The Mill and The School

 

On a recent trip to Scotland, I visited some very interesting oat mills. I always love to visit medieval mills, because I find it endlessly fascinating how people long ago used natural forces and materials – wind, water, and fire, stone, wood, and metal – to create advanced mechanisms that had a profound impact on society.

In Scotland, it’s all about oat mills (almost everywhere else, it’s wheat). These grain mills date back to the 10th century. In their time, they were a giant leap in technology. A mill is very complicated, but at its heart are two big innovations. In the center of the mill, a heavy millstone turns on top of another. The grain is poured through a hole in the top stone for grinding. The miller’s most difficult task is to maintain an exact distance between the stones. A few millimeters too far apart and no milling happens. A few millimeters too close and the heat of friction can ruin the machinery, possibly causing a fire.

The other key technology is the water wheel (except in windmills, of course). The water mill is part of a system that involves a carefully controlled flow of water from a millpond, which the miller uses to provide exactly the right amount of water to turn a giant wooden wheel, which powers the top millstone.

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The medieval grain mill is not a single innovation, but a closely integrated system of innovations. Millers learned to manage this complex technology in a system of apprenticeship over many years.

Mills enabled medieval millers to obtain far more nutrition from an acre of grain than was possible before. This made it possible for land to support many more people, and the population surged. The whole feudal system was built around the economics of mills, and mills thrived through the 19th century.

What does the mill have to with the school? Mills only grind well-behaved grain into well-behaved flour, while schools work with far more complex children, families, and all the systems that surround them. The products of schools must include joy and discovery, knowledge and skills.

Yet as different as they are, mills have something to teach us. They show the importance of integrating diverse systems that can then efficiently deliver desired outcomes. Neither a mill nor an effective school comes into existence because someone in power tells it to. Instead, complex systems, mills or schools, must be created, tested, adapted to local needs, and constantly improved. Once we know how to create, manage, and disseminate effective mills or schools, policies can be readily devised to support their expansion and improvement.

Important progress in societies and economies almost always comes about from development of complex, multi-component innovations that, once developed, can be disseminated and continuously improved. The same is true of schools. Changes in governance or large-scale policies can enhance (or inhibit) the possibility of change, but the reality of reform depends on creation of complex, integrated systems, from mills to ships to combines to hospitals to schools.

For education, what this means is that system transformation will come only when we have whole-school improvement approaches that are known to greatly increase student outcomes. Whole-school change is necessary because many individual improvements are needed to make big changes, and these must be carefully aligned with each other. Just as the huge water wheel and the tiny millstone adjustment mechanism and other components must work together in the mill, the key parts of a school must work together in synchrony to produce maximum impact, or the whole system fails to work as well as it should.

For example, if you look at research on proven programs, you’ll find effective strategies for school management, for teaching, and for tutoring struggling readers. These are all well and good, but they work so much better if they are linked to each other.

To understand this, first consider tutoring. Especially in the elementary grades, there is no more effective strategy. Our recent review of research on programs for struggling readers finds that well-qualified teaching assistants can be as effective as teachers in tutoring struggling readers, and that while one-to-four tutoring is less effective than one-to-one, it is still a lot more effective than no tutoring. So an evidence-oriented educator might logically choose to implement proven one-to-one and/or one-to-small group tutoring programs to improve school outcomes.

However, tutoring only helps the students who receive it, and it is expensive. A wise school administrator might reason that tutoring alone is not sufficient, but improving the quality of classroom instruction is also essential, both to improve outcomes for students who do not need tutoring and to reduce the number of students who do need tutoring. There is an array of proven classroom methods the principal or district might choose to improve student outcomes in all subjects and grade levels (see www.evidenceforessa.org).

But now consider students who are at risk because they are not attending regularly, or have behavior problems, or need eyeglasses but do not have them. Flexible school-level systems are necessary to ensure that students are in school, eager to learn, well-behaved, and physically prepared to succeed.

In addition, there is a need to have school principals and other leaders learn strategies for making effective use of proven programs. These would include managing professional development, coaching, monitoring implementation and outcomes of proven programs, distributed leadership, and much more. Leadership also requires jointly setting school goals with all school staff and monitoring progress toward these goals.

