Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Is the U.S. ready to empower learners with data?

Last week, when I attended the Data Quality Campaign's National Data Summit, I was caught off guard by a subtle but dramatic shift in advocacy for use of data in education. It was no surprise that the event last week would focus on data use. DQC has shifted its emphasis over the past couple of years from promoting quality in state longitudinal data systems to promoting effective use of the data collected in such systems. Aimee Guidera and the DQC staff deserve credit for moving the agenda forward at each step of the way.

 It may not have been obvious to many, but last week's meeting took a next step. I expected to hear about expanded uses of educational data, beyond school accountability, and more about uses of data that more directly impact student learning. I expected to hear about the changing role of state data systems from accountability (reporting up), to supporting local decision-making (reporting down) to the school district, school, and classroom. I expected to hear discussions about how these changing roles require different kinds of data and services provided to teachers. I expected to hear about data for improving instructional and the teaching profession. 

What I was surprised about was discussion about giving students access to data to inform their own learning. Of course this is being done and is nothing new.  I was not surprised by the concept, only in that it was discussed at a DQC event with the U.S. Secretary of Education, a State Commissioner of Education, and others on the national stage.

 It is not a new idea to focus on learning and to empower students to become life-long learners. It is new, however, to discuss on the national stage about giving data to students. It is new to have a discussion about the learning that students might do on their own or outside of the traditional public school setting.  Long-held unwritten and unspoken turf rules, institutionalized as core to our educational system have made certain conversations about data use off-limits. For example, "local control" has been an excuse for some states to focus on collecting accountability data, not on data systems that support student learning. And until recently the classroom was off limits, even to other teachers, as the place for the private practice of a teacher's "art". Professional learning communities are changing that.

Education is too often perceived as something teachers do to students. Teachers "educate" students, principals and LEAs "manage" schools, state education agencies "fund, regulate, and hold accountable" schools and districts, and the federal education agency uses funding and federal policy as levels to hold states and school districts accountable. The institutional culture is preserved as long as everyone stays on their own turf. The unfortunate reality is that student learning is the core purpose for all of these actors. 

Because of the institutional turf culture, the national agenda for educational data use has until recently left out the most important participant, the learner. We collect a lot of data about students, but we don't provide students with the data that could optimize their learning experience.

The traditional classroom model of student learning doesn't always promote student ownership, but emerging blended learning models make the student a more active participant. A cultural shift is beginning to changed attitudes and behaviors, as U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, "Our goal here is not data, our goal is to change behavior and get better outcomes." Better outcomes may require shifts in attitudes from "doing my job" (in the context of established turf) to "doing my part to support students learning."

I've been connected with some "disruptive" innovations already being used to empower students with data, multi-state efforts to develop a "shared learning infrastructure" and teaching and learning systems, and experiments in blended learning that shift the data needs from teacher-centric to learner-centric.

A long time friend and life-long teacher was once asked by a student, "Why do you not think I'm not important enough to let me in on what I'm supposed to be learning, and tell me how well I'm learning it?" The conversation at the DQC event last week asked a similar question to the data community. While there will continue to be turf issues, as well as positive aspects of local vs. national boundaries, I saw the conversation last week as another milestone toward a system able to meet the needs of all learners.

No comments: