Gurel lecturer calls for a ‘data crusade’ in education system

Aimee Guidera delivers the Gurel Lecture on Education

In a world awash with information, where everyone from retailers to online dating services gathers, studies and deploys targeted data to improve performance, it stands to reason that the United States’ education system would make similar strides to boost student achievement.

But that hasn’t been so. According to Aimee Rogstad Guidera, executive director of National Data Quality Campaign, in school districts across the country, robust data often go unused and are rarely shared with the public. Guidera is enlisting all stakeholders in public education — from parents to policymakers — on a “data crusade” to demand that a comprehensive, longitudinal information system be employed to enhance educational outcomes.

Guidera delivered her message as the featured speaker for the second annual Lee Gurel ’48 Lecture on Education, held Nov. 3 in Tilton Hall.

The American education system is a notable holdout when it comes to the widespread use of digital data, Guidera said. Institutions as varied as police departments, which do predictive analyses of where crimes will occur, and Major League Baseball with its “Moneyball” evaluations of players based on logarithms rather than scouting reports, have embraced the Data Age. But when it comes to education “we’re still throwing darts at a dashboard, often blindfolded, often missing and not even coming close to the target.”

One problem, Guidera noted, is that student data is typically perceived as a “hammer” that’s used to punish teachers and administrators for low student achievement, rather than a “flashlight” to shine a light on ways to improve outcomes. As such, many school districts view data collection as a state-mandated evil — they obtain the information but never use it, what Guidera calls “check-box compliance.”

“We have more data than ever before. But who cares, if no one trusts it or knows how to access it?”

~Aimee Guidera

Multiple data points, rather than the student’s score on a standardized test, are a better indicator of achievement, she said. Reliable data can be used to compare performance across district and state lines, determine best practices, tailor interventions to the individual student, answer questions about how best to allocate resources, and track students from K-12, through post-secondary, and into the workforce.

Such items as enrollment and demographic numbers, test scores, transcripts, and other student records are among the 10 key components of an effective data system, according to National Data Quality Campaign, which cites significant progress since 2005 in the number of states meeting those goals.

However, data collected without context and without a plan to use it is useless, Guidera asserted. “We have more data than ever before. But who cares, if no one trusts it or knows how to access it?”

Guidera said that while rich supplies of potentially valuable information are available, “we need to build demand for it.” To do that, stakeholders must buy into the notion of data as a path toward tangible improvement — information that inspires action.

Currently, Guidera said, only eight states have the capacity to link and share student information spanning the K-12 through workforce years. But there are success stories. She cited Colorado, where academic progress is monitored in similar fashion to a pediatric growth chart, and Georgia, where teachers have access to a databank that details students’ academic histories, analyses of testing, attendance records and other items that can be used to identify ways to promote optimal student achievement.

The Oregon Data Project prepares teachers for careers in which data competency is a critical skill, she said, but Oregon is the only state doing nearly enough in that area.

For data to be effective, it must be relevant, it can’t be used as a weapon against teachers and it must be made a priority, she said. And thorough data is in everyone’s self-interest: parents, students and teachers need it to make appropriate educational decisions, taxpayers need it to know the true state of their school systems, and employers need it to determine what schools produce the highest-performing graduates.

Aimee Guidera with her parents, Barry K. Rogstad '62, M.A. '63 and Lorraine A. Rogstad '62

Early access to good information is critical, Guidera said. She noted that children who are not reading by the third grade are unlikely to make it through high school, a chilling proposition not just for the schools but for American society as a whole.

Aimee Guidera is no stranger to Clark. She noted in her opening remarks that her parents, Lorraine A. Rogstad ’62 and Barry K. Rogstad ’62, M.A. ’63, former chair of the Board of Trustees, met on campus on the first day of school in 1958. “Clark has been foundational for me and my family,” she said.

 ~ Jim Keogh, Director of News and Editorial Services

Photos by Michael Potiker