These are all components of the education “mill” that have to be designed, tested, and (if effective) disseminated to ever-increasing numbers of schools. Like the mill, an effective school design integrates individual parts, makes them work in synchrony, constantly assesses their functioning and output, and adjusts procedures when necessary.

Many educational theorists argue that education will only change when systems change. Ferocious battles rage about charters vs. ordinary public schools, about adopting policies of countries that do well on international tests, and so on. These policies can be important, but they are unlikely to create substantial and lasting improvement unless they lead to development and dissemination of proven whole-school approaches.

Effective school improvement is not likely to come about from let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom local innovation, nor from top-level changes in policy or governance. Sufficient change will not come about by throwing individual small innovations into schools and hoping they will collectively make a difference. Instead, effective improvement will take root when we learn how to reliably create effective programs for schools, implement them in a coordinated and planful way, find them effective, and then disseminate them. Once such schools are widespread, we can build larger policies and systems around their needs.

Coordinated, schoolwide improvement approaches offer schools proven strategies for increasing the achievement and success of their children. There should be many programs of this kind, among which schools and districts can choose. A school is not the same as mill, but the mill provides at least one image of how creating complex, integrated replicable systems can change whole societies and economies. We should learn from this and many other examples of how to focus our efforts to improve outcomes for all children.

Photo credit: By Johnson, Helen Kendrik [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

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Lessons from China

blog_3-22-18_Confucius_344x500Recently I gave a series of speeches in China, organized by the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Nanjing Normal University. I had many wonderful and informative experiences, but one evening stood out.

I was in Nanjing, the ancient capital, and it was celebrating the weeks after the Chinese New Year. The center of the celebration was the Temple of Confucius. In and around it were lighted displays exhorting Chinese youth to excel on their exams. Children stood in front of these displays to have their pictures taken next to characters saying “first in class,” never second. A woman with a microphone recited blessings and hopes that students would do well on exams. After each one, students hit a huge drum with a long stick, as an indication of accepting the blessing. Inside the temple were thousands of small silk messages, bright red, expressing the wishes of parents and students that students will do well on their exams. Chinese friends explained what was going on, and told me how pervasive this spirit was. Children all know a saying to the effect that the path to riches and a beautiful wife was through books. I heard that perhaps 70% of urban Chinese students go to after-school cram schools to ensure their performance on exams.

The reason Chinese parents and students take test scores so seriously is obvious in every aspect of Chines culture. On an earlier trip to China I toured a beautiful house, from hundreds of years ago, in a big city. The only purpose of the house was to provide a place for young men of a large clan to stay while they prepared for their exams, which determined their place in the Confucian hierarchy.

As everyone knows, Chinese students do, in fact, do very well on their exams. I would note that these data come in particular from urban Eastern China, such as Shanghai. I’d heard about but did not fully understand policies that contribute to these outcomes. In all big cities in China, students can only attend schools in their city neighborhoods, where the best schools in the country are, if they were born there or own apartments. In a country where a small apartment in a big city can easily cost a half million dollars (U.S.), this is no small selection factor. If parents work in the city but do not own an apartment, their children may have to remain in the village or small city they came from, living with grandparents and attending non-elite schools. Chinese cities are growing so fast that the majority of their inhabitants come from the rest of China. This matters because admirers of Chinese education often cite the amazing statistics from the rich and growing Eastern Chinese cities, not the whole country. It’s as though the U.S. only reported test scores on international comparisons from suburbs in the Northeastern states from Maryland to New England, the wealthiest and highest-achieving part of our country.

I do not want to detract in any way from the educational achievements of the Chinese, but just to put it in context. First, the Chinese themselves have doubts about test scores as the only important indicators, and admire Western education for its broader focus. But just sticking to test scores, China and other Confucian cultures such as Japan, South Korea, and Singapore have been creating a culture valuing test scores since Confucius, about 2500 years ago. It would be a central focus of Chinese culture even if PISA and TIMSS did not exist to show it off to the world.

