Wasted Data: 5 Facts about Why We Don’t Use Existing Student Databases

It’s no secret that technology implementation in P-12 schools comes with some serious red tape. While American colleges and universities tend to be at the forefront of innovative ways of learning, childhood education lags seriously behind. A recent PBS study found that while 90 percent of P-12 classrooms have at least one computer, only 35 percent have tablets or electronic readers. The amount of policy writing that goes into allowing “new” technology like tablets, let alone the budget for them, makes it prohibitive for most schools to implement the equipment in reasonable time frames.

But what about technology that already exists in P-12 classrooms, but in less flashy ways? Consider the database technology behind virtually every school system in the country. If you are not too familiar with it, here are a few facts you should know.

  1. Schools have electronic storage of everything from basic address information of students to their in-class progress in an array of subjects. Schools often track other factors too like socioeconomic status and other defining features like racial background and family circumstances. This private data collection on students starts long before the traditional start of school. Early childhood programs in every state keep track of student information and progress too.
  2. The problem with all of this data keeping is that the numbers are usually kept in isolation. Beginning with early childhood education, individual schools do not reach out to each other or across state lines when it comes to student progress and innovative teaching methods.
  3. A recent study released by The Early Childhood Collaboration found that Pennsylvania is the only state in the nation with a system for linking student data across all education programs, from early childhood learning through grade 12. Progressive California has absolutely no data linking programs in place and no plans to start one. As the report points out:

“Comprehensive and connected data on children, programs, and the workforce are used to track progress over time, pinpoint problems, identify underserved groups, and allocate limited resources.”

  1. It’s simply easier not to use the data collected. Despite such a treasure trove of data, student information seems to be recorded simply for posterity. It’s clearly not impossible to share the information (Pennsylvania does it) but states do not seem to be rushing to do it. Such an undertaking would certainly require an upfront cost which could be behind the hesitancy – but I wonder how much of the delay is simply the convenience of the status quo. Student data has always been collected for internal use, or to satisfy specific state requirements, so going above and beyond that is scary territory. How will schools find the manpower for the extra steps of sharing, and analyzing? Who will be in charge of storing the data? What about student privacy?
  2. Using these databases can change how we create and implement policies. I understand the logic behind the questions listed in the last paragraph, but these are all minor impositions. It has never been easier to connect all of the nation’s student data sets in order to build a better picture of what America’s P-12 student body looks like today, and set goals for improvement based on actual statistics. Like these databases, many education policies are created in isolation. What if the people who wrote those policies had a complete data set to inform their choices? How quickly would education legislation transform from theory to actionable plans based on fact?

The ECDC report recommends that states strengthen their abilities to securely link to student data amongst their schools, and to expand the information that is screened and collected. Some less tangible advice would be for educators and policymakers to realize the value of interconnected student information and begin to consider the true possibilities of combining that knowledge.

Would you support greater sharing of student data across schools, systems and states?

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