Education, Data and the Communications War


Education, Data and the Communications War

Thursday, October 7th, 2010 - 6:00
Wednesday, October 6, 2010 - 17:04
Bad news, good news. The latest GAO report about Recovery Act management paints a bleak picture about progress in educational reform at the local level. But the GAO's findings don't tell the whole story.

The Obama administration seems genuinely concerned with education (as opposed to just paying lip service).  In fact, in order to get their portion of the budget stabilization funds for education, governors had to agree to pursue four significant areas of education reform.  The four: 1) Increase teacher effectiveness 2) move toward common standards and assessments 3) turn around low-performing schools and 4) set up longitudinal data systems, ultimately designed to track individual student progress from early education to career.

Regular readers will know that we were delighted to see states pushed to reform their educational data systems. But the latest GAO report on ARRA management didn't make for happy reading.

It surveyed a “nationally representative sample” of local education agencies (mostly school districts) to gauge the use and impact of funds at the local level and to see what they thought about the pace of reform.  Even in the reform area that looked the best – the one focused on increasing teacher effectiveness – only 13 percent of survey respondents said that significant progress had been made. Some 28 percent said the progress had been “moderate.”

Longitudinal data systems had the least positive response of the four areas. Only 2 percent of the folks answering the survey said significant progress had been made. Another 7 percent said the progress had been moderate. These are remarkably low numbers, in the world we inhabit. It's always seemed to us that you can get more than ten percent of any group to say nearly anything. But the GAO got less than ten percent of its group claiming something as interpretable as "progress." (See p. 40 of the report for information on the other areas.)

One reason for this particularly bleak response is that the money to build these data systems falls short of the desire to build them. Most of the stabilization money went to preventing school layoffs and otherwise protecting education budgets. Twenty states received part of the $250 million in stimulus money specifically designed to build up educational data systems, but that left many of the rest still short of funds to fulfill the promises they’ve made.

It struck us that perhaps we were overreacting to the GAO's data, so we turned to the well-respected  Data Quality Campaign to see whether the GAO report was alarming to that organization. Turned out the answer was no. They continue to be very optimistic about the progress being made. The issue, says Paige Kowalski, the stimulus expert there, is that the GAO focused on the local level, and the real progress, thus far, is happening in the states. “A couple of years ago, you couldn’t engage governors' aides and school chiefs in this conversation," she says. "It was an IT project. The stimulus funding has elevated the conversation to a much higher level. This is now a high priority for all the states.” Kowalski (photo at left) says legislation connected to data systems and provisions of data use has skyrocketed in the last several years.

In Georgia, a winner in the second round of the Race to the Top, every school district has a student information system with a portal for teachers to log in. Louisiana, according to Kowalski, has reorganized its Department of Education to function as a service provider for districts, with the department organized by educational goals and the state staff working to help local districts use data to improve education. “There’s a feedback mechanism up and down the vertical chain,” she says.

As the states work toward fulfilling their promises to get longitudinal data systems in place and operating by September 2011, much more attention needs to go to getting the message out to the local districts. “There’s a huge disconnect right now for a lot of reasons," says Kowalksi. "We’re losing the communications war. We need to get states thinking about how they’re going to use the data and what value added it’s going to provide to the districts. They need to figure out ways to get their longitudinal data back into the hands of teachers.”