My only point is that when American or European observers hold up East Asian achievements as a goal to aspire to, these achievements do not exist in a cultural vacuum. Other countries can potentially achieve what China has achieved, in terms of test scores and other indicators, but they cannot achieve it in the same way. Western culture is just not going to spend the next 2500 years raising its children the way the Chinese do. What we can do, however, is to use our own strengths, in research, development, and dissemination, to progressively enhance educational outcomes. The Chinese can and will do this, too; that’s what I was doing traveling around China speaking about evidence-based reform. We need not be in competition with any nation or society, as expanding educational opportunity and success throughout the world is in the interests of everyone on Earth. But engaging in fantasies about how we can move ahead by emulating parts of Chinese culture that they have been refining since Confucius is not sensible.

Precisely because of their deep respect for scholarship and learning and their eagerness to continue to improve their educational achievements, the Chinese are ideal collaborators in the worldwide movement toward evidence-based reform in education. Colleagues at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the Nanjing Normal University are launching Chinese-language and Asian-focused versions of our newsletter on evidence in education, Best Evidence in Brief (BEiB). We and our U.K. colleagues have been distributing BEIB for several years. We welcome the opportunity to share ideas and resources with our Chinese colleagues to enrich the evidence base for education for children everywhere.

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

On High School Graduation Rates: Want to Buy My Bridge?

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Francis Scott Key Bridge (Baltimore) By Artondra Hall [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons, edited for size

 

I happen to own the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore, pictured here. It’s lovely in itself, has beautiful views of downtown and the outer harbor, and rakes in more than $11 million in tolls each year. But I’m willing to sell it to you, cheap!

If you believe that I own a bridge in Baltimore, then let me try out an even more fantastic idea on you. Since 1992, the achievement of America’s 12th graders on NAEP reading and math tests has been unchanged. Yet high school graduation rates have been soaring. From 2006 to 2016, U.S. graduation rates have increased from 73% to 84%, an all-time record. Does this sound plausible to you?

Recently, the Washington Post (https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/fbi-us-education-department-investigating-ballou-graduation-scandal/2018/02/02/b307e57c-07ab-11e8-b48c-b07fea957bd5_story.html?utm_term=.84c1176bb8ff) reported a scandal about graduation rates at Ballou High School in Washington, DC, a high-poverty school not known (in the past) for its graduation rates. In 2017, 100% of Ballou students graduated, and 100% were accepted into college. An investigation by radio station WAMU, however, found that a large proportion of the graduating seniors had very poor attendance, poor achievement, and other problems. In fact, the Post reported that one third of all graduating seniors in DC did not meet district graduation standards. Ballou’s principal and the DC Director of Secondary Schools resigned, and there are ongoing investigations. The FBI has recently gotten involved.

In response to these stories, teachers across America wrote to express their views. Almost without exception, the teachers said that the situation in their districts is similar to that in DC. They said they are pressured, even threatened, to promote and then graduate every student possible. Students who fail courses are often offered “credit recovery” programs to obtain their needed credits, and these were found in an investigation by the Los Angeles Times  to have extremely low standards (https://robertslavinsblog.wordpress.com/2017/08/17/the-high-school-graduation-miracle/). Failing students may also be allowed to do projects or otherwise show their knowledge in alternative ways, but these are derided as “Mickey Mouse.” And then there are students like some of those at Ballou, who did not even bother to show up for credit recovery or Mickey Mouse, but were graduated anyway.

The point is, it’s not just Ballou. It’s not just DC. In high-poverty districts coast to coast, standards for graduation have declined. My colleague, Bob Balfanz, coined the term “dropout factories” many years ago to describe high schools, almost always serving high-poverty areas, that produced a high proportion of all dropouts nationwide. In response, our education system got right to work on what it does best: Change the numbers to make the problem appear to go away. The FBI might make an example of DC, but if DC is in fact doing what many high-poverty districts are doing throughout the country, is it fair to punish it disproportionately? It’s not up to me to judge the legalities or ethics involved, but clearly, the problem is much, much bigger.

Some people have argued with me on this issue. “Where’s the harm,” they ask, “in letting students graduate? So many of these students encounter serious barriers to educational success. Why not give them a break?”

I will admit to a sympathy for giving high school students who just barely miss standards legitimate opportunities to graduate, such as taking appropriately demanding makeup courses. But what is happening in DC and elsewhere is very far from this reasonable compromise with reality.

