Education Data Must Illuminate the Path to Improvement
“I’m awash in data but have no real information!”
If you work in the education field, you’re probably familiar with this lament. I’ve heard it from teachers, school leaders—even parents in some places. It never fails to frustrate me. Every state in the nation has worked for years to create rich school data systems. So why is useful information still so scant among those who most urgently need it to support students? Because just getting data to people doesn’t change anything if that data isn’t helping us make better decisions for our children.
“Transparency” has been hailed for so long as the remedy to everything that ails the public sector, but few stop to consider what real transparency means. In too many places, it means a large data dump—spreadsheets of aggregate-level school data posted on a public website to fulfill a reporting obligation in the law. The compliance box has been checked, and everyone moves to the next item on the to-do list.
Real transparency means telling a story, an accurate, timely, compelling story that opens a window into the effectiveness of our schools and starts to illuminate paths to improvement. It means painting a full picture of educational performance, even if that picture isn’t pretty. Communities deserve to know whether their states, districts and schools are truly meeting the needs of every student.
The good news is that the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) puts a strong emphasis on genuine transparency—to parents and citizens—that goes beyond compliance. It provides a mandate to states to ensure that high-quality information is publicly available. Now is the time for states to really examine whether people’s information needs are being met—how to get people tools they’ve never had before and create the most useful public report cards.
There are already examples out there demonstrating that it can be done. Take the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation’s EdWise, which aggregates public school metrics in Kansas and Missouri into a single tool that can easily answer questions about how schools in those communities are serving their students. The EdWise project illustrates a key to successful transparency: engaging educators and parents in the development process to ensure that tools will meet their needs.
Transparency is not a panacea. It’s just one essential piece of the puzzle to ensure that data is working for student success. When public information about schools is shared in a clear way that answers real questions, people no longer feel like they’re drowning in data. Parents understand what conversations they should be having with their children’s educators. Teachers, school leaders and policymakers can make better informed decisions about how to get the results their community expects and deserves. With timely, tailored and actionable information, we can chart the best path forward for all of our students to succeed.