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Lori Fey: The fuss about education data – Deus ex machina? No. Transformative? Yes.

As anyone who has read my blog posts or followed the progression of the Ed-Fi Alliance knows, I firmly believe that education data can inform and drive improvement in the classroom. So it’s no surprise that Rick Hess’ latest article, a contrarian’s take on the power of data to transform education, caught my eye.

“Data can be a powerful tool,” writes Hess. “But we must recognize that collecting data is not using data; that data are an input into judgment rather than a replacement for it; that data can inform but not resolve difficult questions of politics and values; and that we need better ways to measure what matters, rather than valuing those things we can measure… In hindsight, it seems clear that would-be reformers have consistently overestimated the potential of data, and have used new data in inappropriate and troubling ways.”

Where Hess gets education data right

Hess is indisputably right on several important points:

  1. Collecting data is not using data. States and districts capture multitudes of education data.  But it’s generally locked away where it’s of little practical use to anyone, save for a compliance report or two.  States and districts are making enormous strides in making data usable, but Hess is right: Much remains to be done.
  2. We must use data as an input into judgment rather than a replacement for it. Amen! Data don’t solve problems; people solve problems.  And educators encounter a wide range of problems every day – problems that data could help them spot early, better diagnose and remediate more quickly.  Innovative organizations are beginning to find ways to help educators make effective use of data to do exactly that. Meanwhile, the pace of technological change is accelerating, thanks to new tools and capabilities that have the potential to make richer data more easily accessible to educators.
  3. And, yes, we do need better ways to measure what matters – no question – as well as a clear focus on ensuring that we use education data tools appropriately  (for instance by keeping the focus on what tools and data can do for teachers and kids in the classroom.)

But have we overestimated the power of data? Here’s where Hess and I diverge. I don’t think so.  The potential of education data is far from fully realized; that much is true. But it’s also true that we’re only now planting the earliest seeds of innovation.

The start of something big

Consider: At the most basic level (and even though we still measure a relatively narrow set of data,) the information we can already give teachers access to is enormously useful.  Somewhat unbelievably in today’s age of whizz-bang personalized technology, educators remained plagued by archaic access challenges that can make an already demanding job seem like fishing in the dark. Take a second to answer these questions:

  • Why should a teacher today have to make index cards with student contact information just so she can reach out to a parent when she’s grading papers from home?
  • Why should a student’s attendance patterns be a mystery that requires tracking down an attendance clerk?
  • And why should a teacher wait weeks or months to know how his class did on the core objectives of a state assessment, when early insight could help him understand which kids missed which concepts so he could reteach critical skills before the gaps become unbridgeable?

The simple answer is that teachers shouldn’t have to do any of these things. Each is a waste of time that could be better spent on meaningful intervention.

Perhaps I am misusing the word powerful, but in my mind, extra hours in the day to do what matters (instead of rifling file cabinets) can be quite powerful. And when you look to the future, the potential to put education data to use is staggering. Data standardization is a critical underpinning that will unleash radical innovation – much of it likely driven by educators in the classroom. Remember the early days of wireless, when mobile phones were still a rarity? Now we’ve crossed the chasm and gone mobile in ways that, not so long ago, seemed utterly fantastic.

I’m not naïve. I don’t believe in dei ex machina*  any more than Hess. I believe in talking to teachers to learn what they need. I believe in solutions tried and lessons learned. I believe in effective policy, and the hard work of changing habits and processes.  But I also firmly believe that, when it comes to education data, we’re at the start of something big, which, if we put our collective will, effort and creativity into it, has the potential to truly transform the way teachers teach and the way children learn.

* The plural of deus ex machina – I had to look it up.

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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.