Data drives destiny

How a culture of evidence combined with big data in education will transform our community colleges – and why it is so critical now

By Karen Stout, President and CEO, Achieving the Dream

I am drawn to collecting and analyzing data. In an odd way, this attention to data keeps me motivated and focused. For example, my Fitbit activity tracker tracks my daily calories, activities and steps, and syncs to my phone, giving me a daily, weekly, monthly and annual visual summary of my progress against my goals. The Virtual Run Coach app on my smartphone plots out a customized daily, weekly and monthly training plan that changes with me based on my progress. I get data on my performance and visuals that show my progress.

These technology tools put quantitative rigor and consistency to the patterns of an active life. I think of the maxim, “You cannot manage what you cannot measure” – sometimes attributed to statistician and quality expert Edwards Deming, sometimes to management consultant Peter Drucker (claimed by neither). Either way, data and my smartphone keep me honest and on track, continually charting progress against goals.

Big data in education can teach us about the capacities we must build to become high-performing organizations that will improve student learning while repaying public investments and keeping tuition affordable.
students and grad students walking on campus

The data-driven life

Data is in my genes. As a young girl, I was fascinated with data. I memorized the statistics of all the major league players from the baseball cards I collected. I diligently kept score at games to track performance against the statistics on the cards. The 2003 book Moneyball sang to me. That book affirmed that an analytical, evidence-based approach could create a competitive sports franchise in spite of financial disadvantage.

Decades before Moneyball came out, I was already searching for truths to be found in data. Early in my career in community college administration, I created a strategic planning council presentation where I manually sorted through and synthesized data to look at student zip code against age, ethnicity and majors to develop a five-year enrollment development plan. After that exercise, institutional research started to report to me, and I was soon developing dashboards and effectiveness models well before the Middle States Commission on Higher Education cared and well before the accountability movement was upon us.

I have long been a believer that a love for data – and a deep curiosity to look to data for answers to the “cause to wonder” questions – can transform our community colleges.

The reform imperative

The US community college system is central to our economic vitality. Economists project that by 2020, more than 60 percent of jobs will require more than a high school diploma, yet only about half of those jobs will require a four-year degree. The other half of those jobs represent the vast need for skilled workers in technical and trades positions, such as licensed practical nurses, machinists, robotics technicians and aviation maintenance personnel. Our country needs 11 million more credentialed workers by 2025 to ensure US competitiveness, said Bill Gates, former Microsoft chairman and CEO. That’s a big gap.

The tragedy is that millions of young people are falling through the gaps rather than filling them. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 5.5 million young people (one in seven teens and young adults) are neither working nor in school. The youth unemployment rate is more than 11 percent. For young African-Americans it is more than 20 percent.

In his recent book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, Robert Putnam speaks to the alarming opportunity gap that has emerged between young people from “have” and “have not” backgrounds. He makes a case that for many, the American dream is no longer self-evident. We have to turn that around.

Community colleges play an important and growing part in addressing both the workforce gap and inequality. “Despite their mixed record, community colleges have real promise as a means of narrowing the opportunity gap by providing poor kids with a realistic path upward,” Putnam wrote. “To serve that role, they need more funding, improved student services, better connections to local job markets and to four-year colleges, and a lower dropout rate.”

This is where movements such as Achieving the Dream come in. This national reform network uses several approaches to close achievement gaps and accelerate student success. Working directly with community colleges, we offer technical assistance, support and peer learning experiences to promote evidence-based institutional change. We work with state leaders and community colleges to influence policy reform. And we promote best practices by conducting and sharing original research on success strategies and meaningful metrics. As the nation’s most comprehensive network of community college reformers, Achieving the Dream helps establish consensus, coalition and shared commitment.

The centrality of data in shaping the future

Data is central to meaningful reform. If community colleges are to adapt to better serve the country’s future, we can’t just espouse a new image. We can’t count on rebranding efforts to make our colleges more attractive. “You [college presidents and boards] can’t communicate your way out of this problem,” said Rick Hesel of the rebranding firm Art and Science Group. Those days are gone, and for most of us were gone years ago.

The heart of our renewal agendas must be formed around evidence, not spin. For the potential to open the doors and windows of our colleges, data drives destiny. Margaret Wheatley, author of Leadership and the New Science, wrote: “We need to have information coursing through our systems, disturbing the peace, imbuing everything it touches with new life. We need, therefore, to develop new approaches to information – not management but encouragement, not control but genesis.” For community colleges, this genesis revolves around student progress and completion.

Big data in education can tell us about what we don’t know about our students, their motivations and their habits. Data can tell us how and when we can provide the essential learning supports blended with the right pedagogy, at the right time for the right students for their academic, career and life success. Big data in education can teach us about the capacities we must build to become high-performing organizations that will improve student learning while repaying public investments and keeping tuition affordable. Data can help our institutions remain viable in a changing world, where we have to balance a historic mission of access to a new mission of access and success.


Are we ready?

Despite much progress in using data and analysis to support better decisions, there’s a lot of work to do. A 2014 National Association of System Heads (NASH) study of the institutional research (IR) function among public university systems raised some troubling findings:

  • IR teams are struggling to keep pace with rapidly increasing demand, caused both by accountability needs and growing interest in using data to improve performance and inform decision making.
  • Decisions in critical areas – such as resource utilization, efficiency, connections to the workforce and how resource use leads to student success – continue to be made without appropriate information.
  • While the quantity and quality of available data is improving, the use of information in decision making is not improving at the same rate. The main focus of IR offices is still compliance reporting.
  • Despite evidence that colleges are investing more in IR, there are still extreme variations in staffing levels and staff skills and experience, particularly in community colleges.

“IR offices are running hard and yet many are still falling behind, deluged by demands for data collection and report writing that blot out time and attention for deeper research, analysis and communication,” the NASH report states. “The analytical functions remain topically stove-piped, with the IR office focused on student and student-related research, with reporting and research in other topical areas handled in the budget office. … The overall ability of IR offices to use data to look at issues affecting many of the cross-cutting issues of the day, such as the connections between resource use and student success, is nascent at best.”

There are data management obstacles to evidence-based transformation as well:

  • Unevenness in data definitions across colleges, states and sectors makes it difficult to compare performance across colleges and see what works.
  • There are too many non-standard data definitions within systems (even within a single college with multiple campuses) to make full strategic sense of the data.
  • Due to disparities among systems and campuses, too much time is spent finding and cleansing the data, time that could be better applied to analysis and communication.
  • Legacy information systems weren’t developed to accurately code some groundbreaking innovations, such as the use of co-requisites. We then have to rely on unconnected shadow databases to evaluate progress.

In many respects, these are not technology gaps but leadership gaps, gaps in how we as leaders develop and nurture a culture of evidence to help us continually learn, improve our effectiveness and in turn improve outcomes for students.

In part two of this series, we’ll take a closer look at what it means to have a culture of evidence.

Karen A. Stout became President and CEO of Achieving the Dream, Inc., on July 1, 2015. Dr. Stout is a nationally renowned scholar and academic leader in strategies for enhancing student success and completion, data informed decision making, accelerating and scaling innovation, and new approaches to community college fundraising.


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