School & District Management Q&A

Q&A: Aimee Guidera Looks Back on Research, Privacy, and the Future of Education Data

By Sarah D. Sparks — April 05, 2018 6 min read
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Aimee Guidera, the founding president and chief executive officer of the Data Quality Campaign, is stepping down after 13 years at the helm of one of the most active organizational voices for education data in the field.

The campaign announced this morning that Guidera will be replaced by Jennifer Bell-Ellwanger, a former director of the policy and program studies service at the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration and an acting assistant secretary of planning, evaluation, and policy development during the Trump administration.

When the campaign launched back in 2005, states had barely begun to break out test performance data for student groups, and virtually none could consistently follow their students’ academic achievement trajectories from kindergarten through high school, much less into postsecondary. I spoke with Guidera about how the approach to data has changed in the education field and what she sees for the future.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

DQC was built in the context of the No Child Left Behind Act’s accountability-based data system that some critics now say is a

barrier to schools actually getting better

. What unintended consequences have you seen from that infrastructure?

We now have richer pictures of what’s happening in a student’s life because we’re able to connect all these different data points, and that to me is the real power of data. But that is also the part that’s scary, right? Let’s be really blunt: You know, that sounds really, really scary to say to a mom, ‘We’re going to collect all these data points about your child.’ ... Predictive analytics is really scary, and we also have a history in this country of using predictive analytics to close doors for students.

How do you safeguard against that?

We’ve got to do everything possible to ensure that that data is used to open doors for children and never ever to hurt them or to close them. And I think ... the best way to ensure that is to have utter transparency about what data’s collected, why it’s being collected, and to start sunsetting data collections if someone cannot define how a piece of information is being used to help a child. Our goal at all points should be to minimize the amount of data being collected to that which can absolutely be linked to supporting the students.

And once we’ve done that, we need to do everything possible to communicate to our public about why we’re collecting that data, how it’s being used, who has access to it and how it’s being protected. And that transparency builds trust and it builds understanding.

What has been the most challenging part of the data infrastructure for states to build?

We were launching this in 2003, ‘04, ‘05, right on the heels of No Child Left Behind, and there was this mandate to [use] data. The governors came out with their state pledge to use the [four-year] cohort graduation rate at that point, too. We had to remind those governors that this is a great goal—to use a common measure—but our report indicates that only 14 of those states that had signed onto that pledge had the technical ability to calculate that graduation rate. ... We were trying to encourage policymakers to realize that you couldn’t just get more, better data by turning the faucet on harder. It wasn’t like all of a sudden you’d get the data you wanted out, but that it requires building an infrastructure to do so.

Some of the data your group has pushed for has become controversial, particularly around teacher data. How has that evolved?

When we were putting together the 10 essential elements [the first data benchmarks advocated by the campaign], a real concern the original partners had was, do we include the ability to connect student and teacher data? At that point ... it was seen as being that third rail that nobody wanted to touch, because there was such concern about the accountability and what that would mean [for students’ performance data to be linked to teachers.]

And then there was pushback against it because there was a rational fear on the part of educators that data was going to be done to them rather than with them. I think one of the lessons that we’ve learned is, if you don’t bring people along in the conversation to see what’s in it for me—to see data used as a flashlight and not a hammer—there will be pushback.

Are there any education policy areas where you don’t think the data are ready for prime time?

I think a lot of people much smarter than I am agree that social-emotional-learning information, it should not be used for reporting out and definitely not for accountability.

I think that’s also one of the things that is ripe for lots of conversations ... trying to figure out who needs to see what data for what purpose and understand that different grain sizes of data needed to be used for different purposes.

What sort of capacity-building is most needed now?

The least-sexy thing is laying pipe, and that’s what the first 10 years [of the campaign] was about, you know—convincing people to spend your political capital and money in laying down the data infrastructure that nobody’s ever going to see. ... But I would argue that was the easy part. The hard part is right now. It is getting people to change how they work, how they make decisions, how they do their jobs—whether their job is as a mom using information to be an advocate for her child; whether it be a teacher, making sure that every child in her class is succeeding; or whether it be a taxpayer making a decision whether or not they’re going to vote for a tax equity.

The data literacy piece is huge. I think by our latest count, only 19 states require any kind of facility or training with data to get a license to teach in the state. ... [Teachers] know it’s the tool that they need. But what they’re also saying to us there is that they aren’t getting the training and that it’s too much work to get the data and have it be turned into actionable information. They want more time in the school day ... to work with colleagues to better understand and use the data—and that time is just not built in.

What is the most interesting education question that we can’t answer yet, but soon will be able to answer?

I think we can answer many questions [from a technical standpoint], but it’s whether we have the political will to answer them, because I think some of the most interesting questions to answer require data to be pulled from multiple places. I want to know not just, ‘How many kids from this school graduated?’ ‘How many kids from the school went into college?’ That’s all information I want to know, but what I really want to know is, what happened six years out? How many are gainfully employed; how many of these went on and got a graduate degree; how many are adding back into society? Those are things that we can technically answer now in places where you’re able to link up data and report that back out. But we haven’t invested in doing that yet.

What’s next for you personally?

I am in the process of setting up a [limited liability partnership] and I’m going to be doing some consulting. I am passionate about education being crucial to the future of our country, and I want to stay connected to that. But also I wanted to work on some of the issues that the campaign isn’t as involved in, that are beyond the scope of what it does: How do we rethink accountability? How do we think about quality options in every country for education? So I’m excited to dive in with a new hat on.


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