By 2007, schools across the country will use electronic data management systems for their decision making and will submit data electronically to the federal government, according to a five-year strategic plan crafted by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) to fulfill the goals of the new education law.

The plan is a broad overview of how ED will implement the goals of the No Child Left Behind Act over the next five years. In addition, ED will issue a more specific one-year plan each year.

Achievement and accountability are the main thrusts of the new education law. Schools now must test students’ math and language skills each year in grades three through eight. Schools also must prove how the dollars they spend are improving student achievement.

To help schools manage and use this new information, ED plans to offer technical assistance to schools to help them develop robust school accountability systems.

John Bailey, ED’s director of education technology, said the department will do this by letting educators know what characteristics these accountability systems should have and what products are available that meet these criteria.

The accountability systems should enable educators to analyze school data by combining different indicators such as students’ test scores, ethnic background, and access to educational technology, Bailey said.

“There are a number of products available … that can help school districts do this,” he said.

Bailey said that in Pennsylvania, where he served as the state’s ed-tech director before joining ED, the state’s accountability system helped him identify schools that had never received a competitive technology grant. After looking into the problem, state officials discovered that these schools needed extra help writing grants.

The state’s software-based accountability system “helped us target our time, resources, and focus on schools that needed it the most,” he said.

Bailey added that “the irony is that business has been doing this for the past five years or so.” Company chief executives use data on a daily basis to manage their business operations, he said, and their data use has been so effective that recessions are getting shorter and shorter, because CEOs can identify them and respond faster. Bailey wants to see the same thing happen in education.

“If we can start identifying student achievement gaps early on in a child’s development, that is going to make a tremendous difference by the time that child makes it to high school,” he said.

Typically, by the time schools get their standardized test score results back, it’s too late to help underachievers. “In the same way these accountability systems have changed business, I really think they have the power to do the same thing in education,” Bailey said.

A federal data management system

ED also plans to build an accountability system at the federal level to improve its use and collection of data from states and local school districts.

The No Child Left Behind Act allocates $10 million so ED can build a performance-based data management system, said Michael Petrilli, special assistant in the department’s Office of the Deputy Assistant.

With this system, department officials hope to reduce the burden that data collection places on school administrators. “We drive people crazy at the state and local level,” Petrilli said.

ED often asks states and school districts to provide the same information repeatedly, he said. Now, its goal is to ask for information only once and consolidate this information into a single database, from which it can be retrieved as necessary.

In addition, ED wants to clean up the data it is collecting, Petrilli said. To do this, the department will reduce the types of data it collects to a more manageable number, and it will make sure everyone is using the same terms and definitions for the data.

“It’s more of an organization and cultural change than a technology project,” Petrilli said. “We’ve got all of these overlapping definitions and terms.”

However, using common language is especially important for transferring the data electronically, another goal ED stated in its five-year strategic plan.

“Whatever data we ask for, and whatever format we ask for it in, we want to make sure it is already compatible with what states and local folks are already doing,” Petrilli said.

Bailey said ED most likely will look toward existing data transfer systems, such as the Schools Interoperability Framework or the Instructional Management Systems (IMS) Project, both of which use extensible markup language (XML) to transfer student data between different software applications.

ED hopes that submitting data electronically will save schools from a great deal of paperwork. “We are trying to reduce the burden on state and local partners,” Petrilli said.

The department will measure the number of hours it takes educators to collect, process, and submit various data as “burden hours,” he said. In 2001, educators across the country spent 40.5 million burden hours fulfilling ED’s data requests.

“By 2007, we are aiming to get that down to about 20 million burden hours,” he said.

What Works Clearinghouse

ED also plans to build an easy-to-use online database of educational research and best practices, called the What Works Clearinghouse. Department officials hope this service will make it easier for educators to understand and apply thorough research and proven best practices to their teaching.

ERIC—the Educational Resources Information Center—currently publishes all education research that exists, but it’s hard for educators to distinguish between good and bad content, Petrilli said. The What Works Clearinghouse will attempt to make research more accessible to educators in the field, he said.

In addition to these projects, technology will play a key role in implementing other parts of the No Child Left Behind Act, Bailey said, including helping early readers, providing professional development alternatives, and recruiting and retaining new teachers.

“The strategic plan outlines very different goals. And it’s up to us to think about how technology can help us achieve those different goals,” Bailey said.

Related links:
ED’s Strategic Plan 2002-2007
http://www.ed.gov/pubs/stratplan2002-07/index.html

Schools Interoperability Framework
http://www.sifinfo.org

Instructional Management Systems Project
http://www.imsproject.org

Educational Resources Information Center
http://www.eric.ed.gov