Unleashing the Power of Data for School Reform: Secretary Arne Duncan's Remarks at the STATS DC 2010 Data Conference

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Unleashing the Power of Data for School Reform: Secretary Arne Duncan's Remarks at the STATS DC 2010 Data Conference

July 28, 2010

Thank you for being here today and for the work you do every day on behalf of our nation's children. I believe education is everyone's responsibility. As data experts, you have a unique role in education. You are the people who gather the evidence that guides school reform. You can create the compass that points reform in the right direction.

We can see in a variety of places that data can change policy—and can drive student achievement. Louisiana, for example, is leading the way in building a data system that tracks and compares the impact of new teachers from teacher preparation programs on student achievement over a period of years. Louisiana's system is up and running. It's linking teacher education programs in the state back to student performance and growth in math, English, reading, science, and social studies. Florida and other states are following Louisiana's lead—and I have no doubt that the teachers in those states will become better, and that students will benefit every day in the classroom.

More than ever, we need good data to guide reform. Just yesterday, I had the opportunity to announce the 19 finalists for the second round of the Race to the Top competition. Those 19 states are leading the way for reform across the country. But reform is not limited to those 19 states. It's happening across the country.

From journalists to educators to politicians to parents—there's a growing sense that school reform is taking hold in homes and schools, classrooms and communities. It's a quiet revolution. I am especially honored to be part of an administration that is playing a modest role in sparking this quiet revolution. Over the past year, we've seen tremendous progress. Forty-eight states voluntarily collaborated to create common college and career-ready standards—solving the single biggest drawback of NCLB—without a federal mandate or a federal dollar. So far, 30 states have adopted common standards—and the number seems to grow every day. Forty-four states have joined consortia that are building better tests and are competing for $350 million available in the Race to the Top assessment competition. These tests will give accurate assessments of whether students are career and college ready. They will go beyond the fill-in-the-bubble tests. They will measure the skills our students need to succeed in life. But this is about more than standards and tests. It's about people working together to make reform happen.

Under the Race to the Top state competition, 46 states and the District of Columbia brought together labor unions, school superintendents, and elected officials to compete for Race to the Top funds. In support of those applications, 13 states altered laws to foster the growth of charter schools and 17 states reformed teacher evaluation systems by including—among other things—student achievement. Best of all, these bold blueprints for reform bear the signatures of many key players at the state and local level who drive change in our schools. The winners of Race to the Top will be held accountable for those commitments. But every state that applied will benefit from this consensus-building process. Much of the federal dollars we distribute through other channels can support their plans to raise standards, improve teaching, turn around under-performing schools and use data more effectively to support student learning.

Through Race to the Top and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, all states are making progress on these issues. State officials have been investing in their data systems in recent years. I hope they will continue to do so—even in these difficult financial times. Good data promotes transparency and accountability. It shows the public the value that they're getting in their investment in education. It gives teachers information they need to change their practices to improve student achievement. It shows us when students are making progress and when they're not.

Data is an essential ingredient in the school reform agenda. We need to follow the progress of children from preschool to high school and from high school to college and college to career to see whether they are on-track for success and whether they are learning at least a year's worth of material in a year's instruction. I look forward to the day when we can look a child in the eye at the age of eight or nine or 10 and say, "You are on track to succeed in colleges and careers. If you keep working hard, you will absolutely get there." Without good data, we won't be able to make that promise.

I know that states are working hard to make data that works for children. Just five years ago, when the Data Quality Campaign did its first survey, not a single state had all 10 essential elements of an effective statewide data system. Now, that survey says 11 states do. And the Data Quality Campaign also reports that 47 states have data systems that can accurately measure whether high school students are graduating on time. We're extremely close to the day when we have the honest truth about the dropout rate in every state and in every school in America.

At the Department of Education, we're committed to helping every state expand and refine their data systems. As you know, the Statewide Longitudinal Data Systems program is funding states' work to improve their data systems. Over the past four years, 41 states and the District of Columbia have received more than half a billion dollars from this program. It has supported states as they link data from preschool, K-12, and postsecondary education. In some states, it supports their work to track students into the workforce. We're committed to helping all states.

Today, I'm pleased to announce that the National Center for Education Statistics will be greatly expanding its technical assistance efforts to ensure that all states get the help they need to design, develop, and maintain their data systems. The technical assistance will come from experts who are current and former Chief Information Officers in K-12 and postsecondary settings, assistant superintendents from states, and the program directors who manage state systems. They'll be available for consultation over the phone, through e-mail, and online. They'll help with your short-term emergencies and your long-term planning. They'll answer questions about how to design systems. They'll assist you in communicating with policymakers and educators about the importance of data and how to use your statewide systems to unleash the power of that data. You will be hearing more about this service from NCES officials in the coming month. Please take advantage of this opportunity.

Data systems are a vital ingredient of a statewide reform system. But having the data isn't enough. It's essential to use the data to drive student achievement. We can see this use of data to drive reform playing out before us. In Tennessee—one of our first round winners in Race to the Top—state leaders are teaming up with researchers to use data as their guide for their reform agenda. Tennessee has a treasure trove of data that it has been collecting for decades.

Through Race to the Top, it is forming a consortium of researchers based at Vanderbilt University to evaluate their reforms. In particular, the research team will be deeply involved in teacher evaluation. We all know that a teacher's evaluation should never be based on the scores of a single test—or even multiple tests. We need to include principal evaluations, peer reviews, and other measures, too. The research will help solve the question of how all of the data points should be used to evaluate teachers. This will help move teacher evaluation forward in Tennessee—and will give other states models to follow. This is exactly the way that data can shape policy—turning research into action that will improve student achievement.

As we move forward, I want to acknowledge that you face some difficult issues in your data systems. Probably none is more important than privacy. We're all concerned about children's privacy. Now more than ever, public servants must protect personal information—especially the personal information of our children. NCES is creating a Privacy Technical Assistance Center for states, districts, and postsecondary institutions. They will have timely and accurate guidance about how to ensure privacy, confidentiality, and security in their data systems.

Furthermore, we all should be committed to enforcing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. We have heard your concerns about complying with FERPA while developing longitudinal data systems. We plan to propose rules that will clarify how states can effectively develop and use data, while protecting the privacy of children. Even under the current rules, FERPA doesn't pose insurmountable barriers to research. A carefully constructed data system that separates personal information while providing the data researchers need is not an abstraction. It's being done in Texas and other states where researchers have access to as much data as they need to advance reforms without exposing students' personal information. The Texas data system has been cited as a model policy by the Department of Education's Family Policy Compliance Office. I hope you use it as a resource as you continue your own work.

The work you do is absolutely essential for school reform. We can't make progress without finding innovative solutions. We can't rebuild public education on the same old system. We have to find new solutions, identify the best practices, and eliminate the excuses. Data can help us unleash the power of research to advance reform in every school and classroom in America. Data can help us identify the teachers and principals all across America who are producing miracles in the classroom every day. Data can find the students who have lost their way and dropped out and put them back on track to graduate and succeed in life. Data can tell us identify outdated policies and practices that need to change so our children will succeed in school and in the workforce.

I thank you for all of your hard work on behalf of America's children.