Data-driven decision making and the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) were the focus of a conference held April 8 in Washington, D.C.

Sponsored by the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), the event featured national lawmakers as well as educators and other stakeholders who have a vested interest in seeing children succeed in the classroom.

A primary emphasis at the conference: how to go beyond the mere collection of data to developing effective methods for using those data to advance student achievement.

For years, schools have collected student achievement data primarily by way of standardized tests, which students take as required on an annual or bi-annual basis. These days, educators say, those metrics–while still important–provide neither time nor detail enough to address the individual needs of students, a problem compounded by the accountability demands set forth under NCLB.

Instead of relying on summative assessments merely as a rite of passage to the next grade level, school leaders now say they need more comprehensive data that can be accessed incrementally–anytime, anywhere–so teachers and parents can intervene before their students fall behind.

Helen Soule, special assistant in the Office of Postsecondary Education for the U.S. Department of Education, called data-driven decision making “a powerful tool for improving student achievement” that is essential in meeting the rigorous demands of the federal law.

“You need at your fingertips timely, relevant, accurate, and continuous access to all data,” Soule said.

That’s what administrators at Community Consolidated School District 15 in suburban Chicago set out to have through a partnership with IBM Corp. The result: a data-warehousing solution that now tracks more than 249 variables on everything from student achievement to school bus service and classroom cleanliness. According to retired district superintendent John Conyers, Big Blue built the platform using one simple guiding principle: “If it moves, measure it.”

Aside from monitoring student test scores incrementally in the classroom, the district also tracks student demographics and churns out other data indirectly related to learning, such as school lunch status and the timeliness of bus routes. District officials are so enamored with data, they even use their current information system to evaluate the quality of custodial service in classrooms. The better shape the rooms are in, Conyers reasoned, the fewer distractions there are to keep children from reaching their full potential.

Leading indicators

Before data-driven decision making and the advent of anytime, anywhere assessment, Conyers said schools routinely used “lagging indicators” that assessed student knowledge too far down the learning curve to allow for any significant improvements.

“No organization we know [of] can improve itself using lagging indicators,” he said. “The key motivating factor is to get leading indicators.”

To do this will require a sea change in education, especially among the teaching ranks, where instructors now must learn to speak the language of research and must integrate data seamlessly into the instructional process. To ease this transition, Conyers suggested that school personnel enter into business agreements with leading technology companies, in which solutions providers supply the technology and training necessary to meet the school system’s needs.

“Organizations need to develop critical friends,” Conyers said, with parents and students as their perceived customer base.

But it isn’t always easy for schools, especially those that have fallen behind, to implement dynamic changes. To move teachers away from an environment of perennial paper-pushing and into one of intense number crunching, administrators first must convince them of the value of data in smaller, more meaningful doses.

“It’s like watching what you eat,” said Peter Robertson, chief information officer for the Cleveland Municipal School District. “That’s how you lose weight. … NCLB is sparking an important conversation about what data to use [to raise] student achievement. To get to the next level, we’ve got to grab hold of what’s going on in the classroom.”

Being prepared

Achieving this new data-driven culture in schools will require professional development. No matter how comprehensive and technologically advanced a school system’s data pipe might be, the information is only as good as the educators whose job it is to turn these data into change.

Karlene McCormick-Lee, assistant superintendent for the Clark County Schools in Nevada–the nation’s sixth largest district, with 268,000 students and 25,000 employees spread across 277 school buildings–said the problem is especially tricky in those systems that have a very diverse population of schools.

In Clark County, where learning environments range from a K-8 school with 10 students to an urban high school with an enrollment of more than 4,000, administrators quickly learned the cost of making data-driven decisions. It cost Clark County in excess of $147,000 to train key personnel on the district’s new data infrastructure, furnished by solutions providers Educational Testing Service Inc. and the Pulliam Group. That’s not exactly a small price tag, considering most educators still are coming to terms with the concept.

The idea, according to McCormick-Lee, is to use data to tell the story of each individual student. Administrators collect and analyze assessment data to highlight accountability, spotlight achievement, and pursue greater equity among students.

“A centralized system with local control is key,” she said. That way, educators at the classroom level have the power to extract, manipulate, and apply the data to the individual needs of their students for immediate intervention.

But “there are some things data can’t tell you,” she cautioned. That’s why it’s also important to involve other stakeholders in the process, including parents and the students themselves.

Another hurdle to solid data-driven decision making is the lack of communication that exists today between parents at home and instructors in the classroom. Using a myriad of web-based tools, educators who are using data to improve instruction have opened the classroom up to parents by doing a better job of communicating and sharing personal performance data across the internet.

“Teaching is part art, part science,” said CoSN Chairman Bob Moore, executive director of IT services for the Blue Valley Unified School District in Overland Park, Kans. “We need to get the right data to the right people in a way that is understandable to them…. We need to turn this information to action.”


Consortium for School Networking (CoSN)

CoSN’s Data-Driven Decision Making Initiative