Data systems, which are ways of collecting and tracking information about school, student, and teacher performance, are key elements in driving the Obama administration's reform effort.
The main premise is simple: If every state has a data system in place, decisions will be based on hard evidence, which will help inform other core reforms such as developing effective teachers, improving standards, and reforming poorly performing schools. Though the federal government can't force states to make these changes, it can provide incentives by offering states favorable standing in the next round of stimulus funding.
The Administration's Definition
Ideally, each state will set up or upgrade its data system to track student progress and measure teacher effectiveness. The systems would monitor student growth from kindergarten to college and beyond, allowing for a richer picture and analysis of student performance. These results also need to be made available to educators and policy makers to help effectively drive decisions.
A Working Model
Florida has been ahead of the curve for some time, with a data system in place since the 1980s. The Sunshine State's system not only collects the basics, such as reading and math scores, it can also help educators analyze data and use it to reach conclusions.
Florida's system highlights information about former students, including the number of college graduates, how much they earn at their current jobs, and even how many went to prison. That data ties back to other academic records, including what classes students took in high school, their grades and test scores, and whether they dropped out. School counselors use this data to show students what-if scenarios, such as how much their earnings will decrease if they drop out of school.
Aimee Rogstad Guidera, director of the nonprofit Data Quality Campaign, says the goal of her group is for states to move beyond reporting requirements to create an environment in which data shows the way, allowing states to use it to make funding and curriculum decisions and to help decide which teachers need what training and tools to ensure that all students are successful.
Try This . . .
The goal is to make your data useful. One possibility: an early-warning system that flags students in danger of dropping out. Several districts use some version of a data-driven early-warning system. Schools in Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia, for example, use historical data on past dropouts to figure out what the common factors are and then flag students who may be on the same path. Philadelphia used its findings to design an intervention program in the middle schools.
Lessons from Florida
Jeff Sellers, who runs Florida's data system, found that individual school districts collect far more information than the state needs or can effectively use. To make data processing more manageable, he recommends that when asking individual districts to collect and supply data, states should make a well-defined plan, establish priorities, and start small.
Sellars says Florida initially tried to do too much with data collection, creating a cumbersome system. The state now keeps its data projects narrowly focused on the intended audience and purpose. For instance, it's looking at ways to track high-risk students that give high schools credit for keeping these students in school. The credit will boost the grade the state assigns each school.
A Possible Future
Ultimately, the federal government wants states to use their systems to help themselves. With a state system in place, districts can communicate with each other to adopt best practices and track students after high school. This way, they can better prepare high school students for college and inform colleges of incoming students' needs.
Eventually, when teachers arrive for a new school year, they could be handed not just the class list but also digital portfolios that tell them all about their students' academic history.
Alexandra R. Moses is a freelance writer in the Washington, DC, area who specializes in education.
This article is the first of four that outlines key steps to improving public education. Next, read about the importance of improving teacher performance.