A $3.5 million grant from the federal government will help transform a handful of states into showcase examples of how state education departments should operate to meet the tough new demands of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

The money is being given to the Education Leaders Council (ELC), a network of educational leaders working to advance school reform efforts. In turn, ELC will help train state and local school leaders how to track, analyze, and report student test-score data and other information to improve instruction.

Several states—including Kentucky, Massachusetts, and Indiana—have publicly declared that the requirements of NCLB are virtually impossible to implement.

The law asks schools to do several new things starting this September, including testing students every year in grades three through eight, showing adequate yearly progress (AYP), reporting more detailed data—and, of course, they can’t leave a single child behind.

“You were sort of able to bury your low-performing students in your average before,” said Brian Jones, vice president for communications and policy at ELC. But schools can’t do this anymore, he said. Not even special-education students are exempt from the law’s requirements.

Furthermore, the extra testing is going to produce more data than schools are used to seeing, Jones said. Analyzing this data is essential to helping schools meet their AYP goals, but most teachers and administrators are not skilled at data analysis.

If schools fail to meet these requirements, they risk losing federal funding. “There are definite penalties now that didn’t exist before,” Jones said.

Consequently, many school leaders across the country are feeling overwhelmed by the new demands and frustrated by what they perceive as a lack of guidance from the U.S. Department of Education (ED). But this initiative, called Following the Leaders, aims to show state and school education leaders that meeting the new requirements is possible.

“Seeing is believing,” U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige said. “This project will show our whole nation what is possible when the essential elements of reform are put in place.”

Through the initiative, participating states will receive assistance with how to report student data according to the new requirements and how to analyze the data to meet the required adequate yearly progress.

“It’s an empowerment thing. It’s giving them the tools they need,” Jones said.

ELC will help answer questions such as: How do you crunch information? How do you make intelligent and informed decisions? What do you need to do to meet the standards?

“There’s so much stuff that schools have to do right now—a lot has to do with reporting data,” Jones said. “AYP is still the absolute largest thing schools are struggling with.”

The Following the Leaders project is set for rapid deployment, Jones said. Applications for states interested in participating are due July 19. The first six states will be selected by Aug. 5. Projects in those states will be implemented immediately, to be ready in time for the new school year.

“Right now, we have 30 states that want to do this,” Jones said. “We need willing and wired participants—and the willing part is not the problem.”

Only a portion of the schools in participating states actually will take part in the program. Each state is asked to identify 15 to 90 schools they want to work with. Participating schools already must have the necessary technology infrastructure in place.

Schools will get software, training, and the philosophical guidance needed essentially to break old habits, Jones said. The initiative combines the products and services of several organizations in addition to ELC.

Participating schools will receive free access to web-based software from Project Achieve, a division of Achievement Technologies Inc. This standards-management software focuses on using student assessment data to improve education; it has components that teachers, principals, administrators, and parents can use.

AccountabilityWorks, a nonprofit organization with expertise in standards, assessments, and accountability, will provide the policy assistance. The Teacher Advancement Program, which was developed by the Milken Family Foundation, will help states attract, retain, and motivate talented teachers. Lastly, the entire project will be evaluated by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a private foundation active in education reform and educational research.

The funding for this initiative comes the Fund for the Improvement of Education, under ED’s Office of Educational Research and Improvement.

Denis Doyle, chief academic officer of SchoolNet, makers of comparable data warehousing and analysis tools, said the program excludes competition and free enterprise, a highly-touted mantra of the Bush administration.

“This grant was made so it goes exclusively to ELC and then exclusively to Project Achieve. It essentially excludes other projects,” Doyle said. “We’re impressed with ELC’s energy and vision; we’re just disappointed that Mr. Paige didn’t expand the horizon of this.”

Nonetheless, schools need guidance implementing the requirements of NCLB and learning how to use data more effectively.

“It’s a badly needed effort,” said Michael Hickey, professor at Towson State University, who trains Maryland teachers to use data to improve student achievement. “Maryland is on the front edge of assessment and accountability, and [even] we have a great distance to go yet.”

John Bailey, ED’s director of educational technology, is a true believer in the use of data to improve education.

New York City reduced crime by using data-driven decision making, Bailey said. Each police precinct was held accountable for crime that occurred in its neighborhood. After a while, police were able to project crime patterns and trends so they could work proactively.

Data also have helped the economy recover from economic downturns faster, Bailey said, because company executives can predict their problems and act accordingly.

“If you can use these systems to identify crime trends and economic slowdowns and … respond to them faster, how do we help educators use these systems to improve education?” Bailey said.

Bailey questions why schools haven’t started using data-driven decision making already.

“Why did it take a new law to require this?” he asked rhetorically. “The business sector never needed a law that said you need to have data-driven decision making.”

Bailey acknowledged that the tools to make data-driven decisions are more available, affordable, and sophisticated than in the past, but he said part of the problem is that school officials look at data as things that are just reported, not used.

Links:

Education Leaders Council
http://www.educationleaders.org

No Child Left Behind
http://www.nochildleftbehind.gov

U.S. Department of Education
http://www.ed.gov

Project Achieve
http://www.projectachieve.com

Teacher Advancement Program
http://www.mff.org/tap/

Thomas B. Fordham Foundation
http://www.edexcellence.net

SchoolNet
http://www.schoolnet.com

Using Data to Improve Student Achievement
http://www.mdk12.org/data/course