Schools hoping for boost from Harvard research center

By rigorously analyzing data across the school system, a partnership with Harvard University's Center for Education Policy Research will help the system better serve students through more effective policies and programs and better budgeted resources, officials with the center and the school system said Monday.

In a meeting with central office staff Monday morning, the Harvard center's research team outlined its plans for data collection and review, and how exactly the school system would become a part of what's called the Strategic Data Project.

"We are not the same school system we were 25 years ago," recently appointed Superintendent Renee Foose said. "We've doubled in size, and we're now a majority-minority system. We have some challenges. We can't continue to do business in the same way.

"We have to re-tool and look at what we're doing, find ways we're doing things well, and extend and refine what we're doing so we are preparing students for college and careers."

Working with Harvard, Foose said, is going to offer the opportunity to do that.

Schools spokeswoman Rebecca Amani-Dove said it was not yet known what the partnership will cost the school system.

The partnership was first introduced in Foose's entry plan, presented to the public in June. Foose's first objective in that plan is to provide "a world-class education for every child," and entailed establishing a partnership with the center to conduct analyses of student achievement trends.

Jon Fullerton, executive director of Harvard's Center for Education Policy Research, said data analyses would bring to light where achievement gaps exist among student groups. Rachel Hitch, Harvard's agency partner manager, said an analysis also would be conducted of how Howard County is currently using data to operate and develop policy.

""The goal isn't to look in and try to find dings and give you a report card of what you're doing wrong," she said. "It's the opposite, looking at what's going well, and where are the places that need improvement."

The data analysis project was first piloted in 2008, in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and District of Columbia Public Schools. Since then, more than 20 school districts, state education departments and foundations have partnered with the center, including, last year, Baltimore County Public Schools, where Foose was deputy superintendent.

Fullerton said it was still too early to see direct results of the program across the country. But speaking from his own experience as a former consultant for the Los Angeles Unified School District, he said decision-makers must have the best information and data possible in order to make the best decisions.

"The (Los Angeles) board was being asked to make decisions based on information that was completely inadequate," Fullerton said. "There was a frustration between board and superintendent, basically because they were missing each other. The right kind of information and data was not a part of the process."

An initial report on the group's findings will be presented to the school system Sept. 5, and a final report will follow in October. Over the course of the next two years, analytic "fellows" will work within the school system to use existing data to look at teacher effectiveness and the success of college-bound students. Eventually, Fullerton said, the fellows will look at data to track the success of Howard students once they're actually in college as well.

Three of those fellows, as yet unselected, will be people already employed by the schools, Foose said, and the fourth will be brought on from the Harvard center. They will begin work in October.

Ultimately, Foose said, the research team can only present the school system with its findings, and it's up to central office staff and the Board of Education to include what's learned in the decision-making process.

"It's up to us, then, to put (students) on a trajectory of success," Foose said.

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