January 05, 2010 15:28 Age: 8 yrs

Using Data in Education -- Lessons AF Has Learned From Cystic Fibrosis Care

Category: Home, Doug McCurry
By: Doug McCurry

In his book "Better," surgeon Atul Gawande writes about one small field in medicine that is light-years ahead of others in focusing on using data to improve performance: cystic fibrosis care. CF is a serious disease that attacks the body mainly by thickening secretions that block airways and erode lung function. CF is so pernicious that in 1957, the disease had a 20% annual mortality rate, and the average CF patient died by the age of three.

At that time, there was one (thought to be crazy) doctor, Leroy Matthews, claiming to have annual mortality rates of 2%. "How long (our patients) will live remains to be seen, but I expect most of them to come to my funeral," Dr. Matthews announced at one conference. It would be an understatement to say other doctors were skeptical. In 1964, Dr. Warren Warwick launched research that collected reports on every patient being served at all the CF treatment centers across the country. The data was clear: the average age of death at Matthews' center was 21 years, SEVEN times the national average.

Matthews was successful because he had the belief that with aggressive, consistent treatment, the effects of CF on the body could be controlled. He made his patients sleep in a special, moisture-filled tent and taught family members a sophisticated set of claps to do on patients’ chests to loosen mucus. Soon, these treatments became standard, and the average age of death for CF patients nationally rose to 18 years.

Today, the CF Foundation publicizes at www.cff.org the individual results, adjusted for severity of the disease, of all the CF treatment centers in the country. What center continues to top the charts? The one formerly run by Warren Warwick, the man who started collecting all the data. Drawing off what he learned by watching Matthews, he invented a special machine to do the claps automatically, and he introduced a "tough love, no excuses" policy with his patients, grilling patients whose lung capacity scores weren't up to his standards.Other CF centers across the country now are learning from this center and making these processes standard procedure. And Warwick's former colleagues are pushing themselves to continue to raise the bar in order to remain best in class.

How does this cool story relate to our work at AF?

-We must make data transparent both within and outside the network. We do that now with Athena (one can see all school and teacher data) and the AF report card (open and transparent for all to see). By making the data transparent, we can unleash the powers of "co-opetition" – sharing and learning together while still trying to be the best.

-If we aren't leading the pack, we need to know who is based on the data and aggressively learn from them. We are doing that with middle school reading, trying to learn as much as we can from high-performing schools who consistently have exemplary results.

-If the data shows we are leading the pack, we can't get complacent; we must continue to raise the bar. In the elementary world, our results are among the best urban schools, and both our elementary and middle schools often top the "top 10" lists in Connecticut for growth and absolute scores for low-income students. In order to stay at the top, we must leave no stone unturned and remain hungry for a better way.

-Warwick and his crew focused on having their CF patients have lung capacity data comparable to people not suffering from CF, we must remain focused on ensuring that our students have results that match or exceed those of students in the most affluent suburbs.

By making data totally transparent across all its centers, the CF Foundation radically raised expectations and created a culture of collaboration, sharing, and accountability that led to significant progress combating a deadly disease. We can and must do the same for public education in this country.

Doug McCurry