School & District Management

Project Eyes Diverse Data Sets for Insight On Children

By Debra Viadero — October 03, 2006 4 min read
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Researchers who study children and schooling are often constrained by the data sets they use. School district data, for instance, yield valuable information on students’ ages, their achievement history, and their educational placements, but they don’t tell the whole story.

District data systems typically won’t reveal, for example, whether children are homeless or living in a foster home. They won’t disclose if children have been exposed to lead paint or whether their mothers dropped out of school. For those kinds of data, researchers usually have to turn to different databases from different agencies.

Researcher John W. Fantuzzo, shown with a colleague in his University of Pennsylvania office, helps run a comprehensive database on Philadelphia's children.

Now, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, working with the city of Philadelphia, have found a way to integrate all of that information into a single archive. Known as the Kids Integrated Data System, or KIDS, the archive is thought to be the first of its kind.

The KIDS archive merges data from seven city agencies and the school district of Philadelphia, providing access to all the data the city collects on its youngest residents. The hope is that the project, besides making researchers’ jobs easier, will generate information to help agencies improve services for children.

“This is about the kids and the people working directly with kids,” said John W. Fantuzzo, an education professor at the university’s graduate school of education and a project leader. “We know university researchers aren’t all Mother Teresa or Albert Schweitzer. We have to prove we can produce practical knowledge, too.”

The project stems in part from work that Mr. Fantuzzo began in the mid-1990s to gather data from different city agencies on a cohort of 19,000 children entering 1st grade in the city schools.

“It generated good news and bad news,” Mr. Fantuzzo said of the study. “The good news was that people who never really worked together actually got together and learned about different systems, and were able to do it in a successful way.”

The bad news, he said, was that the findings revealed disturbingly high rates of mortality, homelessness, abuse, and other risks among Philadelphia’s children.

Building on that initial effort, Mr. Fantuzzo and two of his university colleagues—Dennis P. Culhane, a professor of social policy, and Trevor R. Hadley, a professor of psychology in psychiatry—decided to build a permanent integrated data system. Work began in 1999 with $800,000 from the Philadelphia-based William Penn Foundation, and proceeded from there in fits and starts.

Low Trust at First

Besides developing new technology, the professors had to persuade skeptical city officials and negotiate a complex web of federal and state laws designed to protect children’s privacy. “There’s a big risk for the city,” said Ronnie L. Bloom, the foundation’s program director for children, youth, and families funding. “A lot of times cities don’t want to be examined all that closely.”

Agencies also balked because they felt they had been burned by researchers who did what Mr. Fantuzzo calls “drive by” studies.

“Researchers would come and would want to get data from us,” said Annabella Roig, the deputy director for the city’s division of social services. “They would find out that the city of Philadelphia is not serving its children in some way, and they would publish it and we would hear about it and get upset. There was low trust.”

The University of Pennsylvania researchers allayed the agencies’ concerns by creating a forum for scholars and agency officials to meet quarterly to bounce ideas off one another and approve and vet research projects and findings. While city officials cannot censor findings, they can veto research proposals they feel won’t prove useful to their agencies.

“Researchers have to agree to be part of a pretty extensive vetting system because that’s the only way there’s going to be change,” Mr. Fantuzzo said.

The arrangement doesn’t mean, as some critics have suggested, that the researchers aren’t “holding city agencies feet to the fire,” Ms. Roig says. “We’re not afraid of bad news. We just don’t want to hear about it post hoc.”

Privacy a Concern

To satisfy federal privacy-protection laws, three administrators at the university’s Cartographic Modeling Lab “scrub” the data from city agencies to remove personally identifiable information. Then they use an algorithm created by the researchers to assign identifier numbers to children so that records can be matched across agencies.

University of Pennsylvania researcher John W. Fantuzzo helps lead the project gathering academic, health, and other data on Philadelphia children.

Through the lab, statistics are also merged with geographic data to provide a more complete picture of the social environment in which children are raised, Mr. Culhane said.

The system is already yielding useful findings, according to its developers. Mr. Fantuzzo’s ongoing work with entering students, for instance, has found that the risks children bring with them to school—such as poverty, having a poorly educated mother, lead exposure, or inadequate prenatal care—are all linked to academic and behavioral problems later on. More important, the study also found that attending a formal, center-based child-care program can “protect” children from those adverse outcomes.

The findings, which Mr. Fantuzzo has presented to principals and early-childhood educators across the district, helped the city obtain funds to add another 1,000 seats to its district-operated Head Start programs this fall.

Mr. Hadley has found that parents with mental-health problems who enroll in treatment programs were less likely to lose custody of their children than similar groups of nonparticipating adults. Now, he’s studying autistic children progressing through the system of public services. “We’re finding out what they’re really getting and from whom,” he said, “and that’s something that we’ve never been able to do before.”

Coverage of education research is supported in part by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the October 04, 2006 edition of Education Week as Project Eyes Diverse Data Sets for Insight on Children

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