Can Data Science Save Dropouts?

Recently I started reading Data Science for Business, and it struck me that the example it gives of a  company wanting to predict customer churn is quite a bit like what a school might want in predicting whether a student is likely to dropout.

For some time, I’ve been fascinated with the idea of using data to solve human problems. We know that the current economy runs on data science; Facebook and Google are quite upfront that they want to predict what you want, so they can show you ads.  Brick and mortar stores are doing it too, as Target can predict when its customers are pregnant, and send appropriate coupons.   I believe it must be possible to use data science in a manner that is less profit driven and more humanity driven.  And so this brings me to this question, can data science save dropouts?

Looking at an example, in the Twin Rivers school district, I did some rough calculations, and it looks like the district loses approximately 1,000 students from kindergarten to high school graduation.  This is 1,000 kids that will generally find the rest of lives much more difficult than if they were able to graduate.   Further these 1,000 dropouts cost Twin Rivers over $10,000,000 in lost revenue.  If only half of these kids could be recovered, the district would be able to fund at least 50 faculty and staff positions.

So how could the district solve this problem?  There are two answers: dropout prevention and dropout recovery.  I have personally worked a lot with dropout recovery for adults, and I am currently working on creating an adult-serving charter school that can help solve this problem, which I will talk about more soon in other posts.

Dropout prevention is something that is usually done in very broad strokes, and if these programs are more targeted, with support groups or extra help, they usually aren’t consistently applied across the student population (they often are based upon self-selection, parent selection, or teacher selection).

But what if there were patterns in the existing data about students that might show they were highly likely to dropout?  These particular students could more cost-effectively and consistently be targeted with intervention strategies to help them stay in school.

The first question would be whether there were predictors in the current data that could be used?  Most traditional demographics should not be used.  Gender, race and ethnicity may at times have a correlation with students dropping out, but these are proxies to other societal issues, and any such use of the data would surely have people up in arms about “racial profiling”, etc.  Some demographics might play a role in doing this type of analysis, specifically looking at socioeconomic status and English language learners. But since these two variables are so broad and change slowly, they would be useful as a tangential or supporting variable at best.  Looking at specific teachers should also not be done as it would be perceived as a form of teacher evaluation, and would probably not be compatible with the contract.  As such it would also likely get the ire of the teacher’s union, and getting their support is important to getting a successful outcome.

So I think the answer is to see if there are patterns in student behavior that might be predictors of a student dropping out.  A school’s various student information systems has attendance data, grades, the courses students have taken, standardized test scores, etc.  By using automated statistical techniques, it could be determined if these variables often have some types of patterns to them when students drop out, and if so, then in almost real-time (although more likely on a weekly basis), the school could look for these patterns, and have counselors or teachers work with the students who were determined to be most at-risk to see if these student can be saved from dropping out.

I am going to share this post with some of the folks with Twin Rivers, and I hope to post more soon about how such a project like this might be able to be done, and which specific steps would be involved.  Maybe, I’ll even be able to be involved with working with Twin Rivers to do it…  We will see!

Agile Education

My recent post about advice to a new teacher got me thinking more about how the “agile” method of doing things: using feedback loops to make iterative improvements, generally quickly and on a small scale, is a theme of how education can be improved at many levels.  I think I need to explore this idea more.  In fact, I gave some thought to using the idea for my doctoral thesis, but I don’t think that is the right platform, as doctoral theses are more “waterfall” in how they are done, with formalization and committees and other bureaucratic factors all over the place, which is in some ways the antithesis of agile…   But does it have to be that way?  Is there a way to have education be both agile AND accountable?  Software development has seemed to have found a way to do both, and one can make the argument that agile software development is more accountable to the end-user.  Could agile education be more accountable to the student (and parent(s)?).

This is just a start to the idea.  There has been only a little written about the idea in education, at least with the term “agile education” (Although I’m sure the concept probably exists under several other terms, and it will take work with the literature to find these.)

But following agile educational principles, I think I will try to develop my ideas on the topic in an agile way.  Such as starting with this blog entry.