I have done some research in inner-city high schools. In just about every class, there are students who are actively engaged in lessons, and others who would become actively engaged if their teachers used proven programs (in my case it was cooperative learning). But even with the best programs, there were kids in the back of the class with headphones on, who were totally disengaged, no matter what the teacher did. And those were the ones who actually showed up at all.

The kids who were engaged, or became engaged because of excellent instruction, should have a path to graduation, one way or another. The rest should have every opportunity, encouragement, and assistance to reach this goal. Some will choose to take advantage, some will not, but that must be their choice, with appropriate consequences.

Making graduation too easy not only undermines the motivations of students (and teachers). It also undermines the motivation of the entire system to introduce and effectively implement effective programs, from preschool to 12th grade. If educators can keep doing what they’ve always done, knowing that numbers will be fiddled with at the end to make everything come out all right, then the whole system can and will lose a major institutional incentive for improvement.

The high dropout rate of inner-city schools is indeed a crisis. It needs to be treated as such-not a crisis of numbers, but a crisis encountered by hundreds of thousands of vulnerable, valuable students. Loosening standards and then declaring success, which every educator knows to be false, corrupts the system, undermining confidence in the numbers even when they are legitimate. It fosters cynicism that nothing can be done.

Is it too much to expect that we can create and implement effective strategies that would enable virtually all students to succeed on appropriate standards in elementary, middle, and high school, so that virtually all can meet rigorous requirements and walk across a stage, head held high, knowing that they truly attained what a high school diploma is supposed to certify?

If you agree that high school graduation standards have gone off the rails, it is not enough to demand tougher standards. You also have to advocate for and work for application of proven approaches to make deserved and meaningful graduation accessible to all.

On the other hand, if you think the graduation rate has legitimately skyrocketed in the absence of any corresponding improvement in reading or math achievement, please contact me at www.buy-my-bridge.com. It really is a lovely bridge.

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

On Motivation

Once upon a time there was a man standing on a city street selling pencils from a tin cup. An old friend came by and recognized him.

“Hank!” said his friend. “What happened to you? Didn’t you have a big job at the Acme Dog Food Company?”

Hank hung his head. “I did,” he said mournfully. “I was its chief scientist. But it closed down, and it was all my fault!”

“What happened?” asked his friend.

“We decided to make the best dog food ever. We got together the top experts in dog nutrition in the whole world to find out what dogs really need. We put in the very best ingredients, no matter what they cost.”

“That sounds wonderful!” exclaimed the friend.

“It sounded great,” sighed Hank, “but the darned dogs wouldn’t eat it!”

In educational development, research, and dissemination, I think we often make the mistake made by the mythical Acme Dog Food Company. We create instructional materials and software completely in accord with everything the experts recommend. Today, for example, someone might make a program that is aligned with the Common Core or other college- and career-readiness standards, that uses personalization and authentic problem solving, and so on. Not that there is anything wrong with these concepts, but are they enough?

The key factor, I’d argue, is motivation. No matter how nutritious our instruction is, it has to appeal to the kids. In a review of secondary reading programs my colleagues and I wrote recently (www.bestevidence.org), most of the programs evaluated were 100% in accord with what the experts suggest. In particular, most of them emphasized the teaching of metacognitive skills, which has long been the touchstone for secondary reading, and many also provided an extra instructional period every day, in accord with the popular emphasis on extra-time strategies.

However, the approaches that made the biggest differences in reading outcomes were not those that provided extra time. They included small-group or individual tutoring approaches, cooperative learning, BARR (a program focusing on building relationships between teachers and students), and a few technology approaches. The successful approaches usually included metacognitive skills, but so did many programs that did not show positive outcomes.

What united the successful strategies is that they all get to the head through the heart.

Tutoring allows total personalization of instruction, but it also lets tutors and students build personal, close relationships. BARR (Building Assets, Reducing Risks) is all about building personal relationships. Cooperative learning focuses on building relationships among students, and adding an element of fun and engagement to daily lessons. Some technology programs are also good at making lessons fun and engaging.

