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How to let the best data drive better decisions in K12

Administrators need to use detailed metrics and analytics to effectively manage their schools
Metro Nashville Public Schools has 25 data specialists and managers considering data. Even one person focused on data is a step forward. (GettyImages.com: Alex Doubovitsky)
Metro Nashville Public Schools has 25 data specialists and managers considering data. Even one person focused on data is a step forward. (GettyImages.com: Alex Doubovitsky)

K12 education lags behind U.S. business and industry when it comes to using data to improve outcomes, says a 2016 report by the Center for Data Innovation.

Despite the wealth of information available—and the existence of technology to crunch those numbers—“most administrators still make decisions, often inaccurately, based on assumptions and intuition, rather than use detailed metrics and analytics to manage schools efficiently and fairly,” the report says.

“In short,” it concludes, “U.S. schools are largely failing to use data to transform and improve education.”

That’s a missed opportunity, says Joshua New, policy analyst for the Center for Data Innovation and author of the report. Yet the fact that education has not yet fully harnessed the power of data is not surprising given the constraints of the current climate.

“In education, it’s still hard to get a laptop in the door in some places,” New says. Many districts are still at the digitization stage. They’re still working on transforming paper records to digital systems, so they have yet to explore or embrace sophisticated data analysis.

A widespread lack of interoperability is to blame for some of the delay. In education, “we have a lot of different silos,” says Laura Hansen, director for information management and decision support at Metro Nashville Public Schools.

The district transportation’s department likely uses a different data system than does food service, and those systems probably don’t speak to each other.

Furthermore, privacy concerns keep some districts from exploring best uses of data. While student privacy should be protected, New says it’s often bandied about as a red herring.

New points out an example in the report regarding a nonprofit organization. It had offered to do some data analysis on a district’s budget to improve school efficiency, but the teachers’ union and parents thought the district was sharing student data.

The data was not going to be shared with anybody and any data would have been anonymous. But the effort was ultimately killed because students and parents were still worried about that sense of a loss of privacy, New says.

Still, Metro Nashville Public Schools has managed to leverage data to improve graduation rates and increase educational equity. Follow their lead and take steps in the right direction:

Increase interoperability. When purchasing technology, look for systems certified through an open standards body such as the Schools Interoperability Framework. It ensures that data in the system will work with all other systems certified by that open standard.

Start with a question. “We went into classrooms and talked with principals about what kinds of questions they were trying to answer about our young people,” Hansen says. Data specialists then focused on collecting, organizing, analyzing and presenting the data necessary to answer those questions.

Put people on it. Metro Nashville Public Schools has 25 data specialists and managers considering data. Even one person focused on data is a step forward.

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