An Email to a New ICT Teacher aka My “Letter to a Young Poet”

Recently a first year ICT teacher contacted me about the class he is about to teach, looking to learn as much as he can before starting that course.   Like many CTE teachers, he has a wealth of experience in industry, but not in being a teacher.  Here is an excerpt of the email I sent him with my advice, which I hope is both valuable to him, and valuable to other first year teachers (and maybe even veteran teachers).  I hope to further expand upon the concept of “Agile Education” in the future, as it seems to be an idea whose time has come:

The following advice I’m going to give you is only my personal advice, and is not the advice you would normally receive from most people in education, and is contrary to what you will likely be told be others, so beware following it. 🙂

The first year of teaching will have so many unknowns to it, that I think you should design your curriculum to be as flexible as possible.  For instance, keep your syllabus being basically your course description, and don’t try to detail every day of it.   Don’t try and write lesson plans for the whole course.  At least not yet.   The reason I say this, is that it is inevitable that some of the assumptions you are going to make right now about how the students will learn, will be completely wrong, and if you detail everything up-front, you will either need to stick with the detailed plan that will fail, or change it on the kids, which while changing things is quite valid, it is often confusing for the kids and their parents, and unfortunately while it should logically increase the validity of your as teaching, changing things from what we originally said may make you look less reputable.   But this doesn’t mean I’m advocating doing no planning or prepping.   But think of your course more as agile development than “waterfall”, and develop it in weekly chunks.

With this development process in mind, the first week should be about getting to know your students.  Some of the critical things to learn about them is:

  • What background do they have academically? (how are they in math, logic, communication, etc.?)
  • What are their current interests?
  • What do they see as their future after high school?

Use both “quantitative” and “qualitative” data to make this judgement.  For instance, if you can get a hold of their transcripts, to see their past classes, that is a good starting point to know their background, but don’t rely on it alone, a good or bad grade in a previous class often has as much to do with the teacher than the student. So talk with your students, have them type up their answers in a word processing program, and pay as much attention to how they use that program (typing speed, style, software knowledge, and willingness to try things) as to what they say.

Also, be careful to not have this process of evaluation become one where you judge their chances of success. Your job is to help each one to become a success, and while it will be easier and more difficult in different cases, and while realistically you won’t always reach the level of success of teaching you may want with each student, your goal is still for success.  So in other words, gathering this data should not be for “filtration” purposes.

Also, remember the answers to these initial questions for each student won’t necessarily be the same after they are done with your course.  Very often students will only have a vague idea of what their future after high school will be, and it is that one teacher in their life that inspired them to go on to do great things.

But, the answers you find from this first week will be invaluable to your curriculum, as it can give you ideas for projects you will do with the whole class, or for projects that the students will do individually or in groups.  It will also help you structure your curriculum.  And it will help you later with how you create groups for group projects, as I recommend you try to balance groups.   Your skills in management will be extremely valuable to you with all of this.

Then after your first week, decide what to do your second week.  And when you do it the first day of the second week, and you find “bugs” in your methods of teaching, then fix them, even if that means basically repeating a day, but don’t repeat it the same way, as obviously if one method didn’t work, you will need to try another.

And be honest with your students about this process.  You may even want to explain how your teaching style is like troubleshooting technology problems or debugging.  By using this analogy with them, it will form a congruence that will help them educationally and help them to accept your mistakes, and hopefully accept their own mistakes, because we know in the ICT world, that often we go down several wrong paths before we get to the right one, and the world is really iterative not linear.

I hope this helps, although if you follow my advice, be prepared to defend the logic of it, as again it is not the usual methodology told to new teachers.

The Email for FCMAT and CSIS is still down

Last week I posted about how when I tried to reply to an email from  of FCMAT / CSIS that I got an error back that “The email address you entered couldn’t be found. ”  Well, I’m still having this error, and of course, I can’t seem to email them about it! 🙂

It is important to recognize that this is the organization that is supposed to help school districts and others to have improved practices, and also manages the database of all the student information in California.  If they can’t get their email to work after over a week, it gives me some potential concern over the private data of nearly every child in our state.

I am going to try and call them today, and see if they can graciously acknowledge their issues, and fix them.  As that is the true sign of whether we should be concerned or not.  An organization that only tries to cover up and blame away their problems is one that obviously won’t fix the issues, and this is quite dangerous for the public when they are the keeper of your private information.  At this point I’m not making that accusation, but from my dealings with public agencies (and quasi-public agencies), my experience suggests that this could be an accusation that would need to be made, depending upon future evidence.

