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Which Data Should Drive Reform?

Guest blog post by Jaclyn Zubrzycki

We live in a data-filled world. Technology allows us to tally retweets, ad click-throughs, miles (or even steps), gallons of gas, calories, and more, and we tend to hope that by watching the data, we can understand ourselves or our work a bit better—and, where necessary, make some improvements. In a recent New York Times article on Target's extensive (and slightly unsettling) use of customer data, Andreas Weigend, the former chief scientist at Amazon.com, is quoted as saying, '"It's like an arms race to hire statisticians nowadays ... Mathematicians are suddenly sexy.'" Education's no exception, though exactly what that should look like is hotly debated.

And yet, as schools around the country use students' test scores and other data to determine who needs to learn what (and how), there have not been many large-scale studies on the effectiveness of data-driven reforms. I took a look at some new research trying to address this gap in an Education Week article that's online now.

The research focuses on an initiative of the Center for Data-Driven Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University, led by Robert Slavin, which implemented a three-year data-driven reform program in 59 school districts in seven states. Each three-year program was carried out over four years, however, with half of the districts starting in the second year. The University of Wisconsin at Madison's Geoffrey Borman, who worked on the initiative, noticed that the first year was perfectly set up for a randomized-control study: the first districts that received treatment could be compared to those that were carrying on as usual until year two. The article takes a deeper look at the results.

The research on the effectiveness of data-driven reforms is growing—we've gotten wind of a few more studies on the way, including a report on the final years of this project (a draft is available here). But interestingly, many of the advocates and researchers I spoke to said that just as we're starting to understand the effectiveness of the data-driven reform efforts that are out there now, schools' definition of data is expanding. Student absences, school climate surveys, even crime statistics, all can help inform and influence school practices.

Has data-driven reform taken hold in your district or your classroom? Are you using information that goes beyond test scores to push student achievement?

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