From the Statehouse

Indiana's goal: use data to reimagine education

PHOTO: Fredrik Olofsson via Flickr

If Indiana starts now, Steve Braun thinks the state could be the first to take a serious run at using its education system to dramatically cut unemployment.

The Zionsville Republican has been nurturing an ambitious idea for the Hoosier state: applying cutting-edge data techniques from the business world to harness information he thinks could solve what today seems like an impossible mystery — knowing in advance what skills will kids need for the kinds of jobs that will be available on the days they graduate high school or college.

Steve Braun
PHOTO: Oliver Morrison
Steve Braun

Braun, a Harvard graduate who built a successful company into a leader in business intelligence — a process of using wide arrays of data to solve complex problems — thinks those very techniques could provide an answer.

“If we get it right we will really set ourselves apart,” he said. “But this is not easy. This is hard. It took big companies 20, 30 or 40 years to figure out how to use data and hold people accountable for using data.”

But that notion of accountability for schools, especially the suggestion that it’s a responsibility for educators to assure their students are prepared for specific jobs, raises eyebrows.

Even if that sort of expectation is years, if not decades, in the future, as Braun suggests, just pursuing it as a goal would mean at least some redefinition of the very purpose and process of public education.

That makes some educators nervous.

“I don’t know what the workforce will look like in eight years,” Indiana State Teachers Association President Teresa Meredith said. “Technology is changing faster than I can afford to buy it. I would hate to build (education) around what businesses today think they’re going to need.”

Even so, Indiana is quietly taking steps to position itself for a future where data drives much of what is learned in school.

Gov. Mike Pence has made connecting education and workforce development a centerpiece of his administration’s agenda, and Braun has been a partner from the start. As a state representative he co-authored the bill that in 2013 created the Indiana Career Councils, which seek to coordinate efforts of those involved in education and workforce development in 11 regions around the state.

This year, a bill he wrote created a new state office, under Pence’s direction, with a director who has been nicknamed the state’s “data czar.” That office will manage an expanded network of K-12, higher education and workforce data, working with an outside company to identify trends and opportunities to connect what is learned now to what students will some day need to know.

Just last month, Pence named Braun as the state’s new director of the Department of Workforce Development.

“I’m extremely enthusiastical about the opportunity to bring an entrepreneur like Steve Braun to the task of rethinking workforce education from high school through adult workforce to the state to Indiana,” Pence said. “It’s just a part of our larger vision for really rethinking career and vocational education in the state of Indiana from high school forward.”

In that role, Braun will expand on efforts to involve Indiana companies shaping the state’s education and job training efforts.

“A key dimension completely missing from the equation was anything with any participation from the private employer community,” Braun said. “It’s apparent to me would could get better at that.”

Building business intelligence

First at the business consulting firm Price Waterhouse, and then in his own business, Braun spent his career helping companies better organize data so they could figured out how to best position themselves for future growth. In essence, it’s a process of trying to predict the future.

Private companies, particularly large corporations, today use data to try to guess what they will do tomorrow, such as what products and services to pursue, expand or discontinue and even who to hire. If a company can correctly predict how its market will change, it can help it plan ahead for what sorts of skills its future employees will need. Company leaders can know when it makes sense to retrain their employees or whether they will need to hire new workers.

For example, a large scientific company might be able to use data to predict whether market changes will require it to hire more engineers or more chemists. But even beyond that, the company might know what sorts of chemists it needs based on the work it anticipates they will do. This process works even for a job built on “soft” skills, like sales. Companies have already been able to use data to predict what sorts of interpersonal skills or personality types do best selling their products and test for those when hiring.

But it’s not only private businesses that can use this kind of data prediction — the state can, too, Braun argues.

“This was already being done in the private sector, and to me it’s exactly the same paradigm we need to go through from the standpoint of working with our workforce and education communities,” Braun said. “We know we have unemployed people that are out there. We know that we have a significant number of jobs that are going unfilled because of skills gaps, and starting that process is figuring out what those jobs are skills are.”

A new data network takes shape

To make similarly strong predictions that could help schools know what to teach, the state needs a lot of data.

