Duncan has said he wants stimulus funds to transform education.

Duncan has said he wants stimulus funds to transform education.

Using student data to help inform instruction is one of the Obama administration’s four key focal points in its efforts to reform education–and technology is an important tool for facilitating this process.

To avoid being caught short when the stimulus money runs out, school officials should use the short-term federal funding to upgrade their technology infrastructure and improve their tracking of student data, Education Secretary Arne Duncan told eSchool News in a wide-ranging interview earlier this year.

“There are a number of one-time technology investments that make tremendous sense,” Duncan said. Using technology to improve student achievement makes teachers feel almost as if “they’re cracking a code,” he explained. With adequate student data, teachers come to realize that effective instruction is not based on “just a guess or an assumption or a hunch, and all that is being driven by technology.”

On his recent “listening tour” of school systems nationwide, Duncan said, he spoke with young teachers who were able to adjust lesson plans for students after electronically tracking classroom progress.

“In a real-time way, [teachers] know what’s going on,” he said. “That only happens with technology.”

Spurred on by the availability of federal stimulus funding, every state is on track to have a longitudinal data system that follows the progress of individual students from preschool through college by 2011, according to a report issued by the Data Quality Campaign (DQC) in November.

Not only has every governor and chief state school officer committed to building a longitudinal data system by 2011 as a condition of receiving State Fiscal Stabilization funds, but the requirements for qualifying for “Race to the Top” funding and State Longitudinal Data Grants also are promoting the effective use of data, the DQC says. These kinds of systems make it possible to follow individual students’ academic growth, determine the value that specific programs add to this growth, and identify consistently high-performing classrooms, schools, and systems.

Better use of data also underlies Duncan’s efforts to transform schools of education so they prepare future educators to teach in the 21st century more effectively.

Among the changes proposed by Duncan: overhauling education schools’ curricula to ensure that future teachers learn how to use data to improve their instruction, and linking the performance of teachers with the schools where they received their training, so policy makers can see which education schools are most effective.

Better data use is one of four key priorities for the Obama administration in its efforts to reform the nation’s schools; the others are rewarding effective teaching, improving academic standards, and transforming underperforming high schools. And the $106 billion for education in the stimulus package has brought unprecedented power for the education secretary to use federal funding to spur local change.

The $5 billion “Race to the Top” discretionary fund, for example, has many states working on reforms that are unpopular with teachers unions, such as performance pay for educators and more charter schools. And a $650 million “Investing in Innovation” (I3) fund rewards districts that have designed and tested effective, scalable systems for boosting student achievement, improving failing schools, retaining top-notch teachers, and increasing graduation rates.

In announcing the I3 fund, Duncan pointed to virtual schools as one tool that can help students succeed where they otherwise might have fallen behind.

“Online courses and supplementation are catching on fast, but we’ve made only limited investments in understanding online instruction,” he said.

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