What, Exactly, Are the Data Hounds in K-12 Philanthropy Hoping to Achieve?

K-12 education systems have been awash in data for years. Now, thanks to changes in federal and state policy, and coupled with millions in investment from funders over the years, educators are making better use of that data.

Early warning systems in many states and school districts flag students at risk of dropping out so that teachers can act to get these students back on track. Other data systems gauge student progress toward reading on grade level by third grade, a metric that studies have identified as a key predictor of future academic success.

The latest incarnation of federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), continues the use of data. It maintains the accountability framework of its predecessor, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, but offers greater flexibility in performance measures and data use.

As we've reported before, many top ed funders have high hopes for the dividends that might come from a data revolution in K-12. (Just like funders are fixated on data in many other areas nowadays.) One focal point of these efforts is the Data Quality Campaign, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., which advocates increased understanding of the value of education data, and aims to improve the capacity of teachers and school leaders to use data.

DQC's supporters include the CaseyGates, Mott, KauffmanArnold, and Dell foundations. All of these funders have track records of promoting data use in education. Gates was an early supporter of DQC, which began in 2005, and has actively supported other initiatives centered on better data use in education. Dell connects data systems through its Ed-Fi initiative. Kauffman developed the EdWise tool to aggregate data from Kansas and Missouri schools. 

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If you want to better understand the hopes and specific goals of the K-12 data hounds, one place to start is with a new report by DQC, "Time to Act," that outlines a set of recommendations for state policymakers to put data to work for students. The central idea driving the report is that students excel when parents, educators, and community partners have the right information to make decisions.

"Time to Act" outlines the following four priorities to make data work for students:

  • Measure What Matters — Being clear about what students must achieve and ensure the availability of data to measure their progress
  • Make Data Use Possible — Provide teachers and school leaders needed training and support to take action
  • Be Transparent and Earn Trust — Ensure communities understand how students are performing and why data are important
  • Guarantee Access and Protect Privacy — Ensure data access for educators and keep the data secure. This step is essential, as federal law requires rigorous protection of educational data to ensure student and family privacy.

"Time to Act" cites Georgia and Kentucky as two examples of states that have put these priorities to work. In Georgia, where graduation rates have increased 7 percentage points since 2012, educators, businesses, and nonprofits strengthened collaboration, using data to set priorities. The state also engaged stakeholders throughout the development of its data system, and ensured teacher access to their students' data. In Kentucky, the state created the Kentucky Center for Education and Workforce Statistics (KCEWS), a clearinghouse for longitudinal student data from early learning through college and into the labor force. These data answer crucial questions about state educational and economic outcomes.

While data alone are not the answer to better educational achievement, they provide valuable tools for educators, families, and policymakers. DQC has advocated smarter data use for more than 10 years now, and its efforts, as well as those of other nonprofits and funders, are making a difference. More work remains to be done. ESSA's data requirements and funders' continued commitment to data in education mean continued opportunities for nonprofits and educators who want to leverage the potential of data to move the needle on student achievement.

You can bet that top K-12 funders will continue to be all over this area.