Early Childhood

Early-Years Data Push a Touchy Topic in Delaware

By Julie Blair — March 11, 2014 7 min read
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Delaware is launching a plan this month to collect data on 8,500 babies, toddlers, and preschoolers and post the information on its existing Web-based databank. The project is part of an ambitious—and, to some observers, troubling—effort to link individuals’ educational information from birth through graduate school.

An expansion of the state’s Education Data Warehouse and Insight Dashboard, the project is financed with federal Race to the Top money and a new, $1.5 million grant from the Austin-based Michael & Susan Dell Foundation.

The system aims to arm families, teachers, principals, and state policymakers with evidence-based data for decisionmaking at many levels, its advocates say. Its expansion to the youngest children could be up and running as early as the next school year, officials say.

“Better data means more-informed decisions,” said Patrick J. Bush, the director of technology resources and data development for the Delaware education department. “If we’re able to proactively catch a problem very, very early, we’re able to address it that much quicker.”

Cautions Raised

But detractors warn that the system as currently envisioned—which the Dell Foundation and Delaware policymakers predict will become a national template—could compromise sensitive personal information and threaten students’ futures by labeling them.

Such an effort “puts a whole lot of very personal, previously private, and potentially dangerous information” into the hands of government and third parties, which should not be trusted with it, said Evan Queitsch, a member of the Delaware Education Reform Coalition. The Wilmington-based advocacy group is watching the issue of data collection in Delaware.

“Teachers can negatively stereotype students based on this sort of data, and it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy,” added Leonie Haimson, the executive director of the New York City-based Class Size Matters, an advocacy group that monitors data mining, among other issues.

Moreover, Ms. Haimson worries families won’t have access to the database or have an ability to correct information, if necessary.

Kyle Snow, the director of the Center for Applied Research at the National Association for the Education of Young Children, based in Washington, generally believes data can be useful, but warns that care must be taken not to stigmatize students based on that information.

“We must also be sure that any individual data point is not overread,” he said. “I am very concerned that single data points, such as scores on an assessment tool, can come to define whole children,” he said.

Proponents, however, counter that such a data system offers important, positive outcomes and will be built with parental input, and that the information will be safeguarded by three levels of security—from individual school districts as well as state and federal law.

“Fundamentally, we want to be about supporting opportunities for our kids,” said Harriet Dichter, the executive director of Delaware’s office of early learning, which is funded through the state’s education department. “To do that, we need to have appropriate information.”

She added that “we fully understand the sensitive issues here.”

Long-Term Effort

Delaware became interested in mining data about five years ago, when policymakers sought to understand college- and career-readiness rates as well as a host of other assessments, said Donna Johnson, the executive director of the state board of education.

The state won a $119 million federal Race to the Top grant in 2010, and that provided the money, Ms. Johnson said, to expand databases housing limited student information. It was renamed the K-12 Education Data Warehouse and Insight System, and $3.5 million of the Race to the Top funding was used to revamp the system.

Today, that database collects student biographical information, including immigration status and admission to foster care, as well as class schedules, attendance and discipline records, assessment scores, grades and credits earned, and even photographs. The data are housed internally, on state networks, and administered by technology specialists at the state education department.

In addition, when the state won a federal $50 million Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grant in 2011, administrators agreed to allocate $435,000 to add early-childhood data to the K-12 dashboard, Ms. Johnson said.

The federal government’s expectations that states use the Race to the Top money in part to enhance early-childhood data systems lined up perfectly with Delaware’s goals.

Already, Delaware has the tool to collect information on babies, toddlers, and preschoolers, Ms. Dichter of the office of early learning said. Its Teaching Strategies Gold assessment uses teacher observation to determine how children progress on 38 objectives within 10 areas of development and learning, said Kai-lee Berke, the chief product officer for the Bethesda, Md.-based Teaching Strategies, LLC, and author of the exam.

Currently, 60 percent of kindergarten teachers in Delaware administer the exam—and all kindergarten teachers will do so as of the 2015-16 school year—as do 75 percent of the 1,300 early-childhood-education programs that participate in the state’s day-care and pre-K ratings system, known as Delaware Star.

Preschool and kindergarten teachers who have information about their incoming classes can tailor their teaching and become aware of challenges, Ms. Dichter said. Families, too, can benefit, she said, as they’ll have evidence to build a case for, say, special education.

Right now, access for teachers has priority, Ms. Dichter said. They will receive information only about their own classrooms.

Ms. Dichter envisions educators sitting down with families and distributing data. They’ll look at assessments, discuss future plans, and identify any gaps in services.

Parents likely won’t be able to see the dashboard itself, added Mr. Bush, the technology director for the state education department, but could do so upon request.

That is the case with the K-12 dashboard: It is available to teachers, principals, districts, and the state, he said. Parents can view their child’s information through a parallel information system called the Home Access Center, which showcases grades, assignments, and biographical information, such as emergency contacts.

“If you put too much data out there, it won’t be relevant to [parents]or they won’t understand it,” Mr. Bush said.

The state is still determining what type of access other stakeholders, such as principals and guidance counselors, should have to the dashboard’s early-childhood-education data, Ms. Dichter said.

National Profile

All of its data efforts have made Delaware a standout nationally, Ms. Johnson of the state board argued.

For example, the Data Quality Campaign, a Washington-based organization that encourages the productive and secure use of data in education, rated Delaware as one of only two states—Arkansas was the other—to score a perfect 10 on its “Data for Action 2013" survey.

But Delaware’s data system—and its policies surrounding access to it—make parent and technology blogger Mike Oboryshko upset.

“The only way to prevent data from being misused is not collecting it in the first place,” said Mr. Oboryshko, who lives outside Wilmington and who has children in 4th and 9th grades.

Delaware officials say there are steep security walls in place.

First, the deployment of metrics to the dashboard will be decided locally by school districts, and two security experts—one primary and one alternative—will oversee protection of the data, Mr. Bush said.

The state, too, has been mindful, Ms. Johnson said. Privacy concerns were hashed out when the K-12 system was launched, and a data-governance handbook outlined how data are shared and protected.

“The expectation is that the same robust precautions and standards of practice will be utilized with this project,” Ms. Johnson said.

Finally, the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act will apply, said Ms. Dichter of the state’s early-learning office. That law prevents access to student data by anyone except “school officials with legitimate education interest” without written consent from parents.

Still, “there need to be limitations on this type of report,” said Khaliah Barnes, the director of the Washington-based Education Privacy Information Center’s Student Privacy Project, which advocates the responsible use of data. “Parents need to be able to challenge these records.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 12, 2014 edition of Education Week as Delaware Enters Tricky Territory With Early-Childhood Data Push


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