Teachers College Associate Professor of Education Leadership, Alex Bowers, was fascinated from an early age by "analyzing patterns in systems" and both his past and current work helping school leaders to better use the data they collect, allows him to harness this early interest to support US schools. Dr. Bowers' work is helping education leaders to make sense of a multitude of data points and then best allocate funds to address needs within each school. Beyond helping education stakeholders to make sense of big data, Dr. Bowers' research areas include: the intersection of effective school and district leadership, data driven decision-making, student grades and test scores, student persistence, and dropouts (among other domain areas). Before he gained experience as an innovative teacher and award-winning researcher in the education field, Dr. Bowers spent over a decade as a cancer researcher in the biotechnology industry. Dr. Bowers currently serves on the editorial boards of the journals Educational Administration Quarterly and the Journal of Education Finance and is co-editor of multiple volumes of the Information Age Publishing book series International Research on School Leadership. Dr. Bowers holds a B.S. in Biochemistry, an M.S. in Biochemistry, Microbiology, and Molecular Biology, and a Ph.D. in K12 Educational Administration from Michigan State University. Be sure to watch Dr. Bower’s EdLab GroundBREAKERS interview (here) and EdLab Seminar footage (here).


Question: How did your educational trajectory (background) affect your current work?
Answer: Early on I was fascinated by analyzing patterns in systems. From an early age I worked to pick up a broad range of skills from the natural sciences, mathematics and computing. I grew up in a small rural agriculturally-focused community in central Michigan. As is the case with so many people, I was lucky enough to have two fabulous teachers in high school, Patricia Pregitzer who taught biology, geography and AP sciences and helped me understand the dynamics of the natural systems I was exploring in the local fields, woods and rivers, and Byron Davey who taught chemistry, physics and computer programming, and helped me understand the potential of computing systems applied to interesting problems. I then attended Michigan State University and subsequently the Pennsylvania State University, receiving degrees in Biochemistry, Molecular Biology and Microbiology and went to work in the biotechnology industry first for Dupont-Merck Pharmaceuticals and then Amgen in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, as a genetic engineer and molecular biologist. I was researching cancer biology through working with the early access data from the then newly sequenced human genome. Much of this early work involved translating pattern analysis data into actionable data useful in cancer biology research and potentially as targets for cancer therapeutics, resulting in multiple papers and patents. It was a very exciting time. This early work in my education set me on the path to working to do research in which I work to understand the impact of patterns of information at each level of a system and how those patterns can help inform the actions we take.

Question: What professional experiences have been most formative to your current work?
Answer: In 2001, while my research in the biotechnology industry was going quite well, I felt a need to give back to the community. So, I started teaching on the side as an adjunct professor at Oxnard Community College, located in the rural area between Los Angeles and Ventura California, teaching Biology 101 to 70+ community college students per class. At the time, the media was heavily critiquing education for not having enough content knowledge in the classroom, and here I was with cutting edge content knowledge. Many days in the classroom I would even bring in pictures of the experiments I had performed earlier that day in the lab, such as genetically engineering cancer cells to light up with firefly or glowing jellyfish genes when our cancer drug candidates were hitting the right targets. The students loved it! But I was shocked that only a handful of the students had ever been asked to write a term paper in any of their prior classes in high school, or think and write deeply about how science concepts apply to their lives. These were students who were incredibly interested in the topic, but hadn’t had the supports through their prior schooling careers.

Additionally, as with all new teachers, I came to the conclusion that the media is wrong. While content knowledge is necessary, it’s insufficient for good teaching when it comes to knowing the skills and technology of good pedagogy and instruction. I went out and started to read everything I could get my hands on around teaching, but also became very interested in understanding how the US education system – which at the university research level produces some of the most innovative work on the planet – struggled to serve the vast majority of the students in my classes. So, combining my interest in pattern analysis and data mining from bioinformatics, an interest in leadership of large organizations garnered from working in Fortune 500 technology companies, and a need to attempt to study why and how the US K12 education system results in the types of highly variant outcomes that we see – I went back to school to get a PhD in K12 Educational Administration. In my research, I focused on applying the pattern analysis and data mining techniques I’d used in bioinformatics to understand the types of data systems that could be used in schools. Schools collect a vast amount of information with students and teachers on a daily basis, and as someone who was heavily involved in the early stages of data analytics on large datasets, I saw a lot of similarities on how these techniques could be helpful for school leaders, teachers and students for their decision making based on the patterns in these rich types of school datasets that can’t easily be seen otherwise.

Question: How do you hope your work will change the learning landscape?
Answer: I’m hopeful that my work will help schools create conversations around the types of data patterns that can be visualized with the types of techniques that current data analytics can provide, so that teachers and school leaders can focus on the implications rather than on the statistics. Just like current companies in the new media space are able to provide information that guides action in intuitive ways (such as you liked this book or movie so you may like these other books or movies) based on very complex data sets and analytics, I aim to help schools and districts create data systems that are useful for continuous improvement cycles. Schools collect ever greater amounts of data that I posit should and could be put to use through data analytics to create systems that help students, teachers and leaders understand each individual student’s journey through that specific system to date, and what they personally need to help support their success on where they want to go and what they want to do to improve, grow and develop.

Question: What broad trends do you think will have the most impact on learning in the years ahead?
Answer: I see the rising technology around learning analytics and intelligent tutoring systems as a huge upcoming trend in education. Rather than replace teachers with computers, current and up-and-coming learning analytic systems (many of which have been discussed by and created by others on this website!) differentiate instruction for each student in a fun and interactive virtual environment, supporting the student’s moment by moment cognition and informing the teacher in near real time as to exactly which students are struggling in which curricular items so that the teacher can intervene immediately, provide additional support and instruction, all long before a student ever experiences failure. Why can’t a student go to school every day and expect to have a fun and engaging experience throughout the day in which they learn and excel faster and faster in difficult and rigorous topics, be they mathematics, art, music, science or languages, and are helped to develop in supportive and engaging ways? Why shouldn’t a teacher be able to enjoy their time with their students on a daily basis and rather than feel like a disciplinarian, policy or test implementer, be a facilitator of learning for engaged young minds? These are the basic questions that these new technologies are attempting to address, and it’s very exciting! I think that these will be the trends that we’ll be talking about within the years ahead.

Question: What are you currently working on & what is your next big project?
Answer: I’m currently working with schools to help them adapt their data systems using current data analytic practices so that teachers can focus on implications and evidence-based practice while depending on the data system to handle the back-end processing and algorithmic work for them. I believe that too many researchers are urging teachers to add yet another demand on their day-to-day time, that of processing data on their students and the data for their school. Teachers are already out of time, so rather than add additional tasks I’m working to create systems that leverage current data practices and user interface design principles to provide teachers with actionable data that informs their practice. This involves working on both ends of the spectrum, from education data mining and visual data analytics systems and algorithms, to doing design-based research with teachers to work with them on the types of data systems that they need for their day-to-day work.

Image: Courtesy Alex Bowers