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IT Infrastructure & Management

Data Systems Set for Crucial Fund Infusion

$250 million in federal aid offers states opportunity to step up sophistication
By Michele McNeil — March 11, 2009 5 min read
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Buoyed by $250 million in federal stimulus funding that’s been set aside for data systems, some leading education number-crunchers say it’s time for states and districts to take the next step: figuring out how to use the information they collect on academic performance to improve student achievement.

Education data systems, long relegated to back offices in school districts and states, are now considered the backbone of education improvement efforts and figured prominently in President Barack Obama’s first major education address on March 10. (“Rigor, Rewards, Quality: Obama’s Education Aim,” this issue.)

“Far too few states have data systems like the one in Florida that keep track of a student’s education from childhood through college. And far too few districts are emulating the example of Houston and Long Beach, and using data to track how much progress a student is making and where that student is struggling,” Mr. Obama said in his speech to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

He went on to say that such strategies are “a resource that can help us improve student achievement. ... That’s why we’re making a major investment in this area [so] that we will cultivate a new culture of accountability in America’s schools.”

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act includes $250 million to the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences for competitive grants for statewide data systems—not just for K-12 information, but for higher education and workforce information, too. The department plans to award half that money in June or July, with the remainder in September and October.

The focus on data doesn’t end there. Perhaps more important, data experts argue, is the stimulus legislation’s requirement that each state establish a longitudinal data system and take steps to improve the collection and use of data.

That requirement is one of four “assurances” governors must make when they apply for their share of the $53.6 billion State Fiscal Stabilization Fund. In fact, new guidelines issued this month by the department indicate that a state won’t get 33 percent of its full share until the department approves the state’s plan to meet those assurances. (“Ed. Dept. Outlines Conditions for Stimulus Use,” this issue.)

Advocates of a central role for data collection in education say that condition is crucial because some states are farther along than others in building and improving their data systems.

“That’s really big. It’s as large as the $250 million because it sends this message politically to states that this matters,” said Aimee Guidera, the executive director of the Austin, Texas-based Data Quality Campaign, a national collaborative effort that tries to spur states to improve the collection and use of education data.

Since the launch of the campaign in 2005, it has received $3 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. On March 10, the foundation announced it was investing another $4.8 million over the next three years to improve data quality. (The foundation also provides funding for Education Week’s Diplomas Count report.)

Governors Take Heed

Governors are already getting the message—most recently from the Obama administration.

“They [the administration] have made it clear that longitudinal data is an important aspect,” said Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell, a Democrat. He said his state’s next big challenge is getting higher education institutions to compile better information, make it publicly available, and link it to the K-12 system and general education outcomes.

Mr. Rendell, who spoke to a Data Quality Campaign conference March 10 in Washington, said that Pennsylvania is on track to link its early-childhood, K-12, and higher education systems in one database by 2010.

Move to Improve

The Data Quality Campaign last week issued 10 new recommendations to improve state data systems:

1. Link state K–12 data systems with early learning, higher education, workforce, social services, and other state data.

2. Create stable, sustained support for data systems.

3. Develop governance structures to guide data collection and use.

4. Build state data warehouses that integrate student, staff, financial, and facility data.

5. Provide stakeholders timely access to the information they need while protecting student privacy.

6. Create progress reports with individual student data for educators, parents, and students.

7. Create reports that include longitudinal statistics on school systems and groups of students to guide school-, district- and state-level improvement efforts.

8. Develop a research agenda and collaborate with universities, researchers, and others on the data.

9. Promote practices, including professional development and credentialing, to ensure that educators know how to access, analyze, and use data appropriately.

10. Raise awareness of available data and ensure that all key stakeholders, including state policymakers, know how to access and analyze the information.

Source: Data Quality Campaign

Especially as the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act looms, data will become a much bigger player in the debate, said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee.

“But we’ve got to move to good data,” he told the data conference.

As states eye uses for data funding in the stimulus, Dane Linn of the National Governors Association in Washington said they need to focus on professional development—figuring out who manages the data systems, how teachers and school leaders can use the information to improve instruction, and how states and districts can come up with better accountability measures.

“Without the professional development, the data systems are of little or no value,” said Mr. Linn, the education division director of the group’s Center for Best Practices.

And little bit of money can go a long way.

T. Kenneth James, the Arkansas education commissioner, said that the statewide data system in Arkansas—which now has all 10 elements that the Data Quality Campaign says are necessary for a high-quality system—was built with an initial $3 million federal grant. (The state is getting a second grant of $5 million that isn’t part of the stimulus measure.)

Mr. James said his state would go after grants from the stimulus legislation and tackle the next challenge: better integrating the data with higher education.

Sophistication Varies

States are at different points of sophistication and development with their data systems.

According to the latest progress report from the DQC, 42 states can now report uniform graduation-rate data; all but two states can match state test records for individual students from year to year; and 29 states can track individual students’ college-readiness test scores.

The most difficult data point continues to be establishing teacher-identifier systems to match student-achievement data with individual teachers. (“State Progress on Data Seen as Threatened,” December 10, 2008.)

But U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has made it clear that data systems must include teacher data as well as student data.

“We need great data systems that can track children throughout their education trajectory,” Mr. Duncan said March 11 in a call to reporters, adding that those data systems must be able to track achievement in relation to individual teachers, and then teachers back to their schools of education.

Ms. Guidera, of the DQC, said states will seek stimulus money for a host of purposes that can help improve their data systems—from software and computers to hiring people.

“It’s not just about the technology pieces,” she said. “It’s about how do we think differently about communicating the data—how do you market this to parents, how do you access it, how do you analyze it?”

A version of this article appeared in the March 18, 2009 edition of Education Week as Data Systems Set for Crucial Fund Infusion


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