Putting the 'Byte' in Educational Decisionmaking

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What do ATM cards, supermarket checkout scanners, electronic payroll deposits, highway "E-Z Pass" lanes, and the World Wide Web have in common? The simple answer is modern technology. In our modem world, jet engines are diagnosed for problems in midflight by on-board computers, and professional coaches review videoclips of specific plays by keying in "pass play" or "punt." The medical profession has traded the scalpel for imaging technology to make exploratory diagnoses. Business, medical, and professional-sports leaders know that technology gives them the edge. The importance of the "byte" in these diverse fields is not debated.

On the other hand, what is the status of the "byte" in educational decisionmaking? Are superintendents and principals able to easily analyze student achievement, course-taking trends, or budget expenditures using technology specifically designed for this purpose? Unfortunately, the technological revolution transforming the world of business, medicine, and manufacturing is largely unavailable to educators. Though schools are awash in data, their leaders are unable to analyze the volumes of data they have because technology programs to do so are either unavailable or too expensive. Schools, caught up in one reform after another, could, with the help of the "byte," improve decisionmaking in the same way business and other fields have.

Trying to access all the pertinent data to solve a problem can be overwhelming. The solution in the private sector has been to use information-management and data-warehousing technologies. These sophisticated systems allow busy professionals quick access to the relevant data needed to make decisions in a competitive, fast-paced world. School leadership is no different--the environment in which we work is intense, decisions need to be made quickly, with accountability the driving force. But unlike our private-sector counterparts, we are unable to manage our data because we lack the information-management tools that have transformed almost every sector except education. These technologies have yet to be applied to the business of school leadership.

Other than having a sophisticated new tool on our desktops, what could information technology do for school leaders? In a Connecticut project, we have identified seven areas of leadership that would benefit by the application of such technologies. Our project combines the skills of a private business concern, KPMG Peat Marwick LLP, and an educational organization, the Connecticut Academy for Education, and is sponsored in part by the National Science Foundation and the National Center for Education Statistics. What we have developed is an affordable, secure, Web-based, information-management and data-warehousing system that provides school leaders with easy-to-use access to all of their data. My work as a professor of education at the University of Connecticut is focusing on how best to use these new technologies for effective school leadership and improved decisionmaking.

Here are the seven areas of school leadership that are emerging in our work as important applications:

  • Database decisionmaking. Few would deny that information is power, but meaningful information can be gained only from a proper analysis of data. Good decisions are based on this thoughtful process of inquiry and analysis. Without the ability to easily gather and analyze data, however, our experience tells us that school leaders simply do not do that kind of analysis. They do not have the time or the knowledge. Instead, they lead by what I have come to term "informed intuition." While corporate decisions of any importance inevitably are judgmental, based in part on wisdom and experience, they also are data-based to the greatest extent possible. What is missing all too often in school leadership is the formulation of decisions based on data. Information technologies can make this possible.
  • School improvement targets. A school's needs should be more precisely identified, so that improvement targets and strategies can be better focused. Over the past decade, much was made of Total Quality Education, even though the movement has yet to take hold. There is much of value in the total-quality repertoire. Benchmarking, for example, is critical to organizational improvement. But we have learned that the benchmarking process is often too difficult and time-consuming to perform in schools. School leaders cannot easily identify which students are in need of remediation, so that instruction can be focused and directed to them. And in most districts, superintendents cannot easily compare the performance of students who have been in the district for three consecutive years with that of students who entered within that time frame. Almost every urban superintendent we have interviewed raises this as a critical issue in understanding the relative success of their programs. Such problem areas are examples of where frequently conducted data analyses could better focus improvement strategies.
  • Data disaggregation. Responding to individual student differences requires a proper analysis of data. Equity issues can best be addressed through the disaggregation of data, to identify where inequities exist and determine what the baselines for improvement should be. Knowing that inequity exists is not enough; actions to systematically measure growth and development among these populations are needed. Student performance data should be disaggregated by race, socioeconomic status, predominant language, gender, and rate of absenteeism, along with a host of other potentially important variables, such as participation in student activities and disciplinary problems. The data should then be further disaggregated by quartile or decile, and reviewed as three-year trends, to identify groups of students that are improving and those that are not.

One district, for example, spent years and significant resources trying to improve its math program without success. Once it looked at the performance of students who were absent more than 20 days, as compared with those who attended regularly, the district discovered that the group attending, while burdened with some of the same negative influences as the group that was not, was able to perform at acceptable levels. This district then redirected its improvement efforts and focused on getting kids to school. Information technologies make such ongoing disaggregation of data possible.

