Special Report

Georgia District Puts Data Analytics to Work

By Liana Loewus — March 28, 2016 7 min read
Gwinnett County students in an Advanced Placement literature class at Lanier High School use an eCLass quiz widget called Kahoot that is run on a laptop. They use their wireless phones to answer the quiz questions.

In Gwinnett County, Ga., the notion that the academic and technology teams should work together is not exactly new. Five years ago, the district integrated instruction and technology with an online portal that houses lesson plans, digital textbooks, videos, grades, test scores, attendance, discipline records, and professional-development tools.

That took a massive collaboration effort, and continues to be the case, as the online system is tweaked and improved.

“We’re bridging silos here,” said Steve Flynt, the district’s chief strategy and performance officer, who works with both the academic and technology teams but has his own team as well. “But the best thing is to not create the silos to begin with.”

A couple of years into that project, the district, a large, suburban system just northeast of Atlanta, took its collaboration a step further by analyzing some of those data—attendance, behavior, and course performance, in particular—to flag students as young as 3rd grade who may be at risk for retention or not graduating on time.

Now, district officials are really pushing the envelope. They want to link the predictive analytics to resources that can help the at-risk students that the system identifies. The hope is that, down the road, the online system would automatically provide suggestions for how to help students who’ve been flagged—for instance, it would recommend instructional tasks or extracurricular activities that target their particular weaknesses.

“It’s one of our more cutting-edge approaches,” said Frank Elmore, Gwinnett County’s chief information officer, who oversees the technology side of school system operations. “I’m not aware of any other school districts that are really putting the resources into standing up what is essentially an entire division aimed at improving student achievement through predictive analytics.”

The end goal is still a way off—there are some technical and logistical barriers to putting such a robust system in place. But district leaders are confident it’s the logical next step in their growing academic-technology link.

Gwinnett County School District

• Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia
• School System Size: 177,000 Students

“It’s got a lot of potential,” said Jonathan Patterson, the associate superintendent of curriculum and instructional support, who is the district’s academic lead. “But we really have to make sure we’re able to integrate it in a way that it’s seamless.”

One-Stop Shop

The district’s electronic Content, Learning, Assessment, and Support System, or eCLASS, is already many things, as its name suggests: It’s a repository for lessons and activities, a virtual classroom where students can go to see their assignments, a gradebook, a place to give quizzes, and a parent-communication system. It has online discussion boards and hooks up to Dropbox, so students can turn in their work.

And like technology available in any major school system, some users take advantage of it more than others. “A majority of our teachers are using it,” said Holli Brown, one of a dozen eCLASS specialists for the district, who works in schools to help with implementation. “But to what level? That’s where the difference lies. Some teachers are using it minimally, and some are blowing it out of the water and doing more than college professors do.”

To get more technology in classrooms, the district uses a “bring your own device” approach. Students can bring wireless laptops, tablets, and smartphones to use in the classroom, and the district supplements as needed with its own devices. “We don’t feel like every student needs a device at all times to do what’s best for them instructionally,” said Tricia Kennedy, the executive director for eCLASS development and implementation, who is part of the academic team. “We see a variety of instruction happening—students working in small groups, sometimes individually, sometimes in large groups. A rotational model seems to be most effective.”

Holli Brown, an eCLASS specialist with the Gwinnett County schools, helps teachers make use of the online portal which houses curricula, videos, professional development, grades, and assessments.

To Elmore, the CIO, this is a sustainable and fiscally responsible approach to technology. “I see a lot of school districts out there trying to drive really hard on 1-to-1 deployment, and they may not be taking into consideration what it’s going to take to not only deploy a device to every student but how are you going to refresh those devices three to four years down the road,” he said.

There are two major challenges in keeping up a system that brings so many disparate elements together and is being accessed from a variety of devices, district officials say: protecting students’ privacy and making sure systems are interoperable, or can communicate with one another.

“One of the first questions with any piece of technology is, ‘Is there going to be any student data stored or transported via this system?’ ” said Elmore. School staff can access student data based on their roles—and configuring that takes a lot of collaboration between the academic and technical teams.

As for interoperability, the district is part of the IMS Global Learning Consortium, a nonprofit collaborative of school districts and ed-tech vendors who are working together to make it easier for the systems that schools use to communicate. The eCLASS tool complies with the consortium’s interoperability standards. As Patterson, the associate superintendent, explains, the academic and technology teams work together to push on the vendors who work with the district to use the interoperability standards with their computer programs.

“We’re not a small system, so we’re not going to ask teachers to go to a different website and log in. But a lot of the startups right now, that’s what they require you to do,” he said.

The technology team is willing to do the back-end work to make the systems talk, but it’s tough to continually keep that all updated. “At this point, we haven’t gotten to a place where we’re not going to purchase unless [the product] is certified or compliant, but we do have some contractual language around letting us know a timeline for coming into compliance,” said Kennedy.

From Predictive to Prescriptive

The use of predictive analytics for finding students at risk of not graduating rolled out in the district about three years ago. According to Flynt, the district created its model for determining risk using both external data about what causes students to drop out, from research out of places like the University of Chicago, as well as internal data on the commonalities among Gwinnett County students struggling to graduate.

Teachers in grades 3 through 12 receive alerts at the start of each week with individual students’ risk levels. The alerts can also pinpoint what is putting the student at risk: Is it absences? A failing grade on a particular project or assessment? A new disciplinary action? “It shows the teacher, in an easy-to-understand graphic [that is] drillable down into the individual student, an indication of [a student’s risk level]: red at risk, yellow on the bubble, or green not at risk,” said Flynt.

District graduation rates have steadily increased each year over the last several years. However, officials hesitate to chalk that up to the predictive system given the many factors that change across a district. (The national rate has risen over that period, too.)

Now, the district is looking into making it easier for teachers to actually intervene with those at- risk students. Eventually, the system would look beyond attendance, discipline, and grades to track things like how students are interacting with online resources and how engaged they are with the online content. From there, it would send automatic suggestions for interventions. “It’s not easy, and I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a system that fully does that, but that’s what we’re trying to build now,” said Flynt.

Perhaps the toughest part of Gwinnett’s work has to do with organizing and classifying all of the lessons and activities in eCLASS, and determining how to tell the system what to recommend in what circumstances. “The barrier is having the connection between content and identified student need. Some of that is just as nitty gritty as having to physically do the tagging,” said Kennedy. In other words, every piece of content has to be correctly labeled so the system can automatically retrieve it, which takes a lot of back-end manpower—especially with vendors that haven’t changed over to the global interoperability standards, said Patterson.

That said, district leaders are on board that it’s a natural next step in the link between teaching and technology use. “It’s really just a progression for us,” Kennedy, the eCLASS lead, said. “We’re optimizing what technology will allow for us.”

Coverage of trends in K-12 innovation and efforts to put these new ideas and approaches into practice in schools, districts, and classrooms is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York at www.carnegie.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 30, 2016 edition of Education Week as Ga. District Puts Data to Work


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