Improving Education through Addressing Systemic Constraints

When I was in high school, I read The Goal, which is a business book that introduces the Theory of Constraints (TOC). At the time I still didn’t fully “get it”, or see how important the idea is that any process that is working towards an outcome will have constraints that slow down the system, reduce the quality of the outcome, and in some cases stop the outcome from being reached at all.   And by understanding these constraints, and addressing them strategically, then the outcomes will improve most.  The A to Z Mapping of Formal Education Systems that I’ve been developing can help show where constraints are unduly affecting the system.   In this post, I’ll just look at the A to G of the model, which is the core of how it models education.

Aims & Beliefs

Aims and Beliefs are NOT often constraints in and of themselves (other than possibly self-imposed constraints).  Instead, Aims & Beliefs make up the prerequisite knowledge that allows one to determine what constraints exist within a system.  BUT, the results of having different Aims & Beliefs of different people within a system almost always will lead to constraint issues.    Looking at a business example from The Goal, in that book, it says making money is the goal of a business. I personally disagree that this should be the only goal of  a business, or maybe even the primary goal (although I don’t, as of yet, have a better substitute, so I won’t propose one.)   But, lets say that for some reason a business decided to have as its goal to lose money (think something like Brewster’s Millions or The Producers), then the constraints on reaching that goal would likely be totally different from one of making money.

In education, this is a serious issue.  Many people have different beliefs about the purpose of education.  Thus they are inherently going to see different constraints within the system that need to be solved to fix education.  But, even if there is a common goal, this doesn’t mean that the system will still be properly changed to address the constraint issue.  Remember the joke “A camel is a horse designed by committee”  and the cartoon of the bureaucratic stages of creating a swing-set.  Nor does it mean that the people who can change parts of the system will even recognize the constraint issue.  The Goal sold well because it offered new ideas to business people.


To move beyond Aims & Beliefs, for arguments sake, lets assume that one of the first aims of education should be to help people get a job such that they can survive.  (This fits well with Common Core State Standards, and also fits into Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as a prerequisite layer to achieve to help reach higher self-actualization.)  From this goal, then it can be seen that U.S. Public Education is likely constraining itself from reaching this goal by the content it delivers or doesn’t deliver.   Part of the challenge with this is that there are many individual career paths that need different types of content of skills and knowledge.   And differentiation of education doesn’t happen greatly generally until after High School, with High Schools having some differentiation.  This is then automatically a constraint on those who wish to pursue a specific field.


The delivery of instruction is a place where there are a huge number of constraints that can be reduced to lead to better outcomes.  As I’m running out of time this morning to write, I’m going to just bullet some of them:

  • Neurological Readiness
  • Neurological & Psychological Receptiveness
  • Cognitive Prerequisites
  • Focus on what is needed for a particular student (not what isn’t)

Evaluation, Feedback & Growth

Evaluation and Feedback both are big places of constraints on reaching goals.  Poor evaluation methods (like standardized tests can often be) lead to poor outcomes, and not using the results of the evaluation for both student and teacher (systemic) growth, also leads to not lowering constraints.


In future posts, I hope to explain more.  But I wanted to get these ideas out while I had a moment to do so.

The Social Sciences are Science, and they are Likely to be the Most Important Science of the 21st Century

There is a common and persistent misconception that “science” is only the “hard sciences”, primarily physics, geology, astronomy, chemistry, and biology (and related fields).  This is perpetuated in high school science courses, because when they say “science” they never mean psychology, organizational behavior, political science, sociology, anthropology, or any of the applied disciplines of these such as education, law, management, marketing, etc. The closes that usually exists is “social studies” which is more historically focused than science focused, such that it focuses more on stating what is believed to have happened in the past, then how social scientists, including historians, have come to their conclusions about what happened in the past.  Although this is also can be a problem in the “hard sciences” where some science classes state the “facts” of science, more than they talk about how they were discovered, and why we should believe or not believe them.

Yet, it is the humans of this world and how we operate that has the biggest impact on this planet today and on its future, and specifically on our future as a humanity.   It is how we use the hard sciences in our organizations, cultures, and nations that will determine how the future will be.  Doesn’t this deserve to be something that should be looked at carefully by every voting citizen of this nation and world?  From my experience, education changes slowly, and that which is called “academic” at the K12 level does not generally utilize the scientific academic methodologies of higher education.  Maybe this is partly because they don’t generally recognize the value social science has on their discipline?

