How valuable is “Big Data”?

In a recent story on “big data” in the New York Times, one true believer in its transformative power compares the way the microscope revolutionized the way people looked at the world in the 16th century. The microscope, says Erik Brynjolfsson, an economist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management, allowed “people to see and measure things as never before — at the cellular level.” Likewise data, which makes it possible to measure a wide range of information “in fine detail and as it happens,” and to make rapid decisions based on factual analysis rather than “on experience and intuition.”

In fact, notes the article’s author, big data is now seen as so valuable that the World Economic Forum views it as “new class of economic asset, like currency or gold.” A related story in Education Week offers a striking example of data’s power on the ground. “Using high-tech data analytics,… education leaders in North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district (CMS) are scrutinizing the habits and grades of elementary school students to determine who may fall off track and fail to graduate from high school a decade or more from now.”

In 2010-2011, we helped the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district roll out the new data tracking system highlighted the Education Week story. The  power of data to help schools like CMS improve individual outcomes is at the core of the foundation’s work. In India, our school reform work focuses not just on supporting partners who do quality work, but on pressing those partners to establish a uniform practice of collecting and and measuring data so they can understand how to further improve their approach. And just last month, we released Ed-Fi, a tool suite designed to empower U.S. educators with relevant, timely student information to analyze and address each students’ exact educational needs.

Implementing a great tool is different than getting people to want it, use it, or think they need it. And leadership matters.

But while we’re big believers in big data, we also understand the challenge of switching to a data-driven culture. Implementing a great tool is different than getting people to want it, use it, or think they need it. And leadership matters. We saw this dynamic play out in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, where teachers in schools with data-savvy principals enthusiastically adopted new tools, while those at schools where leadership was weker  felt burdened. In the words of Nichole Green, a third grade teacher skilled in using data, “Without the right training, you have teachers who don’t actually know what the value of data is for their students. And why are they going to implement something when they’re not able to see the value?  They’re not. They have a million other things to do.”

In other words, turn-around can’t happen until a critical mass of teachers, principals, counselors and other educators use data tools to work with students every day. And until we train school leaders educators to analyze data and apply their insights in the classroom, big data in education is just another in a long line of failed reform schemes.  Read Lori Fey and Joe Siedlecki to understand more about our views on the role of big data and training in education. And check out our recently released case study on Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s efforts to encourage data usage in the classroom during their first year of using their new tracking system.