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Intelligent Education


BI can learn a lot from education and other not-for-profit programs for its mission to assess the performance of business. Education and social programs have been in the performance management arena for quite some time – far predating the accountability-driven No Child Left Behind, probably going back at least to the Great Society programs of the Johnson administration in the 1960's.

The analog of performance management in the not-for-profit world is program evaluation, in which rigorous scientific methods are used to test and improve the performance of  educational, health care and social initiatives. The methodologies of program evaluation are quite sophisticated, deploying randomization, lotteries and other advanced design and statistical techniques to accurately assess program effectiveness. There is thus much in program evaluation to borrow for the practice of business intelligence.

An important educational development of the last 20 years is the emergence of charter schools – focused, public, nonsectarian institutions that operate with  freedom from many traditional public school regulations by negotiating a “charter” with a governing body like a  school board. Such schools trade enhanced freedom for a higher degree of accountability. And rigorous evaluation is part and parcel of that accountability.

Charter schools, program evaluation and data-driven education are now quite prominent in the national press, with several recent articles in The Wall Street Journal and The Economist. The Cyber Way to Knowledge reviews the book, Liberated Learning, which argues forcefully for the benefits of online education. Though computer-based, the Cyber program includes “synchronous teachers”, who use instant-messaging and interactive whiteboards to engage students online. Pro-Cyber arguments, according to the authors, include enhanced access to quality instruction unencumbered by limitations of geography, socio-economic status and educational politics. The authors cite the success of the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, an online institution that serves 8000 students throughout the state. For a demographic that's comprised of no better than average students, the school has achieved  the exulted Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) in No Child Left Behind, hitting all 21 targets, with SAT scores 97 points above the state average. And that performance comes at lower cost – 3 teachers per 100 students for online charter schools compared with 6.8 per 100 for traditional public education.

The Economist takes on the evaluation of charter schools directly in Time for a Test. Like The Cyber Way to Knowledge, this article acknowledges generally positive evaluations of charter schools, even in the face of resistance from teachers' unions. Newark, New Jersey, has seventeen charter schools currently, providing a laboratory for contrasting performance of charter with traditional public schools. And since all of Newark's charter schools admit students by lottery, the selection biases that often present when comparing “treatment” and control  educational settings should be minimized. The evaluations now underway will compare charter to traditional public school outcomes of high school graduation rates and college destinations. Additional investigation will address concerns of critics that even with lottery-based admissions, charter schools “cream” the best students, and also shed light on the impact of charter school preoccupation with testing.

Data-Driven Schools See Rising Scores presents the student monitoring and evaluation approach of the Montgomery County, Md., Public Schools,  a program that almost seems like performance management on steroids.  The “data-driven” education movement, which builds on the testing emphasis of No Child Left Behind, uses high tech to allow teachers to continually monitor student progress for immediate feedback and remediation as appropriate. 40 school employees generate reports used by administrators and principals for tracking, alerts and performance evaluation. The obsession with data has helped the 139,000 school district identify achievement gaps between whites and minorities – gaps that have now substantially closed.  A computer system tracking PSAT scores allows the district to pinpoint gifted but low achievement students, often minorities, for special attention.  As a consequence,  over the last decade, the number of minority students receiving a passing grade in at least one AP test has grown from the low hundreds to the low thousands. Education Secretary Arne Duncan opines: “They're doing a tremendous amount right.” Montgomery County's intelligent approach should be “the norm, not the exception.” The same can be said of evidence-based business as well.

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Comments (2)
Steve - Really interesting and well-researched - thanks! And some important things to think about...

One of the things that good charter schools (and good schools in general) are doing right is focusing not just on AYP in NCLB, but building an educational system where that AYP is a by-product of doing a lot of other things right. These are schools that applying a whole range of assessments all year round and adjust their curriculum and teaching methods to reflect insights they gain along the way. And, more and more, they are using technology to help with those assessments and insights.

The important BI lesson here is, as with these successful schools, successful long-term businesses don't spend all their time "teaching to the test" or focusing just on getting the right numbers at year end. They are using BI all through, not merely as a score card, but as a way to make their businesses more productive across a whole range of measures...

Posted by Marcia E | Thursday, June 25 2009 at 10:44AM ET
Marcia --

Thanks so much for your insightful comments. I wish I could have corresponded with you before I posted the blog!


Posted by steve m | Monday, June 29 2009 at 5:29PM ET
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