Do a quick search for “predictive analytics in education” on Google. It’s a very popular topic with more than 24,000,000 matching results. A lot has been written about how predictive analytics can revolutionize schools by helping educators predict which students are most likely to struggle and which can benefit most from specific interventions.

The truth is, though, predicting the future in education — especially the broad strokes in PreK-12 education — isn’t really that hard. Educators know that kids from lower-income households, those whose parents or siblings didn’t complete high school, those whose primary language spoken at home isn’t English, among others are more likely to struggle in school. One principal pointed out that even the square footage of a child’s house is predictive of his success in school — in that the size of a home is a proxy for the social capital and other advantages that children from higher-income households bring with them to school. The differences can be profound. Through my work with College Possible and the National College Access Network, I’ve seen first-hand the relationship between family income on college degree attainment. According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, within 10 years of finishing high school, upper-income U.S. kids earn college degrees at four times the rate of their low income peers. We don’t need a complex algorithm or fancy technology to tell us that income, family educational attainment, and language are important factors in determining additional support needs students may have.

While predictive analytics of the kind described in those 24,000,000 Google results may be helpful in even more precisely identifying students at risk, predicting the future is not nearly as valuable as changing it. What kids need, regardless of whether they fit traditional definitions of struggling or thriving, is a commitment to help every child achieve his or her full potential.

Enhancing human relationships with technology

Education is a fundamentally human endeavor, and the role of technology in education — if it’s to be effective — must be to enhance and not to replace human relationships. Those relationships, when enhanced with appropriate technology, can be life changing and can truly lead to a different future both for individual kids and families as well as for society at large.

Over the past two decades, school administrators, teachers, counselors, psychologists, social workers, and other practitioners who work with kids have been encouraged to become de facto data analysts, spending hours reviewing data dashboards in hopes of discerning critical insights that can lead to changes in practice. This approach has many disadvantages. The time educators and clinicians spend analyzing data comes at the expense of time they can spend building relationships. Moreover, the skills required to interpret data don’t necessarily overlap with the skills someone needs to work effectively with young people on a daily basis. Finally, moving from a diagnosis to a prescription requires several additional steps that lead to manual effort and introduce opportunities for error.

Connect data to practice

We need to stop focusing on dashboards and instead develop systems that connect data to action and that digest data and recommend practice in ways that free educators to spend more time with kids. We need to view enhanced team-based communications and a focus on relationships as core to the process of improving outcomes for kids. And, we need to build in a feedback loop in which the steps we take to act on the insights our systems and processes reveal contribute directly to a body of knowledge about what works — allowing us to measure efficacy in the ordinary course and to double-down on what works while letting go of what doesn’t.

When educators have the data they need to understand the whole child, when they can effectively communicate as a team, and when they are more consistent and accountable in their application of best practice — something that’s only possible when data and action come together in the same place — they can make better decisions that lead to better outcomes and that change the future in positive ways.

In short, we need to stop predicting the future so that we can start focusing on how to change it. So, set aside your dashboard and get ready to take action. Our kids are waiting.

Stephen Smith

Stephen Smith

Stephen M. Smith is CEO of Intellispark, chair of the national board at College Possible, and a member of the board of the National College Access Network. Steve is co-author of Who Do You Think You Are: Three Critical Conversations for Coaching Teens to College & Career Success, published by John Wiley & Sons.