Indiana’s plan for collecting all that information is called the Indiana Network of Knowledge, an expanded version of a the state’s existing education data collection system.

The idea is to collect long-term data from three state agencies — The Indiana Department of Education, Department of Workforce Development and Commission on Higher Education — and, hopefully, merge it with data tracked by private employers. Four other states — Washington, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Maryland — have similar data systems but none have yet harnessed the information in the way Indiana envisions.

Privacy concerns, which were raised when Braun introduced a bill to create the network, should not come into play, he said. The network aims to study trends, not look at individuals. As the network is built over then next year, a new executive director and staff will identify what data will included.

There are three finalists to be the network’s executive director, said Jackie Dowd, a close adviser to Pence who is leading the the effort to build it. All three come from the education world, not business: Jeffrey Hudnall, assistant director of the ISU career center; Karen Jones, dean of the School of Applied Sciences and Engineering at Ivy Tech in Fort Wayne; and Jack Powell, director of development at Lutheran High School in Indianapolis.

When it’s operational, state officials hope Indiana can use the network to be a national trailblazer for using data and collaborating with business.

“There is big social and economic value if we do better,” Braun said.

But much still has to be done before the system can become a reality. One important consideration is how people will get access to the data once it is put together and published. Teresa Lubbers, a member of the network’s governance committee representing the Commission on Higher Education, said the action piece should come together once the network has a working staff and begins to move forward.

“That’s critically important,” Lubbers said. “It’s not going to do any good to do a report if it sits on somebody’s shelf.”

Looking ahead, not behind

Indiana, and other states, already collect huge amounts of education data: test scores, graduation rates, demographic information, spending figures and much more.

But there’s a problem, Braun argues, with the way Hoosiers look at, and use, all that information. All of it looks only at what happened in the past.

“These are snapshots or looking back,” he said. “When employers are doing workforce analytics, they are looking at the future market and mapping how they need to grow into it.”

The state can use its new network to do the same thing, he said.

“If we can align education process around that, we can do a  better job of counseling our kids about what jobs available and what area of study will likely result in employment,” Braun said.

Thinking of education that way is sometimes hard for teachers, however. School certainly is supposed to prepare children to be ready for jobs, but that’s not all its about, Meredith said. It’s also about producing good citizens with well-rounded knowledge. Too heavy a focus on career preparation, she said, can lead to teaching kids only specialized skills for jobs they think they want while missing out on other things they need to learn.

“I still believe you have to give kids a core education so hopefully it can help them figure out where they go at the end of high school, whether that’s specific classes in career education and vocational tech, or whether it’s courses to prepare for college or whether it’s military,” Meredith said. “I think we just have to be so careful when we talk about getting kids on specific career paths too soon.”

Companies already are moving in the direction of demanding specific skills and identifying education institutions that can provide students who are prepared with those skills, Braun said.

Take General Electric. The global company in March announced plans to build a $100 million jet engine assembly plan in West Lafayette. A key factor in the company’s decision was the proximity to Purdue University. It’s engineering school, the company said, consistently produces graduates with skills that match it needs. More than 400 Purdue alumni work for GE’s aviation division along with a total of 1,200 Purdue graduates companywide.

“Purdue is building those exact types of engineering skills in aerospace that they really need,” Braun said. “If we aspire to grow certain types of industries we need to start building those skills sets.”

Applying business techniques to government

Having data guide decision-making, said Jerry Conover, executive director of the Indiana Business Research Center, could prove to be a good long-term planning tool for the state.

“The state wants a healthy, vibrant economy where people have skills that are in demand, where they can live comfortably and pay taxes,” Conover said. “Rather than just guessing or being intuitive about what kinds of programs should help make that happen, a longitudinal data system makes it possible to empirically learn which past situations are likeliest to lead to those desired kinds of outcomes.”

But Meredith fears if Indiana’s bets on future jobs turn out to be wrong — after all, the data predictions are nothing more than a best guess — it could lead to even more young Hoosiers leaving the state, taking their talent and earning power elsewhere.

“Let’s face it. Look at businesses that haven’t stayed open, that say they’re coming but then they don’t,” Meredith said. “Training kids for something that isn’t could lead to more brain drain.”

