States Lead Effort to Utilize Data in Education

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said that the federal government’s role in the sustained push toward more data-driven decision-making in education was to provide funding and resources to states pursuing those initiatives.
by | January 20, 2012 AT 8:00 PM

At the Data Quality Campaign’s National Data Summit this week, U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan said during a panel discussion that the federal government’s role in the sustained push toward more data-driven decision-making in education was to provide funding and resources to states pursuing those initiatives -- and otherwise, essentially, stay out of the way. After 10 years under No Child Left Behind, that stance marks a substantial shift in the federal perspective, as states and school districts embark on the next big push in education reform: harnessing data to improve instruction and policy.

Duncan, former District of Columbia schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen and Kentucky Commissioner of Education Terry Holliday reflected on the ways that utilizing data could alter the public education landscape. According to an analysis by the Data Quality Campaign, an advocacy group that promotes better use of data in education, states have showed progress in data usage, but much room for improvement remains. The Campaign is supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Broad Foundation, among others

The report, Data for Action 2011, includes figures to illustrate both points:

  • 40 states provide access to student longitudinal data to principals and 28 do so for teachers.
  • 36 states have established state education agency and inter-agency data governance entities.
  • 40 states provide training to teachers on longitudinal data reports.
  • 41 states do not link workforce data with K-12 education, and 38 states don’t connect workforce data with postsecondary education.
  • 38 states have not established policies for data-sharing among different agencies.
  • 46 states do not share teacher performance data with teacher preparation programs, such as colleges of education.

Some states have taken great strides. Oregon has established a statewide training program called the Oregon Data Project, funded by federal grants, that instructs teachers on how to make use of the data available to them. Tennessee is one of the first states to connect data regarding a teacher's performance with the institution that trained them, giving feedback to those schools and licensing programs about the success of their graduates for the first time. The District of Columbia gained national attention for its IMPACT evaluation system, which incorporated extensive data input along with on-site observations to gauge a teacher’s performance.

States applying for No Child Left Behind waivers from the Education Department must outline strategies for better incorporating data into their policymaking and instruction decisions in their application. But, Duncan said Wednesday, that is largely the extent of the federal role. States are building and managing their data systems, and they are best equipped to handle the administration of those systems, he said. And those systems have the potential to completely revolutionize the education sector, the panelists agreed. In a following discussion, 2011 Georgia Teacher of the Year Pam Williams described opening an online dashboard with a plethora of data -- attendance records, statewide exam scores, disciplinary reports -- available for each student. And using that information, she determined the shortcomings of certain students, such as being a poor test-taker or struggling with reading comprehension, and altered her learning environment and instruction style to fit their needs.

“We’re trying to change behaviors… This is the new normal,” Duncan said.

Rhee, who oversaw the implementation of the IMPACT system, stressed the need to consult with teachers and to weigh their input when deciding how to use these data systems. Bredesen warned that teachers and the public often view data and evaluation systems as “primarily punitive” -- used to identify and fire bad teachers. “That’s not very persuasive,” he said. Teacher training programs, such as the Oregon Data Project, should be a priority for states and school districts, the panelists agreed, and the findings of the Data Quality Campaign (40 states have established some sort of training program) indicate that policymakers agree.

“We want teachers to feel empowered,” Duncan said. “We want real feedback about where we’re strong and where we’re weak. This shouldn’t be an additional burden for teachers.”

The discussion by national education leaders emphasized that the data movement is here to stay. When asked to debunk one myth about education data, Duncan singled out the idea that using data to determine education policy was “just a fad.” Bredesen, who has an extensive background in health care, wondered why education had taken so long to embrace data analysis, considering almost every other major industry utilizes data to measure its success. Data can be used not only to assess the performance of an individual student, but also to evaluate the return on investments in different policies, he explained.

Despite Duncan’s statement that the federal government wouldn’t be intimately involved in the data movement, instead playing a supporting role, Holliday credited No Child Left Behind with accentuating the importance of education data. In conversations with education policymakers and advocates before the law’s 10th anniversary, Governing was told that the legislation’s most important legacy was the desegregation of student achievement data. That policy led to a better understanding of the achievement gaps for minority and low-income students and a rash of actions by educators and policymakers to address it. Now, Holliday said, states must undertake a similar effort as they design and develop their data systems.

“If you don’t turn the data into action, it won’t matter,” he said. “We need to look at what we did this week and then ask: what we need to do next week? That’s the power of action.”

The map below, produced by the Data Quality Campaign, charts each state's progress in taking the organization's 10 State Actions to Ensure Effective Data Use. An explanation of the 10 actions can be found here.