Thursday, January 05, 2006

A nice little rant about educational data systems...

...which makes up my statement of purpose for Stanford's Policy Analysis program

Attention Deficit Disorder is the biggest problem afflicting the Education system in America. I'm not talking about the students either. The system itself can't keep track of all the interventions it tries. New programs start, run for a few years, realize they have no way of telling whether they have made any impact, and then are discarded for the next new idea. The answer to this problem is better data management, which I hope to develop during my studies at Stanford.

Plenty of data is gathered by educational institutions across the country. In my district's SASI database, there are hundreds of modules worth of test scores, intervention outcomes, and biographical information for our students. The issues are with ease of access, meaningful representation and interoperability.

The disjoint and antiquated database systems in use in most school districts make student data difficult to access. Though there are a few integrated systems for handling testing data, attendance, and grades, there are many schools that still use separate programs for each of those sets of data. My school district, for example, has one program for teachers to keep their grades in, another program for testing data and attendance, and a proprietary web hosting program that takes data in from the other two programs and publishes it to the web. The result is a system where only some teachers are technologically savvy enough to post their grades to the web. Those grades are then only available to parents and students and not to the counselors, who could use them to help make better informed decisions about their students' schedules. Testing data is only available through a query driven database program. As a teacher with a background in computer science, I was able to quickly learn the complex query system needed to access the data, but not many other teachers have similar experience with query languages and therefore can not take full advantage of all the data collected by the district.

As I stated before, there are software solutions available that integrate all these functions together, but many of these programs still do not give meaningful representations of the data tailored to the needs of each user. For example, the district collects test results for a multitude of required state and federal assessments for each student. However most of these results give the teacher little more than a broad classification of a students skill in a given subject area. For test results to be of any use in education, they must be broken down by individual subject area standards. There are already new assessments that are designed to provide this level of detail, such as the benchmark exams in English and Math required by No Child Left Behind. Each question on these exams is associated with one or more subject area standards. The teacher can then take the results of these exams and check the performance on each standard by class or by individual student. Thus a math teacher can quickly check the results of their students benchmark exam and see which standards the class is struggling with and adapt their instruction to ensure their students get more support for that standard. This is much more useful than many other test results, which would only tell that teacher how many students were proficient or not with no indication of where their gaps of knowledge may be.

Even if more school districts started to use systems that integrated their data and represented it in useful ways to each level of user, there is still the issue of new students entering from other districts. I'm an essentialist educator. I believe that there is a core set of reading, writing and mathematics skills that all schools should be responsible for imparting to their students. Despite my many misgivings about the No Child Left Behind legislation, it does draw the focus of education back to those subject areas. I believe that the next step is to standardize the data systems and subject area standards across the nation. Though individual districts should have the freedom to develop auxiliary standards that meet local interests and needs, the basic standards for English and Math should be uniform across the whole country. With uniform standards and data systems in schools, students who moved between districts would not be lost in a new system that has none of the information it needs to place those students in an appropriate academic program.

I have taught for almost 5 years now. Before I was a teacher, I got my degree in economics with a focus on econometrics. While I was in college, I supported myself with summer jobs in programming. All these experiences have lead me to believe that the educational system has much to gain from the coordinated application of preexisting data management techniques. I would like to work to see this happen someday. It must if we hope to remain competitive in the global economy.

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