Opinion
IT Infrastructure & Management Opinion

Education as a Data-Driven Enterprise

By Laura Sanford — March 21, 2011 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 4 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the Data Quality Campaign as part of a larger organization. The Data Quality Campaign is a Washington-based nonprofit group that promotes and tracks the use of education data in policymaking.

We all agree our nation’s future success depends on the ability of our students to compete and achieve in the global economy. For the United States to remain a world leader, we must ensure that our students graduate from high school prepared for the future challenges of continuing education and the workplace. But, frankly, we will not succeed in transporting every child to that destination if we don’t invest in better data to guide our education policies and practices.

No one is watching this move toward using data to improve student achievement more closely than America’s business community. We know firsthand that no organization—for profit, nonprofit, governmental—can reach its goals without data to inform its decisions at every point. Our future hinges on the ability of our schools to produce the talent and leadership that our companies will require in the next generation. Business leaders see the value of data in our own worlds and know how promising it can be when data is put to use to make real and positive change. Data brings to light our successes and failures. We can’t afford to not use this information—in the corporate world and the education sector.

The importance of data is a key topic for the policymakers, educators, and business and community leaders gathered this week in Washington for the Building a Grad Nation Summit. As the summit aims to inspire a national movement to reach the goal of a 90 percent high school graduation rate by 2020, it is clear that much recent progress has been made, thanks to a greater commitment at multiple levels—local, state, and federal—to creating a more data-driven education system. Attaining the double-digit growth necessary to reach our goal will be closely tied to fully implementing and utilizing data systems to foster individual and collective student achievement.

The last five years have seen unprecedented progress at the state level in building data systems that collect rich and vital information on student academic progress—from the courses taken and grades received to assessment scores and attendance rates. Almost every state now has the technical infrastructure to collect high-quality data; however, most states don’t fully utilize this information. To fully leverage the systems in place, we need to change from a culture of collecting data for compliance and evaluation to a culture of using data for constant student improvement. As Aimee Guidera, the director of the Data Quality Campaign, says, “We need to use data as a flashlight, not a hammer.”

Our country still does a better job of tracking a package than it does a student, but we're on the cusp of transformation."

As a new white paper—commissioned by AT&T and written by the Alliance for Excellent Education, Civic Enterprises, and the Data Quality Campaign—emphasized, three developments in education data are positive signs that the education sector is in the midst of this transformation into a data-driven enterprise: longitudinal student data; early-warning data and intervention systems; and college- and career-readiness indicators. It is clear that data collection and use don’t exist solely for the benefit of faceless statistical studies, but that they can have an immediate impact on those on the front lines: teachers, parents, and students.

Imagine the possibilities. A group of middle school teachers can develop individualized intervention programs for incoming students pre-identified as at risk for dropping out because effective data systems are in place to track attendance, behavior, and performance. Parent-teacher conferences can take on new meaning as teachers gain the ability to show parents how their child’s academic progress compares with that of others in the same grade at that school, in the same state, nationally, and even internationally.

The AT&T Foundation has monitored this topic very closely. We’ve seen a lot of improvement, but as with all of the important topics touched by this week’s summit, there is still work to be done. Our country still does a better job of tracking a package than it does a student, but we’re on the cusp of transformation. We must maintain the momentum. The data systems are now largely in place; the next frontier is making sure they are fully utilized to provide accurate, actionable, and consistent data—and to ensure it becomes part of the culture in our schools.

Ultimately, data serves as a vital gauge to inform our journey in preparing every child for success in the global economy. This information alone is not the answer; it is valuable only if used by those charting the trip. Students, educators, parents, and policymakers can’t be informed stakeholders unless they understand how to access this information and use it. This is our challenge: to build demand and use of this valuable information now that it has been collected. We will never meet the goals of the Grad Nation campaign unless we utilize all the information at our fingertips. What a lost opportunity if we do not.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 30, 2011 edition of Education Week

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