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Spencer Grants to Seek Critical Look at Schools' Data Use

Close on the heels of federal efforts to prod states to build and make use of new systems for collecting longitudinal data on students, the Spencer Foundation is rolling out an interesting new grant program that is designed to ask hard questions about what exactly educators are going to do wiith all the data they collect.

Says the foundation:

Educators in K-12 and higher education nationwide are being called to use data and to adopt data-driven decision making as a tool to improve their practices and ultimately to improve student outcomes. ... Yet there is limited, if any, inquiry on what might actually work in these different settings and why. This leaves educators drowning in data and high expectations that improvement will follow without helping them develop a better sense of how to use these data for improvement purposes."

This is not another effort to promote educators' use of data. The Chicago-based foundation says it's seeking research that "goes beneath the undifferentiated demand for more data use, that challenges the uncritical embrace of the effectiveness of data use, and that promotes the efficacy of using and understanding data to make actual improvements in K-12 and higher education."

These studies will probe the conditions, contexts, and other factors that affect how educators use data, train much-needed attention on what happens after data are gathered and shared, and, hopefully, advance theory on the use of data for improvement purposes. The grants will fall into two categories: those above $40,000 and those below. But the grant announcement doesn't say exactly how large the overall pot of money will be for this effort.

I say this initiative comes not a moment too soon. The latest report from the Data Quality Campaign says all states are now on track to have data systems in place by 2011 that can track students' progress from year to year. What's unclear is whether states will know how to use that data in effective, and responsible, ways.

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