I can’t say for sure that these were the factors that made the difference in learning outcomes, but it seems likely. I’d never say that instructional content and strategies don’t matter. They do. But the very best teaching methods with the very best content are unlikely to enhance learning very much unless they make the kids eager to learn.

The High School Graduation Miracle

High school graduation rates have skyrocketed in recent years. From 2006 to 2013, U.S. graduation rates increased from 73% to 82%. Yet over this same time period, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reports that the reading and math achievement of 12th graders have not budged at all.

How can these two apparently contradictory facts be reconciled? The unavoidable conclusion is that many students who were not graduating before are graduating now, or put another way, high school graduates today have lower skills than did students just a few years ago.

I don’t know exactly why this is happening, but I have a few guesses. One is that the use of what is called “credit recovery” has increased dramatically. Credit recovery means providing students who failed a given course another opportunity to pass. Apparently these courses are much easier to pass than the initial course. For example, a July 2, 2017 article in the LA Times described a credit recovery program in which a student could raise his grade from F to C in one week during the winter break. The report followed one student, who never did any lab work, but was seen copying a food pyramid from the Internet onto a worksheet. Credit Recovery courses are often offered online, in which case students can take them at home. Does this worry you? It does me.

Another possibility is that as graduation has become a focus of school accountability in many states and districts, teachers come under pressure to let marginal students pass. Unlike other accountability measures, graduation is determined by students’ grades, course credits, and other indicators that are subjective. Teachers may reason that passing such students benefits the students, the school, and themselves. So why not?

There is nothing wrong in principle with higher graduation rates, but if they are accomplished by lowering standards, then a high school diploma becomes even less valued than diplomas were in the past. This is unfair to students who work hard and pass their courses fairly, and it may contribute to cynicism throughout the system.

Further, reducing graduation standards undermines the efforts of administrators and teachers who truly want to improve student achievement as a way to improve graduation rates. If it’s a lot easier to provide credit recovery classes or to lower standards, then genuine reformers may be discouraged.

I hope there is some more optimistic explanation for the increase in high school graduation contrasted with the lack of gains in achievement. I’d love to believe that graduation rates are truly going up because of better schools and teachers, harder-working students, or other factors. Graduation is important for students, but for our society and our economy, it matters more what students can actually do. Letting students graduate without adequate skills is something we should not let pass.

This blog is sponsored by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation

Make No Small Plans

In recent years, an interest has developed in very low-cost interventions that produce small but statistically significant effects on achievement. The argument for their importance is that their costs are so low that their impacts are obtained very cost-effectively. For example, there is evidence that a brief self-affirmation exercise can produce a small but significant effect on achievement, and that a brief intervention to reduce “social identity threat” can do the same. A study in England found that a system to send 50 text messages over the course of a school year, announcing upcoming tests and homework assignments, feedback on grades, test results, and attendance, and updates on topics being studied in school, improved math achievement slightly but significantly, at a cost of about $5 a year.

There is nothing wrong with these mini-interventions, and perhaps all schools should use them. Why not? Yet I find myself a bit disturbed by this type of approach.

Step back from the small-cost/small-but-significant outcome and consider the larger picture, the task in which all who read this blog are jointly engaged. We face an educational system that is deeply dysfunctional. Disadvantaged students remain far, far behind middle-class students in educational outcomes, and the gap has not narrowed very much over decades. The U.S. remains well behind peer nations in achievement and is not catching up. Dropout rates in the U.S. are diminishing, but skill levels of American high school graduates from disadvantaged schools are appalling.

For schools with limited budgets to spend on reform, it may be all they can do to adopt a low-cost/low-but-significant outcome intervention on the basis that it’s better than nothing. But again, step back to look at the larger situation. The average American student is educated at a cost of more than $11,000 per year. There are whole-school reform approaches, such as our own Success for All in elementary and middle schools and BARR in secondary schools, that cost around $100 per student per year, and have been found to make substantial differences in student achievement. Contrast this to a low-cost program that costs, say, $5 per student per year.