Unintendended Negative Consequences of School Accreditation Policy

Before I write about how our accrediting commission’s policies just stopped me from helping best serve a student (and a group of students), I should preface this blog article, with the fact that in general I think the Council on Occupational Education is a very good accrediting agency, and that most of their policies that have hurt our students, are not necessarily policies that they chose, but are likely policies dictated partially to them by the U.S. Department of Education, which in turn had things dictated to them from the U.S. Congress.  So, I don’t want this article to be misconstrued as an attack on our accrediting agency.

But on the other hand, if criticism is not shared, improvements are less likely to happen.  Currently Twin Rivers Adult School is a candidate for accreditation through the Council on Occupational Education (COE).  As candidates we are not supposed to make “Substantive Changes”, further before making any changes we are supposed to get it approved by COE (even if we weren’t candidates).   I recognize that this has been put into place such that Title IV Accrediting Agencies become de facto regulators.  And that this particular regulation has been put into place to attempt to stop dubious and bad post-secondary institutions from doing things too quickly, without oversight.

The problem is that we are a public school, and we already have oversight on many levels, and of most concern, the red tape that is there to slow us down is causing us to not be able to react as quickly as we need in the environment we exist within.  As an example, just this morning, we had a student whose native language is one other than English, and thus he could really use English as a Second Language (ESL) courses.  Further, he wants to learn the trade of Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (HVAC).

And while we already have a Vocational ESL classes, and an HVAC program as existing things we do, we are not allowed to combine these 2 together today for him, so he could have an ESL HVAC program.  (Which a lot of our other students need also).   We hope to get this approved sometime next year, but by the time that happens, there will be many students who were not served, even though we already had all the pieces in place to serve them, because having a different permutation was considered a “substantive change”.

Spreadsheet to generate Clock-Hour Chart for the Council on Occupational Education

Twin Rivers Adult School is currently a candidate for Accreditation from the Council on Occupational Education, and we need to turn in forms to them that show how many hours our programs are.  These are easy to accidentally make a mistake, so I created the COE Clock-Hour-Chart Generator spreadsheet to help out.   Any other schools going through the same accreditor are welcome to use it.

A to Z of Education System Design

Think about every problem, every challenge, we face. The solution to each starts with education.” – George H. W. Bush [zotpressInText nickname="EffectiveEducation" item="JUTK8B3V"]

Do you want to improve the world?  Do you want to improve education?  Want to start your own school?  I do.

I have been working towards this goal for at least 10 years now, through teaching, curriculum creation, and doing administrative roles with the Twin Rivers Unified School District and through active outside learning, study, and thought. That is why I have started the Effective Education Projects, which include a myriad of individual projects that are working to build a better world. But I’m just beginning, and it seems it has taken me 10 years to get to the beginning.

If you are similar to me in wanting to change education (or simply help people learn things that can help humanity), then I will use the term  “education system designer” or simply “designer” to refer to you.  I use this term “designer” to mean that you have the ability to design (within constraints) the methods in which you share information with others and you have influence over how others may do this as well.  This empowerment that you have, that you may not realize, is important, and requires the ability to look at the bigger picture. You may be a teacher, an administrator, a student, a parent, a business person, an actor, a documentary producer, an author, and/or acting within another role.

What I will be presenting in 26 postings, and ultimately in a book based upon these postings, are not inherently the answers to the questions about how to make education more effective. It is a way of making a map of an education system, such as a school, so that the school can better understand itself, and see where it may be missing components, or not have them as congruent as they could be.  This mapping contains what I believe are the key mental models needed to ask the right questions.  Along the way, I will also be sharing a little about what questions and answers I have found.  And then future postings/books will detail those more.

These 26 concepts, corresponding to each letter of the English alphabet, will cover 4 major areas:

  • A to G contains the overall components of teaching, learning, and improvement
  • H through M, are the stages an education system has with students (and in fact with all participants)
  • N through W, are 9 ways of viewing components of any organization, with a focus on looking at them in education
  • X, Y, and Z are the “dimensions” of the map, each being a  continuum of how to look at a system from different levels.

In system theory, it is said that it is somewhat arbitrary about how we define the boundaries between components (sub-systems) and how components are categorized.  Thus, there are many ways that many philosophers and authors have defined things, and each of their frameworks are not necessarily more or less accurate than the others*.  (And it seems that every educational author, now including me, tries to make their own model!)  And thus, I do not claim that what I have defined as the A to Z of Education is the only way to understand or map the design of education systems and schools.

