At the Top of the National Education Agenda: Longitudinal Data?

Data’s day has come. That’s the message that was conveyed at Tuesday’s Data Quality Campaign (DQC) event in Washington, D.C. With $250 million in federal stimulus dollars earmarked for the development of statewide longitudinal data systems that can track student progress over the course of their educational careers, data is now squarely on the national agenda.

Underscoring this point was U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who told the 400+ crowd of policymakers and education officials that “data is the foundation to driving reform” and that we need to “use the data to talk about the good, the bad, the ugly.” He cited Chicago’s success in using a data-driven “early warning system” for ninth graders—the population they found most likely to drop out—that pinpoints which students are struggling and require intervention.

Representative George Miller of California called on the education sector to wake up to the importance of data in the modern workplace. To paraphrase: “I know that many people in the field regard data as an enemy. But when it’s properly presented and when people are given skills to use it and know the purpose behind it, then it becomes your friend.”

For the past three years DQC has been building up to this moment. At the heart of their campaign are “10 essential elements” state longitudinal data systems should have, including student enrollment, graduation, and dropout statistics. Forty-eight states now have five or more of the 10 elements in place.

As for what kind of information longitudinal data systems would reveal, conference speakers had a lengthy wish list:

• Pennsylvania Governor Edward Rendell talked about using data to determine the impact of full-day Kindergarten across different populations (More than half of Pennsylvania’s kindergartners are in full-day programs.)
• Education Trust President Kati Haycock advocated going deeper on data where students and teachers are linked. (Florida is an early adopter in this area)
• Reggie Robinson, president/CEO of the Kansas Board of Regents and chair of the State Higher Education Execution Officers, wants to dig into questions around the alignment of K-12 and higher education—with each other and with his state’s economic needs.

And that’s just for starters.

In discussing how to best reap the rewards of data systems, one challenge stood out in particular: getting teachers on board. Dane Linn from the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices recommended that stimulus dollars go toward professional training educators to translate data into classroom practice. But the issue goes deeper than that, said Kati Haycock. “Practitioners have been conditioned to think that what they do doesn’t matter,” she said. “Sending more data reports and providing professional development won’t change that.” For her, the key is transforming the culture of the profession.

Toward that end, Mike Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, spoke about the importance of involving users—especially teachers at the classroom level—in conversations about developing data systems. “If not, we’re wasting our money,” he said.

-- Amy Poftak