment was at 314.

What parents aren’t sure of

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Antonio Burt, assistant superintendent for low-performing schools, speaks to parents.

Burt said some assessments and attendance data show “some positive trends” this school year.

His presentation was void of nitty-gritty detail on progress as outlined under the school improvement plan that went to effect this school year. However, information provided to Chalkbeat on Friday showed that student growth this school year was higher than average in reading and math — a measure key to showing whether students can catch up. Also, the school’s suspension rate so far this school year is about 4 percent of students, compared to almost 13 percent at this time last year.

Several parents asked whether Harvey would remain as principal, worrying that a new leader could set the school back because of the adjustment in getting to know the students and faculty.

Burt responded that leadership is being reviewed, but that no decisions have been made. “To be completely transparent, we have to reassess everything,” he said.

Because Hawkins Mill is a priority school on track for state intervention, the state Department of Education must approve any plan outside of its recommendation to close.

The school is slated to continue under Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them. District leaders are still discussing the amount of new funding and where to invest it.

Burt thinks the district’s plan has a “50/50 chance” of state approval since it’s new.