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Investing in Data Systems: Like a Good Workout

As states and districts wrestle with strapped budgets, and as advocates push Congress to include this or that pet cause in the reauthorization of NCLB (nee ESEA), it's worth taking a moment to point out the development of new data systems that are increasingly putting districts in a position to track student progress, identify effective and ineffective practices and educators, and give leaders cover to take a firmer line when addressing poor performers. Like a trip to the gym, these steps can feel like drudgery and they don't deliver much immediate gratification--but they can make a big difference in the long term.

While often relegated to the care of statisticians and policy-wonks, school data systems hold the potential to help district leaders enact dramatic changes in school management (see "The Numbers We Need," a piece I penned a year ago with Harvard's Jon Fullerton, for much more on this). Historically, superintendents and other district leaders have enacted one short-lived reform after another because the pressure to be "doing something" gave them greater incentives to favor fast and furious change rather than slow, incremental reforms.

If superintendents are able to hold themselves and others accountable for measurable improvements on key indicators, however, this pressure for quick action can be channeled more constructively. With improved data systems able to track improvement in teacher hiring, retention of employees, delivery of texts and materials, or school maintenance and safety, leaders can demonstrate progress in attracting quality educators, addressing needs, and wringing out inefficiencies, thus winning time to bring longer-term strategies to fruition.

When districts can marry information on operations and activities to particular educational outcomes, principals and teachers can, in turn, gauge relative program effectiveness and conduct meaningful cost-benefit analysis at the school or even classroom level. Such data systems permit districts to track unit cost granularly, meaning that districts could know the relative costs for each teacher recruited by The New Teacher Project compared to its own human resources operation, and the relative effectiveness of teachers coming from each route--making possible evidence-based decisions about the value of alternatives.

To help districts leverage the power of data, the Council of Great City Schools (CGCS)--which represents 66 of the nation's largest urban school districts--has recently developed a series of Key Performance Indicators to give administrators the tools to track their spending patterns and benchmark "dollars and cents" performance. These data can highlight inefficiencies and opportunities for improvement. For instance, CGCS surveys show that some districts utilize only 69% of their bus fleets on a daily basis. In a district with a 100-bus fleet, boosting that percentage to the national median of 86% could save the district in question $320,000. CGCS has a raft of similar measures addressing finances, human resources, and operations that, collectively, can readily help most districts identify savings of millions of dollars a year.

Addressing these areas promises to provide districts with revealing data and cost-effectiveness analyses and inform difficult decisions on spending. Good data systems themselves are something like a good piece of workout equipment. They won't magically improve your health or make you fit, but, when used as intended, they can help firm up flabby bureaucracies and free up dollars to drive improvement.

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