Advanced analytics: Helping educators approach the ideal

Advanced analytics may help schools anticipate trends that may help school leaders make key decisions.
Advanced analytics may help schools anticipate trends that may help school leaders make key decisions.

In the business sector, companies have been using predictive analysis for years to improve performance, predict stocks, or take action and change direction when troubling trends appear. They gather data from a variety of sources and use modeling to pinpoint disturbing developments, identify where things might be headed, and make appropriate changes.

The public sector typically lags behind business: While it has become relatively common within education to use data analysis for tracking and measuring performance at the school, educator, and student levels, far fewer schools and colleges have taken analytics to the next level–using advanced analytics strategies to identify trends that can help predict future performance and help school leaders make key decisions, early on in the process, that can change a potentially unwelcome outcome or take advantage of a positive trend.

But that’s beginning to change. Using advanced analytics software, the University of California system has saved $167 million in the last five years by mitigating risks across its 10 campuses and five medical centers, for example–and the Houston Independent School District has saved millions of dollars in labor and expenses for food service, transportation, and other critical functions (see “HISD sees 151-percent ROI in 10 years from analytics project” and “UC campuses mitigate risk–and save millions in the process.”)

These are just a few of the ways that schools are tapping into this trend to improve their operations.

Why advanced analytics?

Some school leaders are beginning to realize what can be done with advanced analytics and have started taking data analysis to a deeper level in order to mine trends to their fullest extent.

“As a society, we’ve always been fascinated with the idea of predicting. The movie Minority Report, for example, was about predicting where crime was going to occur,” says Stephen Gold, an executive in the global education business unit for SPSS products at IBM. “As a parent, predicting makes so much sense: Don’t tell me my kid failed a class after it’s already happened.” It’s far better, he says, if a parent can be warned in advance if his or her child is at risk of failing a subject or a grade.

IBM offers tools, such as SPSS Modeler, that can help schools and colleges improve outcomes–both on the education side and the business side–by identifying trends and allowing administrators to make decisions based on patterns and associations found within their data.

For example, says Gold, someone using SPSS Modeler could look at attendance, tardiness, and visits to the school nurse, in conjunction with teacher attendance, to see how often a student is actually in class at the same time as the teacher, and to see how all these factors work together to affect student performance. (See “Helping schools forecast future trends.”)

School leaders could use the software to answer an endless number of questions.

For example: What’s the most important characteristic of a good instructor–advanced degrees, national certification, or some other characteristic? If a student is habitually in the nurse’s office at a particular time of day, what bearing will that have on the success of the student? Which instructors are the best at teaching certain types of students? What is the best learning environment for students with special needs? What’s the best course of action to take for a student who scored poorly on a biology test at the beginning of the year, to ensure that he passes at the end?

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