School & District Management

ED Urges States to Make Data Systems More Open

By Sarah D. Sparks — July 20, 2012 3 min read
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Researchers must have access to the mountains of education data being produced by schools and districts in order to mine new instructional materials, federal officials told state and local administrators at an annual data conference here this month.

As part of the Obama Administration’s Education Data Initiative, Joanne Weiss, the U.S. Education Department’s chief of staff, said information from multiple federal data systems, including EDFacts, the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, the Civil Rights Data Collection and others would be “mashed together” in common platforms. Last week, the department held its first “data jam” for researchers and entrepreneurs interested in using the data to develop instructional tools; the participants are expected to return in October to present their ideas.

“Policy analysts and politicians often warn of the law of unintended consequences—as if all unintended consequences are negative ones—but in the world of data, we should also be aware of the law of welcome surprises,” Ms. Weiss said at the start of the National Center for Education Statistics’ annual conference, called STATS-D.C., also held last week. “We’ll see electronic ‘backpacks’ where students can carry their own transcripts and portfolios, personalized college-choice tools, financial aid shopping sheets, and yes, more school and college scorecards,” Ms. Weiss said.

Toward that end, the National Forum on Education Statistics, part of the U.S. Department of Education’s research agency, released a report to help states develop partnerships with researchers to use student, teacher, and administrative information in their longitudinal data systems.

Education officials need to get ahead of the research requests to prioritize the list of researchers who want to use the databases to solve pressing instructional and policy questions in the state, argued Nancy J. Smith, a principal consultant for the Vienna, Va.-based DataSmith Solutions, a contractor for the Education Department during a discussion at the conference.

“In education we need these daily doses of common descriptive data and we haven’t even articulated yet how many ways we can use it,” she said. “You don’t want to just say, ‘Here, I have a [state longitudinal data system], come on, use it for whatever’.”

The guide notes that states frequently have repeat requests from researchers for data relating to hot education topics, such as teacher effectiveness, school turnaround and charter schools, yet districts do not often have standard forms or data-release procedures geared to encourage data requests for specific topics.

Among the guide’s recommendations:
• States can reduce their workload on researcher data requests by building a catalog or Web gateway that organizes the available data sets by topic as well as how it can be used. Online forms could channel researchers toward publicly available data or requests for more restricted data.
• Researchers who want to use state data may benefit from training on the state’s research priorities and the procedures for using specific data sets
• States should monitor how researchers use the data to ensure students’ privacy is protected.

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The overhauled federal education research network may be a “perfect conduit” to help states and districts work with researchers on the data, Ms. Smith said.

The latest iteration of the regional educational laboratories, renewed last year, and the upcoming iteration of the national comprehensive centers, which are expected to be chosen August 16, both include new requirements to create research partnerships among state and district educators and researchers to use the state’s longitudinal data.

“I see them as being able to help connect the [state education agency] with the state or regional research and analyst community to figure out who best can use the data now,” Ms. Smith said.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.