An essential component of continuous improvement is making decisions based on data, which will require fundamental changes in how we collect and use data and in the processes we currently use for decision-making.
For many years, school districts have been developing and using multiple data systems for different purposes. As a result, many districts today have separate systems for finance data, personnel data, required accountability information for special education students, school lunch data, enrollment and attendance, and assessment data. Historically, linking together data from these different systems was cumbersome or impossible. Just one example of a nearly impossible task in most districts today is calculating the average seniority of educators teaching students who are in free or reduced-price lunch programs versus the average seniority of educators of other students – an important measure when trying to provide equitable access to effective teaching.
Advances in technology and a recent policy emphasis on using data in decision-making have resulted in much improved data in many districts. Still, while almost all districts have electronic access to data such as student demographics, attendance, grades and test scores, less than half have the ability to combine data from different types of systems to be able to link student outcome data to data about specific instructional programs, teacher characteristics, or school finances (Gray & Lewis, 2009; U.S. Department of Education, 2010). Combining data from these different types of systems will require at a minimum the development and use of content, student learning, and financial data interoperability standards. Over time, it will require designing, developing, and adopting integrated systems for collecting the complex forms of data we need and for deriving meaningful interpretations relative to what we want to measure.
In addition to fragmented data systems, the silos created by funding programs, tradition, and interest groups present a major barrier to improving the productivity of our education system. When those responsible for a given function are isolated from others within the same organization, they tend to develop practices and procedures that are optimal only from their own perspective. In addition, decisions made in one portion of an organization may create tension with decisions made in another. To ensure better alignment in decision-making, states and districts should develop process-redesign teams that cut across functions and follow the process rather than looking at work flow only within a given office (CoSN, 2009). To make progress toward this goal, technology support and decision-making in the areas of curriculum, instruction, and assessment should be more tightly integrated than they are at present.
In addition, federal and state policies and regulations should be reviewed to identify and remove barriers to more efficient use of resources within schools and districts. Policies also should be reviewed to remove practices that keep technology functions isolated from the functions of teaching, learning, and assessment. These include separate funding streams and restrictions on the use of funds that reinforce the isolation of the educational technology function.
Moreover, states can help their districts increase productivity by promoting process redesign and consolidation of technology and services, evaluating innovative models used by districts or regional education service units within their state, and providing technical assistance around successful models that improve outcomes and achieve efficiencies.
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