We're Sinking in K-12 Data. Which is Why a Nonprofit Pulls in Big Bucks to Harness It

It's interesting to watch the evolution of the data craze among funders. Ambitious projects to collect new data are increasingly complemented with initiatives aimed at better organizing and using data, whether that means enabling big data sets to talk to each other or teaching people how to effectively harness data for different goals.

The latter is especially important. Using mounds of data without proper knowledge of analytical tools can be as dangerous as playing with a Red Ryder BB Gun: It’s all fun and games until somebody loses an eye. That’s why the nonprofit advocacy organization Data Quality Campaign (DQC) was founded in 2005 with a mission to support better use of education data. Since then, it's pulled in substantial support from top ed funders, including over $10 million from the Gates Foundation.

Related: The Data Science Philanthropy Craze

What exactly are we talking about when we say education data? Think test scores, attendance, student demographics, measures of teacher impact, postsecondary success, and more. You can see the need for a nonprofit shop that does nothing but think about all this data. DQC pursues three goals:

  • Increase public understanding of the value of education data. 
  • Ensure that everyone with a stake in education has timely access to the right information. 
  • Improve the capacity of and conditions for teachers and school leaders to use data. 

Beyond Gates, DQC has pulled in major support from the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation and the Ford and Mott foundations. Annie E. Casey is another supporter at a lower level, along with ExxonMobil and the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

Most recently, the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation announced a new $1 million grant for DQC to launch a national campaign to promote effective use of data, improve data literacy among educators, and show the importance of research and analysis in education. One of Kauffman’s goals is to foster better research and policy in education, as evidenced by the creation of EdWise, a technology tool developed by the foundation to aggregate a high volume of public education data from Kansas and Missouri schools.

We’ve written before about Kauffman’s balancing act between maintaining its focus on the greater Kansas City area and funding projects with a broader geographic impact. In fact, the foundation often sees its hometown as a “program incubator” from which successful approaches can be expanded nationally. In this case, the investment in DQC’s efforts to make information more accessible also works toward Kauffman’s goal to help low-income students in Kansas City by enabling policy decisions rooted in statistics.

“DQC believes that when data are used effectively by policymakers, educators, families, and the public, education can be transformed,” said Aimee Rogstad Guidera, president and CEO of the Data Quality Campaign, adding, “We cannot accomplish our goals for a more student-centered approach to education without data.”

It’s true that data is essential for making informed decisions—but even when paired with the best intentions, bad analysis leads to incorrect conclusions. The effects of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act made clear that using data punitively can be destructive, and it’s easy to misuse numbers to reach a desired outcome. As well, there have been some significant data usage misfires to assess teacher performance. Maybe giving more people the tools to understand data is the best defense against potential problems, because until the machine revolution begins, data collection is here to stay.