Data hoarders: So many records. So little information.

What would it take to change the daily experience of tens of millions of US public education students? How can teachers radically increase each student’s academic growth? Do they need information? Do they need instructional tools? Would additional training make a difference? How can we help millions of teachers do their day-to-day work?

Over the last 5 years, as we’ve worked with educators in urban school districts, these are the questions we at the foundation have continually returned to. And each time we started to unravel any one line of thinking, we always came back to a single, resounding, baseline truth that’s both startling and resolvable: Educators start each new school year with files showing student’s faces and names but little else. In spite of all the reams of data the school system generates about each child, from the teachers’ perspective, each child enters each new classroom as a nearly blank slate populated by limited, fragmentary information.

Educators aren’t equipped with the insights needed to improve student outcomes.  Teachers in the classroom need and deserve easy access to a holistic picture of each student—which areas he or she has mastered, which need special attention, what trends in attendance or discipline or grades signal opportunity or trouble. But too often, they spend needless hours on data scavenger hunts to try to piece together a whole view of their kids and their classes.

This reality exists for very real reasons:

  • Data resides in multiple systems—A local school district may operate more than 60 data systems, most of which cannot easily exchange or combine data with each other.
  • There is no way to unify data to provide a comprehensive view of each student—Consolidating data from disparate source systems is a complicated undertaking. One only the largest, most sophisticated school districts and charter management organizations can afford to tackle on their own.
  • Accountability metrics keep changing—As requirements of our education systems change, so do the measures used for monitoring.

Breaking through is possible.
It’s time to move aggressively to transform the data we give each one of our 3.2 million teachers into the easily accessible, student-level insights that enable them to assess and address each student’s needs at any given time.

The fundamental breaking through that will establish the baseline for this transformation is obvious: We must standardize the key student data we collect. The importance of data standards is recognized across the education spectrum—from blended learning advocates trying to find ways to address what EduSurge describes as a “gaping hole”: The lack of “clear, commonly employed standards that will let the data from one assessment system flow smoothly into another”; to state policymakers working to get the most from their state’s education data; to the many stakeholders involved in the Common Education Data Standards initiative, which seeks to identify and define common, essential educational data and to “increase data interoperability, portability, and comparability across states, districts, and higher education organizations.”

Complexity in education is a given. We can use that complexity as an excuse to keep muddling along. Or we can say that while complexity is a fact of life, it does not need to blind us. Instead, we can get behind data standardization that is nuanced enough to be meaningful, create the tools that teachers need to gain data-based insights into individual children, and harness the power buried in the data trail that each of our children leaves behind as they travel through our K-12 educational system.

As president of the Ed-Fi Alliance, Lori Fey manages the rapid growth and adoption of the Ed-Fi data standard for states, school districts and vendors across the US. Prior to leading Ed-Fi Alliance, Lori served as portfolio director for policy initiatives at the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation and was responsible for the foundation’s policy initiatives focused on institutionalizing performance management in the U.S. public education system.

Read more of Lori’s posts here.

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