Opinion
Infrastructure Opinion

Data Rich But Information Poor

By William J. Slotnik & Martin Orland — May 06, 2010 3 min read

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

Events

Jobs The EdWeek Top School Jobs Virtual Career Fair
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
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.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
How to Power Your Curriculum With Digital Books
Register for this can’t miss session looking at best practices for utilizing digital books to support their curriculum.
Content provided by OverDrive
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.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Embracing Student Engagement: The Pathway to Post-Pandemic Learning
As schools emerge from remote learning, educators are understandably worried about content and skills that students would otherwise have learned under normal circumstances. This raises the very real possibility that children will face endless hours
Content provided by Newsela

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

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.
Sponsor
Infrastructure Whitepaper
2021 Best Practices Guide: Education Broadband
In this guide, we provide actionable steps, timelines, and tips to help you launch and sustain a successful student WiFi program.
Content provided by Kajeet
Infrastructure Remote and Hybrid Learning Are Declining. But the 'Homework Gap' Will Still Be a Problem
Schools are returning to in-person instruction, but students' connections to the internet at home remain spotty.
2 min read
Sam Urban Wittrock, left, an advance placement World History Teacher at W.W. Samuell High School, displays a wifi hot spot that are being handed out to students in Dallas on April 9, 2020. Dallas I.S.D. is handing out the devices along with wifi hotspots to students in need so that they can connect online for their continued education amid the COVID-19 health crisis.
Sam Urban Wittrock, left, an Advanced Placement World History Teacher at W.W. Samuell High School in Dallas, displays one of the Wi-Fi hotspots that were given to district students during the pandemic.
Tony Gutierrez/AP
Infrastructure 'Big Burden' for Schools Trying to Give Kids Internet Access
A year into the pandemic, millions of students remain without internet because of financial hurdles and logistical difficulties.
5 min read
Veronica Esquivel, 10, finishes her homework after her virtual school hours while her brother Isias Esquivel sits in front of the computer, Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021, at their residence in Chicago's predominantly Hispanic Pilsen neighborhood.
Veronica Esquivel, 10, finishes her homework after her virtual school hours while her brother Isias Esquivel sits in front of the computer, Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021, at their residence in Chicago's predominantly Hispanic Pilsen neighborhood.
Shafkat Anowar/AP
Infrastructure Q&A How to Expand Home Internet Connectivity for K-12 Students Over the Long Haul
One Florida district is mapping its region and prioritizing communities with the greatest economic needs for home internet access.
6 min read
This "heat map" generated by GIS technology uses progressively darker colors to illustrate the areas of Palm Beach County with the highest concentrations of families who lack home internet access.
This "heat map" generated by GIS technology uses progressively darker colors to illustrate the areas of Palm Beach County with the highest concentrations of families who lack home internet access.
Courtesy of Donna Goldstein