Ed-Tech Policy Reporter's Notebook

Improved Access to Rising Tide of Data Is Urged

By Caroline Hendrie — December 13, 2005 4 min read
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The K-12 education system is awash in data as never before. But if all that information is going to add up to anything, then computerized school data systems need to become much more accessible to educators in the trenches.

That message was among the themes to emerge from a conference here this month for architects of K-12 data systems from the public and private sectors. The conference, billed as Data Systems and Instructional Improvement: There Is Much More to Do!, brought together state and district administrators, university researchers, and company leaders to discuss how the rising tide of digital data can be used to improve classroom instruction.

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If test results and other student information are available for analysis through easy-to-use data tools, they can improve everything from identifying individual students’ learning needs to allocating schoolwide resources, said conference keynote speaker Jeffrey C. Wayman, a researcher from Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Social Organization of Schools.

But too often, he said, such data languish in central repositories, used for little but accountability reporting.

“Data have been like a roach motel,” he said. “Data check in, they just don’t check out.”

The Dec. 1-2 conference comes amid a proliferation of data spurred by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. States have had to institute complex, test-based accountability systems as part of carrying out the law’s mandates on raising student achievement.

The federally funded North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, whose work is conducted by the nonprofit Learning Point Associates of Naperville, Ill., sponsored the gathering.

With the push to meet NCLB mandates, the lines are blurring between the three main types of school data systems in use, Mr. Wayman said.

He defines those as student-information systems, which tend to feature only current-year data and are used for day-to-day tasks such as attendance and scheduling; assessment systems used for rapid scoring of periodic, locally administered tests; and data warehouses, which typically are used for storing and analyzing multiyear data, but not for collecting and managing them on a daily basis.

Yet even though more-integrated systems are emerging, he said, “we don’t have one killer system that does everything.”

Mr. Wayman and other participants stressed that most educators lack the know-how to make use of contemporary data-analysis tools. “System capacity far outweighs educator capacity, and that gap is growing,” he said.

Anthony Evers, Wisconsin’s deputy superintendent of public instruction, blamed at least some of that gap on the No Child Left Behind Act.

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Since the law’s enactment, he said, his state has had to rebuild its technology infrastructure to comply with the statute’s reporting demands, diverting resources from what had been its top educational technology priority: training teachers to use computers in the classroom.

“NCLB came along and hijacked that effort,” Mr. Evers said. “And if we don’t return to that, we’ll be in trouble.”

Other educators suggested that the federal law has been a boon to data-driven decisionmaking, or D3M for short. “No Child Left Behind has been a great thing for data analysis,” said David M. Chiszar, the director of assessment for Illinois’ 19,000-student Naperville School District 203.

Arie van der Ploeg, a senior researcher at Learning Point Associates, agreed that the law was generally “a good thing” that is generating “a lot of intelligence about data.” Yet the field has a long way to go, he stressed, before systems capture such data as “what individual teachers do well or not” and then act on the information consistently to improve teaching and learning.

One purpose of the conference was to let public school officials trade notes with private vendors over how to get more out of big-ticket data initiatives.

Leo Bohman, the vice president of applications development at SPSS Inc., a Chicago-based provider of data-analysis software and services, urged educators to do their homework by clarifying their needs before issuing requests for proposals from vendors.

“I can’t respond very effectively with an RFP saying, ‘Here’s all the data we have, tell me what you can do,’ ” he said.

Mark Williams, the president of Executive Intelligence Inc., based in Lakewood, Colo., said the data-integration company had worked to get one district’s information out of “data jail,” only to have the information end up in “administrator jail,” never to be seen or used by teachers.

“It was disappointing for us,” Mr. Williams said. “Their goal was not to improve their district; it was to appear to improve their district.”

While acknowledging the need for schools to make better use of evolving data-analysis tools, educators cautioned that systems designers must not forget the human element.

“Hopefully, that’s been my part of it,” said Jim Walters, the principal of the 500-student Bayless Intermediate School in the St. Louis suburb of Bayless, Mo., “to remind them that if they don’t involve the teachers and the community, it isn’t going to work.”

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