Keep it Simple, Schools

Educators need basic data infrastructure to improve student outcomes

By Orrin Murray, UChicago Impact Director of Technology and R&D. This article originally appeared in U.S. News & World Report.

I've heard a lot of buzzwords at ed tech conferences. Disruptive. Adaptive. Blended. Personalized. A phrase I pretty much never hear? Basic data infrastructure.

All those buzzwords translate into big dollars. In 2014, the ed tech sector attracted $1.36 billion in investment with promises to "revolutionize learning" and "transform the classroom experience" with social media platforms, online courses, game-based learning and apps for everything. Amid this dizzying burst of laudable innovation, many schools are paying little attention and devoting few resources to an unsung aspect of ed tech that has enormous untapped potential to improve student outcomes: their student information systems.

Helping students succeed hinges on being able to intervene before they've failed classes, become truant or otherwise dug a deep hole. Student information systems are the basic data infrastructure from which schools can build dashboards, find patterns, devise strategies and target interventions.

As it stands, many schools have clunky systems and insufficient infrastructure. Assessment data are siloed from grade data and administrative and disciplinary data. Trapped in antiquated bureaucratic structures, information isn't timely or nimble or easily accessible. Imagine what health care treatment would look like if all a doctor could do is give you a vague sense of how a group of patients were doing – no blood pressure reading, no temperature, heart rate or blood oxygen levels. Or imagine what Amazon would look like if the best it could do is tell you your package will probably arrive sometime within the next few days.

Silly, right? But that lack of precision and individualization is what lackluster data infrastructure leaves school leaders and teachers to grapple with day after day. There's nothing to help them monitor whether a student is achieving key milestones or missing too many days of school.

We routinely expect data to give us better outcomes – tracking our Fitbit steps, compiling our Yelp reviews, finding our misrouted packages. Why aren't we doing what it takes to ensure student data can drive us toward better educational outcomes?

With a lot of will and a little capital, we can dramatically change the landscape of education data. In Chicago, we are now able to give parents, teachers, principals and district leaders laser-like insights on students' attainment of the milestones that research shows matter most for high school and college success. Schools can learn which groups of students are struggling and which are succeeding with unprecedented precision. They can compare themselves to schools with similar student bodies and spark dialogue about how to intervene, how to allocate resources and how to help more students succeed.

This is not the Big Data warehouse of privacy and profiteering nightmares; it's just equipping teachers and parents with the information they need to support students in getting to and through high school and college.

We didn't get here by chance. Chicago's rich data archive is the result of 25 years of partnership between the district and researchers. It's a sustained investment in basic infrastructure that has garnered enduring support because it delivers results. A decade ago, researchers identified ninth grade course completion as the strongest predictor of high school graduation – stronger than race, gender, poverty, or prior achievement combined. Stakeholders embraced this concept of "Freshman On Track," but it wasn't until Chicago Public Schools built a data infrastructure to systematically track students' ninth grade attendance levels and grades that the needle began to move.

The product was no more fancy than biweekly downloads of core course grades and absences compiled into a color-coded spreadsheet, flagging students' status as red, yellow or green. Once teachers had useful data, and training on how to put it into practice, the percentage of Chicago students on track to graduate from high school grew year over year, which in turn yielded thousands more high school graduates. What drove success wasn't a sophisticated or complex technology. It was making data timely and accessible, and supporting teachers and administrators to act on it.

Every district, no matter how cash strapped, has a technology budget. It's tempting to invest in the latest and greatest; it's only human to gravitate to what's shiny, and want to capitalize on all of the innovations promising to revolutionize education. But it's important to remember that we must also invest in the basic data infrastructure necessary to systematically track students' attainment of the milestones that matter most for high school and college success. That has to be in place for any other investment to pay off.