For Tom Tomberlin, Ed.M.’06, Ed.D.’14, the real questions in education reveal themselves in the numbers.
“I don’t think quantitative research answers questions. In fact, I think it raises questions,” Tomberlin says. “The real work is in understanding the context of where the data is playing out, what’s going on in the school, and what’s causing it to look this way — that’s where the real meat is.”
Tomberlin didn’t come to this realization until his studies at the Ed School were underway. It was in Professor Judy Singer’s statistics course that he discovered that the reality of quantitative research is that it has little to do with numbers and much more to do with interpretation and communication to practitioners.
“I’ve always been less interested in what data say than the impact it will have on practitioners,” he says.
As a former Greek and Latin teacher who had always anticipated returning to practice after furthering his own education, Tomberlin couldn’t have predicted that he would actually transition into working with data. But at the Ed School, and later as a fellow at Strategic Data Project (SDP), an initiative of the Center for Education Policy Research (CEPR) at Harvard University, a passion for analyzing data really took hold.
SDP partners with school districts, charter school networks, state education agencies, and nonprofit organizations to bring high-quality research methods and data analysis to bear on strategic management and policy decisions. Tomberlin was a part of one of the first fellow cohorts — which are carefully recruited based on strong quantitative analytic background and experience in education — to complete the two-year program.
“We are always on the lookout for potential candidates for the SDP Fellowship — folks who combine a strong quantitative background with an entrepreneurial drive and the ability to see when an analysis can clarify strategic options,” says Jon Fullerton, CEPR executive director. “Tom had the statistical skills, but more importantly, we knew that he would be the type of person could ask the needed questions and develop analyses with actionable results. And that’s what makes a successful fellow.”
During his time in SDP, Tomberlin returned to his home state, North Carolina to work at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. There he began the teacher evaluation components of SDP, looking at how principals rated teacher performance and it’s alignment with quantitative measures. Much of the job entailed working closely with principals to help them understand the relationship and how to speak to teachers about improvement.
“I worked hard on helping principals eliminate bias from observations,” he says. “We did a lot of training and reliability testing to help [principals] understand how susceptible to bias they were and minimize that in the observation process.” He also met with teachers to determine what a good evaluation process looked like and discuss how principals and teachers can come together to develop strategy and process. As part of this process, he developed a set of measures of importance, which includes teacher observation, content pedagogy, and classroom management.
Tomberlin, now the director of Educator Human Capital, Policy, and Research at the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI), says that the knowledge of what teachers value about the profession has informed his own work, particularly his current efforts as NCDPI moves toward incorporating a statewide multiple measure teacher evaluation system.
Since completing the fellows program in 2012 and moving onto his current position, Tomberlin remains connected to SDP and calls it a “touchstone” in tackling difficult education problems. Working in education data can sometimes be isolating, so Tomberlin stayed in touch with the network, where he relies on colleagues to help think through issues and problems related to data.
Tomberlin will continue working with SDP on an entirely new level this year as he takes on mentoring two fellows. Bringing his work full circle, he views his role as a mentor as helping fellows to recognize the value of quantitative research and keep it from being misunderstood in practice. A large part of what Tomberlin has learned through his work at SDP is the significance of being able to communicate data and articulate research to educational leadership.
“I feel it’s very important to interpret data for the field in ways that can be helpful,” he says, “listen to their feedback and frustrations when the data are not helpful, and present the information in such a way that the meaning is not reduced to cold, heartless numbers.”