For a “Social” Schema for Education

Better data capture and analysis are becoming important tools in our efforts to improve education in the United States. Increasingly districts and schools have a detailed, accurate picture of what happens to students inside the walls of a school, with an education “schema” used to pull together and associate data from different sources. We need to extend this data capture and analysis beyond the school walls. We need to develop a matching “social” schema that pulls together information from local and state public service providers to offer better insight into what is happening to students when they aren’t in school.

Sophisticated data analytics have become critical tools for the private sector. By capturing a broad range of information on their operations, marketing and sales, businesses are better able to focus their resources to generate the most value. They can insure they are adequately staffed for the busy times, have the right inventory or store locations and that their marketing efforts are focused on selling their highest margin products. This insight extends to their customers – businesses can capture every interaction with a customer, building an ever more detailed, personalized understanding of how and what the customer buys and what marketing is most effective.

The tools and processes of data analytics are starting to be applied in education. Districts, schools and state education departments are increasingly using detailed data analysis to better understand their school operations and the education begin provided. Educators are tying together standardized test scores, class rosters, teacher performance and payroll information and school operating costs to gain insight into where their dollars are being spent and how the dollars translate into educational gains.

Educational data analytics are possible because more and more of the processes of education are captured electronically and educators have taken the time to develop a “schema”, a map of how the data captured for different uses is tied together. The schema allows data from different sources – class rosters, course schedules, payroll systems, etc., to be imported into a single database and then analyzed. The data itself doesn’t offer any answers, but connecting it together does give educators a much more complete and increasingly nuanced view of what is happening within the walls of their schools. Educators are able to see where they are spending money and if the resources are being applied correctly to meet educational goals. They can identify best practices that could allow schools and districts to improve their educational outcomes. And like the private sector educators are increasingly using data to develop individualized educational plans, understanding in detail a student’s progress on his or her educational journey and what works and doesn’t work for that student. Providing a more complete understanding of what is happening inside the walls of our schools gives educators a better chance of successfully educating our students.

Educators recognize that what happens outside of the walls of the school often has just as much impact on a student’s education as what happens inside. In middle class and wealthier neighborhoods what happens outside usually supports what happens inside – the value of education is likely to be stressed and students usually come to school well fed, well rested and able to focus on their schoolwork. Students are protected from the life challenges that make it hard for them to pay attention and thrive in schools.

In poorer neighborhoods it is often just the opposite – what happens outside undermines what happens inside the schools. The life challenges can be extreme, from the family being evicted to going hungry or even seeing a murder. Hungry, tired students have a harder time making it to school and paying attention once they get there. Social Scientists have even begun to explore a form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) experienced by urban youth in our most troubled neighborhoods.

Education is a social activity – the students learn from each other in addition to learning from their teachers and parents. In middle class and wealthier neighborhoods, the attentive, good students help set the expectations for the class – good students pull the other students forward. In poorer schools, the social norming can work the other way – bad students can pull the other students back, even if just by absorbing so much of a teachers time that he or she is less able to focus the other students. The students with the roughest home situations are more likely to be disruptive and make it harder to educate the other students in the class. In healthcare there has been a recognition of the impact of outliers, the extreme cases that increase costs for everybody. Surely this holds true in education as well – the students that are the outliers, that have the worst situations, impact and undermine the education of the other students in their classes.

At the moment we know very little of what happens to poor students outside the walls of their schools. We don’t know if their family has been evicted, a parent or sibling has been arrested or if someone on the block has been shot or murdered. But this is important information – all of these events can severely impact a student’s attendance or grades, or likelihood of becoming disruptive. All of these can undermine the best efforts of educators to provide a quality education. This, ultimately, is why we need to develop a social schema to understand what happens outside the walls of the school – until we have this insight, the efforts within the school to improve education will be blunted and undermined. What happens outside will overwhelm the good intentions and efforts inside.

Developing and implementing a social schema is certainly possible. Virtually every part of our public safety and social support system – family services or housing court or the police department – uses computerized records and has put time and thought into capturing accurate, structured information. This is the data that tells us what is happening to students in poor neighborhoods outside of the school walls. The social schema would provide a framework for connecting this data and importing it into a single database, allowing educators to build a detailed, accurate profile of the social context and challenges facing each individual student.

This social profile could become another data point in an individualized learning plan, helping educators to adjust their approach to the student’s situation. If data was received near real-time schools could identify students whose families are getting evicted and reach out to them to minimize missed school days. Schools could proactively extend counseling or social services to students that have been involved with or exposed to some kind of trauma, such as a warrant being served in the home or a neighbor being murdered. With limited support resources, schools would be able to focus what they have where it will make the most impact. Maybe educators can even keep the outliers from becoming outliers. If we can soften the impact of the trauma in their lives, maybe we can give students the room to learn, to stay focused on their future. If we can do so, we will improve not just their education but that of their classmates as well – we will be reducing the disruptions that keep teachers from being effective educators.

Schema development is challenging and working through the issues of actually receiving and analyzing data from different sources has its own unique challenges. A process will have to be agreed upon to de-individualize data to insure privacy. But the challenges can be overcome – the private sector has managed to figure out how to use de-individualized data, and certainly the educational, social services and public safety fields can as well. We need to start work on the social schema. Understanding what happens outside of the school walls will be a powerful tool in our efforts to improve education in poorer neighborhoods.

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