Pence is convinced that Indiana needs a stronger connection between its education system and it’s business community.

The career councils do that by bringing leaders from both sides of that fence together to try to assure that students are prepared for the jobs that are available in the community when they graduate, he said.

“I believe its imperative every one of our kids graduates from school prepared to either go onto college or a productive career,” Pence said. “I think Indiana has a chance to really reestablish the importance of career and vocational education.”

That goal connects with the ideas behind the data network: using what businesses know to figure out what kids need to be learning.

“It is going to put Indiana on the leading edge of workforce innovation in this country,” Pence said. “Using input from business leaders, and using business data gathering and intelligence, we can design these pathways for young people that are looking to go from high school to get a job.”

Should schools be accountable for jobs?

Braun thinks the Indiana’s forecasting can be good enough that training kids to assure they get jobs should be more than a goal. It should be expected.

In the future, he said, that state should consider tying data about how many graduates earn good jobs to its school accountability system.

“You have to talk about identifying what outcomes you want to drive and get everybody involved in the process for driving those outcomes,” he said. “It’s the way any business would be run. We do not hold our higher education or K-12 schools accountable against job placement success. Nothing forces them to develop curriculum and build skills that are relevant to that student getting a job when they graduate from high school or college.”

And yet, there is more to school than preparing for job-related skills, Meredith said. Schools also teach important social, emotional and analytical skills that employers value, too. To make school only about getting a specific job misses the bigger picture of what school can do.

“How can I possibly prepare a high school student for life will be like when they finish college or high school in terms of a career?” Meredith said. “But I feel like I can get them ready for the things that I know will be true. I know they’re going to need to figure things out on their own, read and follow directions and use basic technology. That job that exists in eight years is one that I may not even be able to dream of today, one that might not exist today.”

If schools are eventually held responsible for student job placement, then maybe the state has a responsibility to them to give more support said Todd Bess, executive director of the Indiana Association of School Principals. Under Daniels, Bess said, schools were pushed to bulk up Advanced Placement programs and college prep, and now under Pence, career and workforce are a focus.

“Schools understand they are part of the economic engine for our state,” Bess said. “We’ve got to still understand what skills they need. So we have to continually try to imbue them with the correct skills and opportunities, and when they’re ready to take advantage of it, we’ll be there to assist them.”

money matters

Why so negative? Colorado lawmakers seek to rebrand controversial tool that limits spending on schools

A student works at Tollgate Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Colorado lawmakers are tired of hearing about the “negative factor.”

So they changed its name — at least in statute.

Going forward, the tool that budget writers will use to spend down the state’s financial obligation to public schools to balance the state budget officially will go by its original name: the “budget stabilization factor.”

The change was made when lawmakers passed the state’s annual school funding bill earlier this month.

The negative factor “has been used as a pejorative,” said state Sen. Kevin Priola, the Henderson Republican who put forth the idea of the name change. “The budget is never perfect. But these are the economic realities we have to deal with.”

Some education funding advocates are rolling their eyes. The term, they say, has become so well known and accepted that any attempt to change it will be difficult.

“You can change the name, but the debt’s the same,” said Lisa Weil, executive director of Great Education Colorado, a nonprofit that advocates for more school funding.

The negative factor — oh, sorry, we mean the budget stabilization factor — is just one part of a much larger and complex formula used to determine school funding.

The budget tool was first created in 2009 when state lawmakers were forced to slash the budget after the Great Recession.

School advocates knew they couldn’t escape the cuts the rest of the state was facing. So a team of lawmakers, lobbyists, superintendents and financial officers helped developed the tool.

Here’s how it works: After lawmakers determine how much funding schools should receive based on a formula developed in 1994, they compare that amount to available tax revenue. The difference is that year’s “stabilization factor.”

At the time the tool was created, the group wanted the cuts to be systematic — applied equally across all schools — and transparent. As part of the compromise, the state was required to track how much money it was withholding from schools.

In 2014, funding advocates sued the state, claiming the negative factor was unconstitutional. But the state Supreme Court disagreed.

