Research & Analysis

Without Right Culture, Investments in Ed Data Systems 'No Use'

Even as they face a "tidal wave of demand" for a growing roster of data, the people running state data systems need to spend more time helping constituents create an "information culture" in education. That's the main message in a new report from the Education Commission of the States. The Commission, an interstate compact on education policy, grew out of a meeting among education leaders from eight states, convened specifically to discuss how states can foster this culture.

What is an information culture? According to the report, it's one that caters to the many and distinct needs of different groups, with an approach that emphasizes customer service. Among the stakeholders are teachers and school leaders, state and local policymakers, students and parents or guardians and specialized educators working with students with special needs.

For example, an answer to the question, what educational programs or teaching practices are most effective, matters to teachers and school leaders who want to improve their current programs or find new ones, as well as policymakers who want to maximize the return on their investments. Or the questions, are individual students making good progress, and if not, what interventions could get them back on track, matter to students, families and teachers for the purpose of intervention and those who are personalizing instruction for students with different needs to meet state standards and students' personal goals.

While participants in the meeting "acknowledged the dramatic improvements in state education data systems" and the substantial investments made by the feds and states to develop them, too few states have the kind of culture needed to use the data in them "to drive improvement."

A list of obstacles cited by the state leaders also offer solutions.

A lack of vision for what the data should accomplish and for whom can be addressed by using "the mantle of leadership to champion a coherent and compelling vision for education data." As an example, Maryland's Governor, Martin O'Malley, publicly advanced just such a vision. Now that state has a data governing board with representation from early childhood through college and the workforce.

Fragmentation among systems calls for states to break down the barriers between data silos. In Rhode Island, the state's data system, RI DataHUB, pulls data from among all four educational systems and also includes economic, health, civic engagement and justice data to understand the impacts challenges in those areas have on student performance.

Lack of capacity in agencies to turn the data into "actionable information" requires states to set up governance structures that can span multiple state agencies, for addressing common goals. Kentucky's Center for Statistics publishes data and reports "to help policymakers, agencies and the public make informed decisions about education." States also need to invest in "the people who collect and analyze the data" provide "formal guidance" to schools so teachers and site leaders know how to use the data in addressing students' individual needs.

Lack of access in use or reporting means that states need to communicate their information in ways that a lay audience will understand it and work with it. That includes giving students and their families access to personal data through password-protected portals or dashboards "that provide timely and useful information about...individual academic progress, along with recommendations on how to improve their performance." Utah families have long had a "virtual backpack" that contains their children's educational records and data. According to the report, "That backpack will remain with students throughout their education, and it gives parents or guardians a measure of control over who can see the information."

Finally, inadequate funding to "build and sustain and information culture" needs to be replaced with "consistent and sustained investments of state funds." State budgets, the report noted, "can be among the clearest statements of states' priorities and values. Participants felt that budgets should reflect the importance of sustaining a culture of information and evidence."

As the report concluded, while states may have upgraded their data systems over the past 15 years and even "built bridges" among systems that sit in various state agencies, they could end up amounting to "less than the sum of their parts" until leaders take the helm "to build and sustain a culture of information and evidence."

The full 16-page report is openly available on the Education Commission of the States website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.