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.”

legal opinion

Tennessee’s attorney general sides with charter schools in battle over student information

PHOTO: TN.gov
Herbert H. Slatery III was appointed Tennessee attorney general in 2014 by Gov. Bill Haslam, for whom he previously served as general counsel.

Tennessee’s attorney general says requests for student contact information from state-run charter school operators don’t violate a federal student privacy law, but rather are “entirely consistent with it.”

The opinion from Herbert Slatery III, issued late on Wednesday in response to a request by Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, was a win for charter schools in their battle with the state’s two largest districts.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen

McQueen quickly responded by ordering school leaders in Memphis and Nashville to comply. In letters dispatched to Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Director Shawn Joseph of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, McQueen gave the districts a deadline, adding that they will face consequences if they refuse.

“If you do not provide this information by Sept. 25, 2017, to the (Achievement School District) and any other charter school or charter authorizer who has an outstanding request, we will be forced to consider actions to enforce the law,” she wrote.

Neither superintendent responded immediately to requests for comment, but school board leaders in both districts said Thursday that their attorneys were reviewing the matter.

Chris Caldwell, chairman for Shelby County’s board, said he’s also concerned “whether the timeframe stated gives us enough time to make sure families are aware of what is happening.”

Wednesday’s flurry of events heats up the battle that started in July when charter operators Green Dot and LEAD requested student contact information under the state’s new charter law, which gives districts 30 days to comply with such requests. School boards in both Memphis and Nashville refused, arguing they had the right under the federal student privacy law to restrict who gets the information and for what reasons.

The attorney general said sharing such information would not violate federal law.

The requested information falls under “student directory information,” and can be published by school districts without a parent’s permission. For Shelby County Schools, this type of information includes names, addresses, emails and phone numbers.


To learn what information is at stake and how it’s used, read our in-depth explainer.


The opinion also backs up the new state law, which directs districts to share information that charter operators say they need to recruit students and market their programs in Tennessee’s expanding school-choice environment.

However, the opinion allowed for districts to have a “reasonable period of time” to notify parents of their right to opt out of sharing such information. It was not clear from the opinion if the two school districts have exhausted that time.

A spokeswoman for Shelby County Schools said Tuesday the district had not yet distributed forms that would allow parents to opt out of having their students’ information shared, although the district’s parent-student handbook already includes instructions for doing so.

Below, you can read the attorney general’s opinion and McQueen’s letters to both superintendents:

Clarification, Sept. 14, 2017: This story has been updated to clarify the school boards’ arguments for not sharing the information.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.