Since then, Republican lawmakers have become more critical about the provision that requires them to track how much money the state isn’t giving schools. They argue that other state services such as roads, hospitals and parks all share a burden when it comes to balancing the budget.

Lawmakers have withheld about $5.8 billion from schools since the budget balancing tool was created. However, funding has slowly crept up each year, just not as fast as school leaders would hope.

School Politics

Colorado schools were a hot topic at the state Capitol this year. Here’s what lawmakers did.

A teacher reads to her students at the Cole Arts and Science Academy in Denver. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Colorado lawmakers this week are celebrating major education-related policy wins, including finding more money for public schools.

This year’s legislative session, which ended Wednesday, was marked by big compromises on issues that have befuddled policy makers for years: charter school funding, ninth-grade standardized testing and measuring the reading skills of the state’s youngest bilingual students.

With so many thorny debates behind them, lawmakers and Capitol observers are now looking toward other major policy questions they’ve put off for years, including reforming how the state pays for its public schools and making changes to Colorado’s school accountability laws and teacher licensure policies.

“The hope is now that the K-12 community can come together to focus on the big issues,” said Jen Walmer, Colorado state director of Democrats for Education Reform.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s look back at the last 120 days:

Lawmakers found more money for schools than anyone could have imagined.

Before the legislative session began, school districts were preparing for the worst. Despite the state’s booming economy, constraints on how much the state could spend meant schools could have gone without much of a funding increase.

State Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, a Republican from Sterling, on the first day of the legislative session.

The forecast became even more dire midway through the session when lawmakers learned the local tax base that generates about a third of all state spending on schools was going to shrink drastically. The worst predictions had the state’s education funding shortfall growing to more than $1 billion.

State officials found a technical workaround, and lawmakers were able to send more money to schools. On average, schools will see about $242 more per student next year.

However, leaders in both parties are aware that the state’s problematic constitutional constraints, tax policies and school funding formula still exist. That’s why a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers led a successful effort to create a committee to study and propose changes to the way the state funds it schools.

“We have more work to do. We need to continue with what we’ve done this session: have tough conversations,” said Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat.

“How do we make sure that students, regardless of race, income, regardless of whether they have a disability, that they have the opportunity to succeed?” she said. “There is no doubt that we have structural decisions we have to make when it comes to our budget.”

Republican leaders said they’re also anxious to see the committee get to work. But they’re less likely to support an influx of cash to the state’s schools.

“If we’re going to look at real overhauls to the system and funding, we need to look at all the options — not just throwing more money at the system — a system that by many’s accounting is not working well or efficiently,” said Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Canon City Republican.

He and other Republicans are encouraging the committee to look at how other states have focused their funding formulas on students rather than on a school’s size or geographic location, and used funding to expand school choice.

Lawmakers already have one option on the table: A proposal to set a statewide property tax rate, which was born out of the legislature’s budget office and floated early in the session. While there was a lot of talk behind the scenes, it failed to gain traction. Expect to hear a lot more about the idea.

The charter school funding compromise, which some called “historic,” was just one of many longstanding issues that were resolved this year.

The 2017 legislative session will likely be remembered as the most productive in a decade because of several big compromises.

State Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat, sits alone on the House of Representatives floor as members of her own party filibustered her compromise on charter school funding. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Lawmakers grinned Thursday as they ticked off a long list of accomplishments to reporters, including one that could send more local money to charter schools. In return, charter schools will be required to post on their official websites more tax documents and will no longer receive two specific financial waivers.

The last-minute charter school funding bill — sponsored by a bipartisan group of lawmakers that included state Reps. Brittany Pettersen and Lang Sias and state Sens. Owen Hill and Angela Williams — was the compromise no one saw coming.

“Anything is possible,” Pettersen said after the session.

Lawmakers had wrestled with the question of requiring the state’s school districts to share their locally approved tax increases with charter schools for two years. Despite vocal objections from several school superintendents, the legislature overwhelmingly supported the bill.

Early in the session, lawmakers eager to reduce the number of standardized tests reached another compromise with the governor’s office. High school freshmen will no longer be required to take the controversial PARCC English and math tests. Instead, they’ll take a test that is aligned to the college entrance exam, the SAT.

