NextGen Leader Yan Li turned down corporate path for public education research and analytics


The Mississippi Department of Education plucked Yan Li from a doctoral program, where she studied and taught macroeconomics and had won an award for excellence in teaching.

Now Li, director of research and analytics in the Office of the CIO, is focused on updating the student information system (SIS) and assisting with the development of the State Technology Guide for Mississippi school districts.

She has also worked on developing a survey for internet connectivity in schools, she is currently working on the department’s website redesign, and she is constantly conducting internal research.

“This is an exciting opportunity, because I can work on how education research can support evidence-based policy making,” she said in an interview. “I want to use student data to make informed decisions.”

Li has been named a 2018 NextGeneration Leader by EdScoop and CoSN, and she will be honored during the CoSN annual conference this month.

Multiple disciplines

The economics expert said she is in a unique position, because her work lies at the intersection of both research and technology — which is important when protecting student privacy.

“For people who are solely doing research, their focus may be too much on research, and people from a technology department may not know how to best utilize the data,” she said. “I think I’m in the perfect place because I know my research — that’s my background — and I’m also in technology, so I can try to work on the balance of those two.”

When she earned her doctorate from the University of Mississippi in 2015, Li received several job offers from banks as well as from companies such as FedEx and Amazon, but she turned them down. Li wanted to work in public education.

“I told myself, ‘I’m young and I have passion,’ and I spent three years in teaching and higher education,” she said. “I thought this was a really good opportunity and time to join the state government to really use what I learned in my Ph.D. program to really make a difference.”

In the process of modernizing its student database, the department has received a federal four-year grant to develop a Mississippi data dashboard. They have hired a data architect, and Li has been charged with overseeing quality assurance.

The team launched an internal dashboard in January, and since the end of February, the public has been able to see graduation rates, student assessment results, early childhood education data and absentee statistics.

“We are talking to districts and sending surveys to ask their feedback about what feature they like and dislike the most, and what feature they use the most and ones they never use,” she said. “We are really interested in knowing how districts and schools feel.”

Beyond the classroom

While Li faces constant changes and challenges in her division, she said her passion is what keeps her going.

“The commitment to student success sounds very abstract, but that is something that is spinning around my head everyday,” she said.

She admitted that her current position does not allow her to work in the classroom anymore and interact with students, but she still sees the fruits of her labor.

“Working on student data and transforming those data into research to inform decision making, I still can indirectly see the younger generation and make a difference.”

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