In a growing number of districts, analytic tools are in use daily. In New York City, a few classrooms are using a system that analyzes each day’s performance and creates a customized lesson plan for the next day that combines in-class, small-group, and online learning. On a larger scale, administrators are creating data warehouses that can be mined to determine which students are in danger of dropping out.
Still, many teachers and education specialists are skeptical. Some reading specialists complain that DIBELS encourages children to read fast without comprehension. Kenneth S. Goodman, a University of Arizona professor emeritus and an expert on reading, blasted the approach in a book, The Truth About DIBELS. “The focus on improving performance on DIBELS is likely to contribute little or nothing to reading development and could actually interfere,” he wrote. Other critics worry that frequent testing will stigmatize children who do badly.
But proponents say that’s a misuse of the tests. Larry Berger, president of Wireless Generation, says that analytics help produce customized lessons for each student. He notes that the cycle of assessment, analysis, assignment to groups, and lesson creation repeats every 10 days, so that teachers can keep tailoring lessons individually. The software enables almost endless customization, he says.
In some cases, these predictive assessment tools are challenging older ways of doing things. New York City used the technology while developing the curriculum for its experimental School of One program. The city now supports online distribution of open-source early reading materials and lesson plans, in competition with traditional textbooks. The Wireless Generation software can quickly assess each student’s progress every day, and it uses a learning algorithm to create the next day’s customized “playlist” of recommended activities. The list may include instruction by a teacher, online video training, collaborative group work, or one-on-one tutoring delivered live or online.
Some charter schools are big believers in using analytics to shape instruction. Mosaica Education, a New York-based operator of 80 schools around the United States and overseas, requires teachers to administer the tests every Friday to assess how well students understand the material they’ve been studying. Michael J. Connelly, the company’s CEO, says most students take them online in the morning, and teachers study the results over lunch.
The assessment tells the teachers which students should be grouped together for small practice circles on particular issues. And because the results can be viewed online, principals in Mosaica schools can monitor teachers throughout the year and offer counseling if a class is slipping.
There’s a certain irony in the way these kinds of data-driven tools are being used. In the past, administrative computing was attacked for treating all students as “just another number.” But now, says Wireless Generation’s Berger, it’s all about customizing the curriculum, by finding “a predictive way to figure out what’s the right thing to teach that particular student.”