Federal Opinion

‘Data’ Has Become a Dirty Word to Public Education Advocates. It Doesn’t Have to Be

How the Biden Administration can reject test-score obsession
By Jeffrey R. Henig — February 09, 2021 5 min read
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Since the federal No Child Left Behind Act was enacted in 2002, the words “data collection” have inspired fear and mistrust in education circles. For many educators, the term signifies bureaucrats’ weaponized use of standardized-test scores to monitor and punish districts, schools, and teachers for failing to meet seemingly arbitrary standards of test-score gains. For some, data collection also represents an assault on public education—a tool to support market-driven approaches (read: charter schools and vouchers) at the expense of the nation’s traditional system of community-based public schools.

But a revamped approach to data collection could help restore and re-energize a community focus on public education—and also help the incoming Biden administration avoid a bruising partisan battle.

The Biden team is weighing education measures that include massive increases in federal funding to improve the academic achievement of disadvantaged students, to open universal prekindergarten for all 3- and 4-year-olds, and to make public colleges and universities tuition-free for middle- and lower-income families.

These changes are well worth fighting for but likely to trigger strong Republican opposition, fueled by indignation over Washington’s further incursion into an area that some feel should never have been wrested from state and local control in the first place.

I believe the administration could sidestep some of this anger by using its bully pulpit and leveraging grants to build a community-friendly national culture of data generation, dissemination, and use. A reimagined system of data could encourage a bottom-up use of information nationwide—particularly at the local level—removing ideological barriers to collaboration and speaking to Republicans’ belief that innovation and creativity take place locally.

What might this new use of data look like?

Consider the “Data Walk” method employed by the Urban Institute to empower local communities as partners in designing policies and programs to address their own needs. During a Data Walk, program participants, community residents, and service providers jointly review and interpret data in small groups and collaborate to improve policies, programs, and other factors of community change.

Data Walks have helped design a sexual-health and -safety curriculum for youths and adults living in a public-housing development in the District of Columbia and improve employment and education services in low-income neighborhoods in Chicago and Portland, Ore.

A revamped approach to data collection could help restore and re-energize a community focus on public education—and also help the incoming Biden administration avoid a bruising partisan battle.

Similarly, the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership, a learning network also coordinated by the Urban Institute, provides independent partner organizations in more than 30 cities with neighborhood-level data.

I offer these as illustrations, not specific endorsements. The philosophy they share is that by democratizing information, residents and local organizations can develop a stronger voice in improving their own communities.

Animated by this kind of vision, the Biden administration could repurpose the collection of education data. Data could serve democratic rather than bureaucratic accountability. It could empower parents to act collectively, as citizens, rather than individualistically, as consumers.

But can data use really be stage-managed from the White House? NCLB, launched under Republican President George W. Bush, and Race to the Top (RTTT), an initiative by Democratic President Barack Obama, showed that top-down efforts to incentivize data use triggered unanticipated effects, ranging from gaming the system to outright backlash.

Yet for all their problematic consequences, NCLB and RTTT showed that the federal government can nudge and prod better data systems into existence. From 2009 to 2014, the number of states investing their own funds increased from eight to 41, and a subset of those states have made timely and useful data available to parents, teachers, and others. Armed with new information about the relative academic performance of historically disadvantaged students, advocates have pressed districts to make equity a higher priority.

The incoming administration can build on these lessons about how to nudge states and districts to build and use data systems through encouraging demonstration projects, supporting dissemination of best ideas, reconfiguring criteria for competitive grants, fostering capacity-building at the community level, and targeting research funds. Such efforts could unite a range of stakeholders to ask for information about important schooling outcomes beyond those assessed through standardized tests.

Local groups have become accustomed to putting data to use, but there’s demand for a wider array of measures, which can help with establishing a shared focus among often disparate collaborators. Two experts working with local partnerships put it this way: “Agreement on a common agenda is illusory without agreement on the ways success will be measured and reported.”

As my colleagues and I discovered in a 2016 study of 183 locally-based, cross-sector collaborations in education, 40 percent had a portion of their websites devoted to data, which they used to draw attention to underappreciated problems or opportunities, provide guidance for action, or monitor impact. Most of these data presentations relied on readily available measures such as test scores and graduations rates, but some found ways to track kindergarten readiness, children’s social and emotional development, college advisement, disciplinary practices, technology use, and parent engagement. These kinds of indicators get closer to the concerns and interests community stakeholders care about, but without a strong federal push, they are not consistently and reliably collected.

None of this would be easy. Many federal and philanthropic efforts to empower communities have fizzled or otherwise gone awry. Information on its own won’t stimulate needed structural changes. It needs to be accompanied by resources, a strategy for shifting power relationships, and a patient investment in sustainable initiatives. But done well and wisely, a federal commitment to a re-envisioned application of data can help broaden and fortify a grassroots constituency to support the values the Biden administration hopes to bring to the fore.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 24, 2021 edition of Education Week as Democratize Data for Stronger Schools


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