And in some ways the components of A to Z of Education are contrived to match with the English alphabet, and the arbitrary order that the English alphabet has been defined to be in.  But, building meaning is important, and using the alphabet as a mnemonic device is a benefit, and the letters were able to fit the ideas sufficiently well.

Further, as already stated, the A to Z, on their own, do not answer questions about how to make effective education systems.  In fact, the A to Z  will be similar to the alphabet.  It will be the components that can be put together to have a system, similar to how letters are put together to have written words in a language.  And in fact, the components of the A to Z can make ineffective education as well as effective education, and it can even make different systems that teach opposite lessons.But, the components are always there, even if they are being performed poorly, or not leading to the results the education designer wants.  By having a framework to use as a map, the components can be seen more clearly, which then can lead to improvement in effectiveness.

The A to Z are mostly generalized, thus “T” will not be for “Teacher”, and “S” will not be for “Student”, but instead you will find “P” for “Participant”,  as in reality participants take on different roles, and good teachers learn from students, and students may teach other students as well (and will probably be better off for it!).  Further, in the broad scheme, our mass media is as much an education system, as our schools are, and the A to Z should fit that type of paradigm and other education systems that are not commonly recognized as education systems, as much as it can fit a traditional “brick and mortar” school. (Because of this, I will generally use the term “education system” instead of “school”, but if it makes you feel more comfortable, you can substitute the word “school” for that phrase when you read it.)

So, you may ask: if there are other frameworks that have accuracy, and if the A to Z framework doesn’t even guarantee that an effective system can be created, why should you care about reading this, and why am I writing this?  I believe this is a valid question, as science grows from open-minded skepticism.  And the answer to this question is important to understand: The deeper we understand the principles and components of a system, the more likely we are to be able to put those components  together in such a way that it can produce more effective education for a better humanity.  This A to Z framework has sharpened my mind’s thoughts about education, and I hope it will help your mind to have a place to put concepts and ideas, to help with whatever forays you have with educational design.

Some of these components may seem obvious, but as Paul Simon has said “Why deny the obvious?” The knowledge of our world has improved because those things that seemed obvious, such as the thought that the world was only made up of earth, water, fire, and wind, have been more deeply explored and understood.    Similarly, by understanding the components of education systems, the foundation is constructed to be able to build a fuller system.

The A to Z framework on its own is descriptive, and not directly prescriptive.  In philosophy it would be said, that it is not normative, nor attempts to describe what ought to be done.  And my aim is to have this writing be helpful to those who may have different beliefs than I do, and thus we may create entirely different systems of education than I am working on creating.

But, for purposes of explaining the A to Z, it is important to give examples along the way, and these examples will be more normative from my personal perspective.   There are two education systems that I have actively been involved with, that I will use as examples: Twin Rivers Unified School District and the Effective Education Projects.

They are in very different stages of existence.  Twin Rivers Unified School District was formed in 2008 as the merger of several school districts in the northern Sacramento region of California.  It has had a bumpy road, to say the least.  While individual staff at its different schools have been recognized at the state and national level for doing extraordinary things, the district has also been the focus of two grand jury investigations, has many lawsuits it is dealing with, is financially troubled due to major state budget cuts, and from many news reports, it is clear that it has systemic problems.   Because of these events, there have been several changes in leadership, including the retirement of the past superintendent, the deputy superintendent being placed on administrative leave, and in recent elections, most of the school board makeup changed.   This offers a potential opportunity to have a systemic redesign that could change a lot of things, but there is equal or greater chance that things will not change.  I use it as a personal example, because I hope the ideas presented here, can help all participants have more tools to work towards improvement.

The Effective Education Projects can not be seen as a success either.  Not because they have failed, but because for the most part they have not yet started.   They have been ideas in my head, which has included a lot of contribution of ideas from others.  I am working to hopefully learn from the mistakes other systems have made, and be able to avoid those, and make novel mistakes instead :-).  And even from these new mistakes (whatever they will be), I believe that with good system design, it is possible to use them for improvement.   One of the key features that I think can help the Effective Education Projects, is by having a relevant and accurate theoretical framework, which I believe the “A to Z” is, it will increase the overall chance of success for each project.

So my next posting will start with: A for Aim…

Read the full entry to include the Works Cited