We kicked the PARCC test out of high schools,” said Rep. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican. “It’s gone!”

Other deals that were reached include the creation of a diploma seal of biliteracy for students who demonstrate proficiency in two languages and new regulations on how to monitor the reading skills of young English language learners.

Colorado schools will also see a financial boost for the next three years after lawmakers passed an omnibus bill that resolved a debate over a hospital fee that helps pay for the state’s health insurance program.

As part of the biggest compromise of the year, the state will raise taxes on recreational marijuana. Those taxes will send $30 million to rural schools next year and $40 million over two years to the state education fund, a sort of savings account for schools.

Rural schools flexed their muscles and blocked a bill to reform the state’s student suspension rules, but they didn’t get everything they wanted.

Not every piece of bipartisan legislation reached the governor’s desk.

Students at Merino Elementary School work during class.

A bill that aimed to reduce the number of preschool and elementary school students who are suspended was killed by a GOP-controlled committee at the request of rural schools, despite having overwhelming support from both Democrats and Republicans.

Rural school leaders said the bill attempted to create a statewide solution for a Front Range problem. A Chalkbeat analysis of suspension data, which rural superintendents refuted, showed otherwise.

Supporters of the legislation vowed to work with opponents this summer and fall and try again next year.

While rural schools were successful in blocking that mandate, they were dealt a setback when a bill that would have allowed them to remedy a teacher shortage by hiring unlicensed teachers was killed by its sponsors.

State Rep. Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican, said he couldn’t garner enough support for his effort. At least not this year.

“Like Arnold Schwarzenegger said, ‘I’ll be back,’” Wilson said.

Even though that bill failed, lawmakers did take steps to curb the state’s teacher shortage.

Stanley Teacher Prep resident Lily Wool works with kindergartner Samori McIntosh at Tollgate Elementary School in Aurora. Wood’s residency program is merging the Boettcher Teacher Residency program. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Prior to the session, education leaders at the Capitol had few if any plans to take on the state’s teacher shortage. But retired teacher and freshman state Rep. Barbara McLachlan pushed to address the issue.

The Durango Democrat partnered with a host of other lawmakers from both parties to sponsor legislation to study the shortage and provide solutions. She also sponsored a bill that would allow rural schools to hire retired teachers without penalizing their pension. Both bills were sent to the governor.

Two other bills, including one to create multiple teacher preparation pilot programs, failed to advance. But with the issue on the legislature’s radar, expect it to come back.

“That’s the most pressing issue, next to funding,” said state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat.

Despite newfound freedom from Washington, lawmakers didn’t make any bold changes to the state’s school accountability system.

Several lawmakers early in the session seemed eager to take advantage of new flexibility from the federal government.

While the state education department was busy putting together a mandated statewide plan to adopt the new Every Student Succeeds Act, lawmakers were debating how they could update the state’s school accountability laws.

But only two bills making minor tweaks advanced.

A HOPE Online student works during the day at an Aurora learning center. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

One requires elementary schools that receive low quality ratings to address the needs of students in preschool through third grade.

The second bill requires the state to measure how well high school students are meeting updated graduation requirements. As part of the new requirements, which go into effect in the year 2021, high schools must adopt a list of options students can use to prove they’re prepared for college or a career.

Those options include the SAT exam, which all Colorado juniors are required to take; passing a concurrent enrollment college-level course; passing a Advanced Placement test; or completing a college thesis-like capstone project demonstrating knowledge of a subject.

“This bill is a really clever way to allow school districts to say, ‘This is what we care about, and this how we’re going to do it,’” said Luke Ragland, president of Ready Colorado, a conservative education reform group.

Some of the most anticipated school-accountability bills of the session never materialized.

One would have provided more clarity on what happens to schools that consistently receive low quality ratings from the state.

“This was a big undertaking, and the bill’s sponsors needed more time,” Ragland said.

It’s another issue Capitol-watchers can expect to see return next year.

As Ragland put it, “The lack of clarity at the end of the state’s accountability clock is bad for everyone.”