  • Fast-track program evaluation. Traditional approaches to program evaluation are too time-consuming for practitioners, and the results are often too late to have an impact, except on subsequent groups of students--often two or three years later. Moreover, real-time performance benchmarking, a critical need in schools today, is simply not possible using traditional methods of evaluation. It was the need to respond to a dynamic environment that led to the development of information technologies in business; with the pressures of change mounting in education, new solutions must be found here as well.
We are unable to manage our data because we lack the
information-management tools that have transformed almost every sector except education.

There is a need for "fast track" program evaluation in which the process of inquiry, analysis, and decisionmaking can be completed in hours--not days, weeks, or months. The database-decisionmaking process in schools needs to be a much more dynamic one, where hypotheses about relationships among data can be more quickly explored. If the SAT scores in a school are trending downward, for example, we would want to know the relationship between SAT and Preliminary SAT, statewide mastery test, course-taking trends, and student demographic variables--not just for this group of students, but for this group as compared with two or three previous groups' data. This analysis would be overwhelming for most educators, but in an information-technology environment, it can be completed in an hour or so.

  • Budgetary control. Principals and program directors need to better understand the total costs of their operations. Too often, they only have control over a small proportion of their budgets. Consequently, their understanding of these issues is limited by lack of experience and training. Most principals and directors are given budget information only for textbooks, supplies, and staff-development costs. They don't typically have a full appreciation of building-operations and employee-benefits costs--two major budget drivers. When administrators request additional staff, they should understand the full costs, including benefits, training, and classroom start-up. Providing school-based leaders and program directors with timely data about total program costs will help them be better managers of limited resources.

There is also a need for all educators to better manage budget surpluses and deficits--typically a central-office function. But current practice leaves principals and program directors in the dark. If we want them to be better fiscal managers, we should provide them up-to-date budgetary-control data. Information technologies make this possible in a real-time, easy-to-use format.

  • Exploring the relationships between cost and effectiveness. The modern educational organization is too socially complex to lend itself to perfect research analyses yielding definitive findings. And even if this were possible, we no longer have the time or resources for such activities. But although we will never be able to precisely relate costs to program effectiveness, we must begin exploring these relationships. One of the goals of our program, Learning Landscape, is to begin associating the costs of special grant programs to student learning. This task is particularly difficult, given that many grant programs are hard to associate with a particular student-outcome measure. But by gaining access to three years of historical data, we are beginning to explore these relationships.

If students participate in a special elementary reading program, for example, over time we would be able to review their gains vs. those of students who do not participate. One urban superintendent told me that his per-pupil-expenditure state rank increased from 75th to 27th when all grants were factored in. He asked if we could help him decide where to focus these resources to help improve student learning. This was a great question--one that we cannot immediately address with any precision. But I would argue that it is exactly the question that needs answering, if we are going to help school leaders be more effective. Information technologies allow for the easy "eyeballing" of these data in graphic presentations, so that experienced administrators can rely less on "informed intuition" and more on database decisionmaking.

  • Administrative time management and mandated reporting. Each year, mandated state and federal reporting consumes an enormous amount of administrative time and effort. While these reports are critical to the governance and overall operation of our schools, we explored whether they could be automatically generated using Learning Landscape, since the information needed already resides in existing school data systems. Working with the massive Connecticut state finance report, our programmers mapped all 12 schedules of the report. This prototype was successful, and the report that would normally take a business office at least a month to complete is now generated with one computer keystroke.

As such technologies proliferate across state lines, it should be relatively easy to map other state reports. And because the core database in our program is built around the nces Common Core Data Elements, mandated federal reporting can be as easy to complete for districts as the Connecticut report is now for our districts. The gains in administrative efficiency and time management, we believe, will be significant.

High technology is all around us. Online banking, drug store networks that help prevent drug-interaction problems, cellular phones, pagers, e-mail, voice-mail, CAT and MRI scanning technology--the list is endless. In school leadership, the profound changes that have taken place over the past decade require us to respond more effectively and more quickly to accountability and improvement issues. But we are still doing database decisionmaking the old fashioned way--mostly by paper and pencil.

New demands require new tools. Just as information technologies have proved their worth in the private sector, so, too, will affordable technological tools prove their value to public school leaders. It is when the "byte" permeates educational decisionmaking that we will begin to witness widespread educational improvement.

Philip A. Streifer is an associate professor of educational leadership at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. A former superintendent of schools, he is also the director of the Connecticut Academy for Education's Educational Information Management Project, which has produced Learning Landscape in partnership with KPMG Peat Marwick LLP. Find more information about this project at

Vol. 18, Issue 27, Pages 53, 56

Published in Print: March 17, 1999, as Putting the 'Byte' in Educational Decisionmaking
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