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Q&A with J. Alvin Wilbanks, CEO and superintendent of Gwinnett County Public School system

Smarter education through big data

Using data analytics to improve high school graduation rates

Alvin Wilbanks

Like most school districts, Gwinnett County Public Schools in suburban Atlanta was dealt a body blow by the economic recession. From 2008 to 2012, the nation’s 14th-largest district, comprised of 132 schools and more than 170,000 students, grew larger, more diverse, and poorer while the county’s tax base shrunk. But unlike most districts, Gwinnett County was able to do more with less—and has been recognized for its success. In 2010, GCPS won the prestigious Broad Prize for Urban Education and was recently named a finalist again for 2014.

With nearly 50 years of experience in education, CEO and Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks clearly possesses honed instincts about how to motivate faculty and engage students. But he also demonstrates an impressively open mind when it comes to remaking the status quo. Here, Wilbanks talks about how technology—from smartphone-based teaching techniques to data analytics—can build more engaging classroom environments, inform teachers of danger signs, and, most importantly, help students succeed. —Jeffrey O’Brien


You got your start in education as a teacher in the mid-60s and took over as Gwinnett County’s superintendent in 1996. What are some basic tenets of education that you’ve retained throughout your career?
One thing I learned early is, the more you know about your students, the better you are as a teacher. I found out early that if my students are successful, I’m going to be successful. As a principal, it was the same. If your faculty’s successful, you’re going to be successful. Now, if my principals are successful, I’m going to be successful. But really it all comes back to the students. The more the students are engaged in the work, the better results you’re going to get. Which means you’ve got to make things as relevant for them as possible.

What role does technology play when it comes to relevance?
For starters, it can help make things accessible for the kids. We’re just going through a huge initiative called e-CLASS, which is a digital environment for curriculum and instruction. Students have devices on which they can access digital content, lesson plans, assessments, and student information. It’s a great way to increase engagement. Have you seen a kid lately without a smart phone? Here’s an interest we can tap, and really help engage them. And now we’re getting into analytics, which really gives us information about a student.

Can you talk more about the role of analytics?
Today every teacher in my district could call up an ABC Report, which shows how many days a student has been absent, how many discipline referrals that student has, and details about their academic status, updated as of midnight the day before. The teachers and counselors can see the information for all of their students. It puts the information right in front of them and alerts them when a particular student is going in the wrong direction. There’s also an aspect to this technology that tells us, if we do X, then Y is likely to happen—and it’s really making our work better. It’s helping us find negative factors that, if something’s not done to intervene, would in all probability lead to a student failing or dropping out.

Can you explain how that sort of information empowers the teachers or administrators to make better decisions?
The basic idea is that the sooner you know that a student is trending in a wrong direction, the easier it is to make a correction. Take for instance, summer school. It’s always been that kids who fall behind go to summer school. But there have been studies that show summer school doesn’t make much of a difference—particularly if you repeat the content and methodology a student didn’t grasp the first time. It’s much easier if you can identify the warning signs earlier and intervene before summer school is the only option. Or here’s another example... I met with the middle school principals recently, and we talked about the prevalence of overage middle-schoolers, students in grade six, seven, or eight that are one, two, or even three years older than the other students. Now, this is not universally true, but generally when a student is that much older, there are certain negative connotations. We ran a report and found out that we have 1,645 overage middle schoolers in the 8th grade alone. Well, that tells me that we need to begin doing something different with those students to increase the chances that they’ll be successful in high school.

The next step is learning more about who they are. Data analytics can help us both identify the child and create a better picture of who they are, what areas they’re deficient in, and point to things we can do differently. As we perfect our use of analytics, I think we can even get to the point where it’ll suggest, this student is weak in fractions; here are some activities that can help improve that.

Often data will reinforce instincts or anecdotal observations, which is a valuable confidence builder when it comes to making decisions. But have you seen anything that has truly surprised you?
I've learned that for students who start in Gwinnett County Public Schools in kindergarten, the graduation rate is around 96%, whereas our overall graduation rate is about 74, 75%.

That tells us that if we want a transfer student to graduate on time, then we’ve got to accelerate their instruction in order to fill any existing gaps. We still have a long way to go when it comes to knowing precisely how and when to intervene with these students, but we’re working on that. The important thing is that, once we know who they are, we can do something about it.

When it comes to education, we’re drowning in data and starving for information.

When it comes to education, we’re drowning in data and starving for information. Analytics can really help you zero in on the things that matter. I can tell you that our use of analytics is enabling teachers to easily access information whereas heretofore it would take a good bit of time. Now they can really concentrate on the teaching piece and on getting the student engaged. Analytics also can help teachers become more focused and efficient. In the three or four schools in my district that are really struggling, the faculty and the leadership staff are working very hard, but we’ve found that sometimes they’re working on the wrong things. This can lead to digression. It’ll burn you out, and you’ll have nothing to show for it.

Have you seen any results yet that you can share?
It’s early, but I think we’re going to be able to reduce dropouts using technology, and I think we’re going to increase student achievement. I can tell you that we were able to increase graduation rate last year by about 4%, but that mainly had to do with identifying bad processes, where the proper paperwork wasn’t being filed with the state.

That’s no small catch. A clerical error like that undermines all the hard work that your teachers do and might even jeopardize funding.
Absolutely. Unfortunately it was too late to change the records. But our use of analytics allows us to catch less dramatic process issues, as well. For example, if we learn that students are most often absent on Friday and that also happens to be the day that we usually give exams, then we’re unwittingly reducing academic achievement. An observation like that might cause us to move exams to a Thursday.

Any general words of wisdom on what makes for successful leadership?
Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of people talk about the importance of hiring problem solvers. I try to hire problem avoiders. If you don’t create problems, you don’t have to solve them. You also have to be in some sense strategic. You need to stop every once in a while and think, what do I need to do here to really bring about long-term sustainable changes that will propel us to move in the right direction? If you find yourself making every decision based on your gut, you had better be on a battlefield.

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  • Caroline A. Cassidy
    IBM Client Executive for Gwinnett County Public Schools