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Study: Broader Data Use Could Improve Parent Involvement

While school and district leaders tend to focus on their own schools and others in the public system, gathering and analyzing broader data from charter and private schools, and making that easily available to the public, could lead to quicker district improvements and fairer comparisons among schools, according to a new study.

The analysis, "Harnessing Data and Analytics 2.0," argues that district leaders should consider and use data from their education ecosystem, not just from their own schools. For example, in Milwaukee, 28 percent of public students don't attend public schools—rather, they attend district-run and independent charter schools as well as private schools through the city's voucher program.

Fullerton argues that education officials should be tracking what is happening in all educational pathways in the district and ensuring that educators, policymakers—and parents—get the information they need.

"Unfortunately, because of a general lack of expertise in using data to guide strategy, sensitivity to releasing performance data publicly, and the political unpopularity of using scarce resources on analysis and [information technology] systems, relatively few large agencies have fully tapped the power of the data they have to better manage the performance of their schools," says Jon Fullerton, the executive director of Harvard University's Center for Education Policy Research. "This is unfortunate. Districts that do not take full advantage of their data are giving up the opportunity to manage strategically and to make timely course corrections."

School-Shopping Lists

I have been covering education research, poring over school statistics and accountability ratings for nearly a decade. But school-shopping is a different beast entirely: After a frustrating several months of trying to compare future schools for my toddler in the greater Washington area, I agree with Fullerton that most school data systems don't give parents data to make very subtle choices, even if they are providing school choice programs that require parents to do so.

In Wisconsin, Fullerton found a national model, the Wisconsin Information Network for Successful Schools, for making public high-quality data on various indicators from school to school, such as student behavior, academic achievement and growth rates, and postsecondary outcomes. However, Fullerton found the available data can be hard to find and in difficult-to-read formats and individual indicators are not available at every school Moreover, the data often doesn't go beyond the surface levels—reading and math scores or suspension rates, for example— to differences in programs and instructional approaches that can make a more substantive difference between two schools with roughly similar demographics and test scores.

Fullerton makes three recommendations to improve district data and its use:

• States and districts offering school choice programs should make more comprehensive data available for parents, including both academic achievement and growth rates and other program details.

• States should develop and maintain longitudinal data on all schools, including charter and private schools, to allow for fairer comparisons of the schools.

• States should develop tools to help parents and others unfamiliar with data analyze the charts and tables.

Collecting these data would also help school leaders identify programs and interventions in district, charter, and independent schools alike that work exceptionally well with particular groups of students. These could become models for broader districtwide interventions.

The analysis was released today as part of the massive new Pathway to Success project, a collaboration on system-wide education reforms by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute and the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute. The project lays out eight interconnected areas of education structure and policy and how each can be improved and leveraged to boost the others. Like Fullerton's paper, the project uses Milwaukee as an interesting case study in what goes wrong and what can be done.

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