$100 is less than 1% of the ordinary cost of educating a student, on average. $5 is less than .05%, of course. But in the larger scheme of things, who cares? Using a proven whole-school reform model might perhaps increase the per-student cost from $11,000 to $11,100. Adding the $5 low-cost intervention could increase per-student costs from $11,000 to $11,005. From the perspective of a principal who has a fixed budget, and simply does not have $100 per student to spend, the whole-school approach may be infeasible. But from the system perspective, the difference between $11,000 and $11,100 (or $11,005) is meaningless if it truly increases student achievement. Our goal must be to make meaningful progress in reducing gaps and increasing national achievement, not make a small difference that happens to be very inexpensive.

I once saw a film in England on the vital role of carrier pigeons in the English army in World War II. I’m sure those pigeons played their part in the victory, and they were very cost-effective. But ultimately, it was expensive tanks and planes and ships and other weapons, and courageous men and women, who won the war, not pigeons, and piling up small (even if effective) interventions was just not going to do it.

We should be in a war against inequality, disadvantage, and mediocre outcomes in education. Winning it will require identification and deployment of whole-school, whole-district, and whole-state approaches that can be reliably replicated and intelligently applied to ensure positive, widespread improvements. If we just throw pigeon-sized solutions at huge and tenacious problems, our difficulties are sure to come home to roost.

This blog is sponsored by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation

Good Programs? Bad Programs? Show Me the Data!

Since launching Evidence for ESSA on February 28, I’ve gotten a lot of emails. In general, the responses to the website have been very positive. However, a small minority of emails have been really angry about the entire project.

The writers of these angry emails are upset that positive ESSA evidence levels were assigned to what they considered “bad programs” and less positive ESSA evidence levels were assigned to what they considered “good programs.” Of course, in each case I explain that we are only reviewing existing evidence for demonstrated impact on students’ learning and assigning ESSA evidence levels according to the standards defined by the evidence provisions included in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which is now the law of the land. We are not assigning ESSA evidence levels to programs based on their “goodness” or “badness” on any dimension other than impact on achievement.

Evidence for ESSA critics were having none of it. In their minds, “good programs” are ones that adhere to well-established principles, or have been supported by experts, or are aligned with state or national standards. “Bad programs” are ones that, in their opinions, violate these standards or fail to incorporate well-supported principles.

Expert opinions and standards are important, of course, but how about effectiveness? I asked how anyone could tell if a program was good or bad unless they knew if it actually benefitted students. This did no good. “Don’t you understand?” they asked. “Such-and-such experts or so-and-so standards support these programs, so they are good.” End of story.

But adhering to principles of good practice is not at all the same as demonstrated effectiveness. To understand this, imagine a textbook that meets every standard and conforms to all current conceptions of good practice, yet teachers are given only three hours of in-service to use it. An evaluation would probably find no improvement in learning. Now imagine a program built around the very same textbook that provides a week of training, in-school coaching once a month, videos to demonstrate program elements, and so on. This program is much more likely to work. The point is, the content of a curriculum is part of what might make it effective or ineffective. The professional development and other features are also essential. So declaring a program or curriculum “good” or “bad” based on content alone is misleading.

The conversations I am having with Evidence for ESSA critics illustrate the sea change being brought about by the ESSA evidence standards. Way back in . . ., well, 2016, educational programs were largely judged according to alignment with standards, state textbooks and software reviews, correspondence with expert opinion, or most often, perhaps, based on leaders’ preferences, tips from nearby districts, and appeals from sales reps. Actual proven impact on students was hardly ever involved. Today, as the ESSA evidence standards begin to be implemented, evidence of effectiveness is beginning to get some respect. This is a good thing for students, teachers, parents, and our nation, but it is deeply uncomfortable for those who have long relied on curriculum content or opinion to drive selection of educational programs. Those are the people contacting me to complain about the “bad programs” being assigned positive ESSA evidence levels, the ones that, “bad” as they may be according to some peoples’ opinions, actually enhance student achievement.

For many years, in school principals’ and superintendents’ offices all over America, I’ve seen the following statement proudly displayed on the wall:

“In God we trust. All others bring data.”

At long last, this saying is beginning to apply to the critical choices educators make in selecting programs, books, software, and professional development. Good programs? Bad programs? Don’t tell me your opinions. Show me the data!

This blog is sponsored by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation