IT Infrastructure & Management Opinion

Data Rich But Information Poor

By William J. Slotnik & Martin Orland — May 06, 2010 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

How do you get a healthier chicken? Do you weigh it more often, or do you improve the quality of the feed? These questions, once the exclusive domain of agriculture, are now front and center in education reform circles.

Over the past decade, there has been a quiet revolution in the quality of education data systems. Forty-eight states can now track a student’s gains in academic performance from one year to the next, and many school districts are starting to link such gains with particular teachers. On top of this, the U.S. Department of Education will soon be making $250 million in federal stimulus funds available to states to make further improvements in their data systems, plus an additional $350 million to improve the quality of their tests.

But what will all this mean for improving learning in America’s classrooms? Will we just be doing a better and more accurate job of weighing the chicken, or will we be improving the quality of the feed? Leveraging this data-systems investment into sustainable gains in student achievement requires a parallel investment in strengthening the capacity to use data to improve teaching and increase learning. Without this capacity, student achievement will continue to stagnate, and we can all expect the next flurry of reports indicating that America’s schools are falling short.

Data just don’t leap off the page and convert themselves to high-quality, useful information."

Let’s look at what capacity-building needs to entail. At root, it has to develop the ability to convert “data,” which by itself is meaningless, into “information,” which can lead to better decisionmaking. This means systematically probing the patterns revealed by data about students, teachers, schools, and policies, so that educators and policymakers make more-informed judgments about student achievement and where and how to improve it.

Converting data to information is relevant at every level of the education system. Teachers, for example, need to know how to examine student performance if they are to understand which parts of their instruction are getting through, and to which students. They can then use this information to adapt their teaching strategies—revisiting areas of the curriculum that are not being learned, targeting attention, and incorporating new techniques for students having difficulties. Without this knowledge and capacity, the test data are useless to them.

Similarly, school principals need to be able to look at data across their buildings to learn which teachers and programs are having success and which are not. Using this knowledge as the basis for action, they can focus on the weakest subjects and instructors, make better classroom-support decisions, modify initiatives that are not working, and expand those that are.

District officials need to know how to convert data into information to better understand the reasons for differences in results and then make better decisions when addressing challenges, such as how to have the most impact with limited resources and which curriculum and technical-assistance strategies to use. State education leaders need this capacity to better determine initiatives to pursue in the state’s lowest-performing schools and districts, standards for entry into the teaching profession, and policies on school choice.

While these needs may seem patently obvious, study after study shows that most educators and policymakers make only the most limited use of data to inform their decisions. This is not surprising. Data just don’t leap off the page and convert themselves to high-quality, useful information.

It takes time and skill to organize, analyze, and interpret data properly, and these assets are in short supply in today’s educational landscape. The implications of raw data reports are rarely intuitive or obvious. For example, a school report may show higher achievement scores in one class compared with another. But to what extent is this due to better teaching, as opposed to the assignment of higher-achieving students? Principals, teachers, and parents need the capacity to answer this kind of question. Otherwise, such reports are largely useless for school improvement, or worse, lead to the wrong conclusions and actions.

Improving the nation’s schools requires breaking the pattern of being data-rich but information-poor. Building the capacity to convert data to information would give educators and policymakers the tools needed to probe for causes of underperformance, analyze the conditions that are contributing to varying levels of student achievement, and develop and implement improvement strategies based on these analyses. Teachers, administrators, and policymakers critically need these capacities. They are essential if we’re really serious about improving the feed, so that our students grow and succeed.

A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 2010 edition of Education Week as Data Rich But Information Poor


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Achievement Webinar
How To Tackle The Biggest Hurdles To Effective Tutoring
Learn how districts overcome the three biggest challenges to implementing high-impact tutoring with fidelity: time, talent, and funding.
Content provided by Saga Education
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
Reframing Behavior: Neuroscience-Based Practices for Positive Support
Reframing Behavior helps teachers see the “why” of behavior through a neuroscience lens and provides practices that fit into a school day.
Content provided by Crisis Prevention Institute
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Mathematics Webinar
Math for All: Strategies for Inclusive Instruction and Student Success
Looking for ways to make math matter for all your students? Gain strategies that help them make the connection as well as the grade.
Content provided by NMSI

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

IT Infrastructure & Management Leader To Learn From Through Wars, Tornadoes, and Cyberattacks, He's a Guardian of Student Privacy
Jun Kim, the technology director in Moore, Okla., works to make the most of innovations—without endangering student data.
11 min read
Jun Kim, Director of Technology for Moore Public Schools, center, leads a data privacy review meeting on Dec. 13, 2023 in Moore, Okla.
Jun Kim, director of technology for the Moore public schools in Moore, Okla., leads a data privacy review for staff.
Brett Deering for Education Week
IT Infrastructure & Management One Solution to Maintaining 1-to-1 Devices? Pay Students to Repair Them
Hiring students to help with the repair process is one way school districts are ensuring the sustainability of their 1-to-1 programs.
4 min read
Sawyer Wendt, a student intern for the Altoona school district’s IT department, repairs a Chromebook.
Sawyer Wendt, who's been a student intern for the Altoona district's tech department since junior year, is now studying IT software development in college.
Courtesy of Jevin Stangel, IT technician for the Altoona school district
IT Infrastructure & Management Schools Get Relief on Chromebook Replacements. Google Extends Device Support to 10 Years
Schools have typically had to replace Chromebooks every three to five years.
4 min read
Photo of teacher working with student on laptop computer.
iStock / Getty Images Plus
IT Infrastructure & Management What We Know About District Tech Leaders, in Charts
Male chief technology officers in K-12 tend to come from technological backgrounds while most female tech leaders are former teachers.
1 min read
Illustration concept of leadership, using wooden cut-out figures and arrows.
Liz Yap/Education Week via Canva