Data systems in education: Can we move from reporting to informing?

Big data is not a new idea in our world, but in education we have yet to really think broadly about data and how it can inform the overall service of our students. While there are restraints with FERPA and HIPA that funnel down to the consolidation of data, we have to stretch our systems of data so that they are as comprehensive as possible. The key consideration for any school system is this: Who is responsible for your data systems and overall quality? The data that school systems work with is a tsunami of complexity. But the question remains; how is this tsunami of data in any way connected so that it is helpful and informs the whole education of a child?

In years past we had disparate systems of data. One office focused on grades and attendance, another registration and health records, and yet another on access to free or reduced lunch and other special services. There were separate databases that were never interlinked, never consolidated, and very rarely utilized ubiquitously to understand the needs of our students.

In today’s world, organizations utilize tools that allow for the incorporation of data from multiple subsystems. It is this consolidation that is not only important but an essential aspect of educational systems remaining current in their use of data. What does incorporation of data look like? In many cases it is simply thought of as a demographic dashboard (like those in use by the National Center for Educational Statistics). These dashboards typically incorporate information about the aggregate; how many students, test scores, pass rates, graduation rates, demographics, absenteeism, etc. When we are looking at large systems this aggregate is typically well received and informative; but this broad scale data does not inform the level of understanding necessary to directly meet student needs (rather this data provides a high level red or green flag of success).

We cannot approach the use and aggregation of data in today’s educational systems in the same way that we did ten years ago; or even five years ago. Rather, we must look forward and think about the research behind student learning. Do not focus solely on the child (we know that parent involvement impacts achievement), do not focus only academics (we know that participation in extra curricular activities impacts overall student engagement), do not focus only on behavior (we know that health and emotional wellbeing impact student behavior in schools). Move from thinking about education as a discrete focus on skills (academic or otherwise) and focus fully on education as a student centered system.

What that means for school districts? Appoint someone in your educational system to be in charge of data. This person will need to create or amend data policies, practices, tools, and systems. This person will be solely responsible for decisions about data management and work with legal consultants to ensure quality of data systems with federal law. In addition this person will be the leader in creating a map of connectivity for the complex data systems in our schools. As a result this individual will have the systems in place that they need to engage with tools that will inform practice at the student level. Then they can move forward on helping your organization become data literate and data driven.

Consider for a moment the data that an educational system has access to: test scores (easy), attendance (easy), free or reduced lunch access (easy), school visitors (easy), visits to the nurse (easy), visits to school counselor/health clinic/or mental health support (easy), library books checked out (easy, even easy to identify check outs from local libraries if your systems are connected), parent/family engagement (not so easy to pull right now but easy to create a system to address; this might include attendance at parent teacher conferences, back to school nights, etc.), participation in early learning (probably not part of the system right now, but an easily added line item), participation in after or before school care (easy), participation in extracurricular activities (school sponsored, easy), if parents are viewing school communication (easy), how many links are followed in newsletters (easy), etc. All of those data points create a picture of a child, a full view of what a child is engaging with as part of their school day. All of these data points are easy (or quickly addressed) when systems are coordinated and efforts are focused forward.

Consider the breadth of information that moving from data on achievement to data on a whole child can offer to educators (albeit leaders or teachers) and parents/families.

Case in point; a parent receives a call from the school nurse in February, stating that his child has been to the nurses office 48 times since August. The parent of course has no idea. Upon digging the parent asks what time of day the visits were. After the nurse goes through she identifies that the student comes every day between 1:45 and 2:45. After talking with the teachers and student the parent identifies that nurse visits occur during math (a subject his child excels at). After visiting further, the child professes that they leave class because they are done with their work and do not have anything to do.
Now imagine if data related to nurse visits was visible along with daily schedules, and assessment information (both formative and summative, standardized and non). Would that parent have been able to see that their child was missing class? Would that parent have been able to graphically connect that their child was leaving the same class to go to the nurse nearly every other day? Perhaps.

Data is not lacking in our schools and our educational systems. What is lacking are systems that are cohesive, thought out, connected, and owned by a leader who is capable of looking at the whole child and beyond academics. What is lacking is the network to support data leaders that are using tools to inform and create a new level of transparency. While we continue to work on those networks and support those that are responsible for data in our education systems; we also have to retrain ourselves and our systems to think about data (not in terms of reporting) but rather in terms of informing.