One of the critiques of modern U.S. school reform is that in many places raising test scores has become the sole purpose of education. In my opinion, that is happening at far fewer places than it might seem, given the anguish and resentment that churns across the Internet and at education conferences. But there is no doubt that anger over too much testing is rising. The fury is also driving growing skepticism about both data and accountability. Last week, Education Sector released a new paper called “Striving for Student Success: A Model for Shared Accountability.” The word “accountability” caused some critics to recoil, because they immediately interpreted it to be a call for testing and consequences for poor performers. It surely wasn’t that.
In fact, one of the main points of the paper was that, while schools are a powerful social intervention and can open doors for all children, they are ill-equipped to overcome the effects of poverty. We described an effort in Cincinnati called the Strive Partnership that involved city agencies, clinics, educational non-profits, colleges, philanthropies, and businesses in addressing children’s developmental, health, and academic needs. Such services are available in most very troubled neighborhoods, but, too often, they do not coordinate their efforts. As a result, the after-school provider knows little about what children are learning in school and where they need help. The teacher doesn’t know what summer program or tutoring service has worked with the student. The clinic doesn’t know as much as it should about behavioral problems. Each of the adults and services that touch the child’s life knows only about a small slice of that child’s life, and their effectiveness in helping them is lacking.
To overcome this, what’s needed is shared, cross-institutional, real-time, student-level data that help all of the providers do a better job. Making such data useful is difficult, because partners often collect, store, and analyze data in incompatible and disconnected ways. Some may keep data about their students and their services in Excel sheets; others may house it on the Web; and others may keep track with pencil and paper. Moreover, schools collect a lot of information about students and their academic performance but, because of privacy concerns, it usually is not available to after-school providers, mentors, mental health professionals, or others who could use it to help children more effectively. With assistance from the Microsoft Corporation, the Strive Partnership and the Cincinnati Public Schools are working on a data dashboard that will integrate school-related information about each student with information from preschools, colleges, and all the other Strive partners that touch that child’s life. Parents should have access to the information to get a clear picture of how well their child is progressing academically and which non-school programs are providing them with services.
Yes, the data can be used for purposes of accountability for all of the partners. The partnership’s founding president, Jeff Edmondson, acknowledged that “in education, data has traditionally been used for punitive purposes, not for improvement.” But, he said, “it is the relentless focus on data that, more than anything, has been the key to the partnership’s success.”