The DeHavilland Blog

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

A game-changing development in education

When I started DeHavilland Associates, it was based on the fundamental assumption that public education needs to engage its stakeholders - the parents, businesses, and other key groups who fund the system and have a vested interest in its outcomes. Lucky for me, then, that I found a client who not only shares that belief, but is empowering these stakeholders in ways that will ultimately revolutionize public education.

I've been working with the Education Consumers Foundation for several months now on their 2007 Value-Added Achievement Awards in Tennessee. They launched the VAAA in 2006 to highlight the use of value-added data, and to highlight the fact that there are schools out there right now that are doing an amazing job of helping students achieve.

Why is this a big deal? Two reasons - one I'll address briefly, the other I'll go into in greater depth.

First reason is the importance of value-added data. In most state assessment systems, school performance ratings don't really measure student performance: what they really do is serve as a proxy rating of their communities. Schools with a mostly affluent population score well; schools in high-poverty areas score poorly.

Value-added systems are different. Thanks to the work of Bill Sanders back in the 80s and 90s, value-added systems are able to strip out external factors like affluence to look strictly and exclusively at the contribution that schools make to student learning. In simple terms, we look at where a student is now (and this does go down to the individual student level), and predict where we expect him to be in one year. If he does better than expected, we can attribute that gain to the school; if he does worse than expected, we can attribute that to the school as well.

So in essence, we have a way to measure school effectiveness that really does look at the impact the school has on student learning, regardless of demographic/socioeconomic factors. Very powerful.

While that's a big deal, it's not news - it's been in place in Tennessee since the 90s. What is newsworthy - and what can change the game in public education - is a new component of the Awards program: the ECF School Performance Charts.

ECF has taken their data from the 2006 Awards, which ranked all elementary and middle schools according to a three year average of reading and math achievement gains, and created a simple, intuitive, and interactive online chart that allows anyone to easily gauge the performance of schools and districts in Tennessee and compare them to others. Take a look at this screen capture, which shows the spread of schools from Davidson County (ie Nashville):

This tool is a game-changer - it provides real information on schools (specifically, what they contribute to a child's education, regardless of external factors such as affluence), and provides it in such a way that any parent, policymaker, or citizen can immediately grasp it.

If your child went to Andrew Jackson Elementary and you saw this chart, how would you react? The school's not at the bottom of the list because it's high-poverty; while it does have an approximate 40% Title I population, the top-performing school in the state (Amqui Elementary, top right of the chart) is 97% Title I. So if that's your kid's school, and every other school in the district is doing a better job of educating its students, how would you react?

And you can do more than just look at the spread of schools across a district: you can compare districts, schools from any location, schools against minimum standards and averages, and schools against the VAAA winners (the highest-achieving schools in the state).

There are a number of other facets worth exploring as a result of this data and these charts, and I'll get to them soon. If you'd like to experience all this for yourself, visit the master project page here, the elementary chart (2006 data) here, and the middle school chart (2006 data) here.

More soon...


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