Education-Stimulus Priority: Create New Data Systems

Statewide collection and tracking of performance information is key to success in public education.

Statewide collection and tracking of performance information is key to success in public education.

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.

This article originally published on 8/3/2009

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Denise Williams (not verified)

new data systems

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I work for LAUSD as a teacher. We have a data system which teachers input test scores and can use this information to guide the lessons. All the test scores are tracked by the district to determine the needs of the students. The fault is you do not have an entry level test to know what the student knows when they first enter school. Without a basic test to start with you can never know how much they have progressed.In Kindergarten the tests are for Language Art and Mathematics based on the programs the district mandates. We do not test students to enter Kindergarten like many more affluent districts do.
The teacher is always part of the data since it is a class of students with the teachers name on it. When you start evaluating teachers based on test data that is limited to the current test it does not show how far the student has progressed.
It doesn't show if they speak English, have parents who participate in the education process,or have abusive and disruptive students in the classroom. It doesn't show how students and teachers rise above these obstacles to be a learning community.
The other part is teachers do not have control over what they teach. The lessons are all scripted by the publishers. Our new Math program is computer based but we do not have computers. The programs assume students know things when they enter school so they do not put it in the textbooks. They assume they know the alphabet, numbers, colors, shapes, and common objects. On the first day of school the students that don't know these things are already behind. Add not knowing the language, having a parent that is not supportive and the progress is much slower. This doesn't mean they won't be successful they can be. They are just as smart as the other students but it isn't fair to use textbooks that will not give them the opportunity to develop and then trash the teacher.

Andrew Cawelti (not verified)

New Data Systems

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At a time when student enrollment is at an all-time high.
At a time when classrooms are seeing the most students per instructor.
At a time when current technology is racing ahead.
At a time when new technologies are being incorporated into the educational programs with new courses and curriculum.

This is a time when funding is deeply cut.
This is a time when teachers are being told to focus on setting a data collection system and tracking each student.

Data collection and tracking each student can be a good goal; but, please fund time and resources needed. This funding should be accomplished after restoring the funding cuts hurting educational programs today.

Thanks for listening to my opinion,

Andrew Cawelti
Automotive Instructor
Oxnard College

Jill Bohn (not verified)

Re: New data systems

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Wonderful! Millions of dollars to the data systems people on top of the millions of dollars being spent on the testing systems. Where is the money for the students and the classrooms. This does not get my vote.

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