DIGITAL TWEED: Bring Data

Campus investments in IT play a critical role in the new world order of assessment and outcome mandates.

In discussing the Bush Administration’s efforts at education assessment and reform at the annual meeting of the American Council on Education last February, newly appointed Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings told the assembled college presidents, “In God we trust; all others bring data.”

Eleven days later, Spellings, a former senior advisor to then-Texas governor George W. Bush, even personalized the statement when speaking at the annual convention of the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP; www.nassp.org): “Back in Texas,” she said, “we like to joke: In God we trust; all others bring data!”

It’s a line that Spellings used a number of times during her inaugural tour following her January 2005 investiture as the nation’s senior education official. Public records (the transcripts of her prepared remarks released by the Department of Education, or news reports filed after her conference presentations and meetings) reveal the Secretary used the “bring data” admonition with several groups, including the Council for American Private Education (www.capenet.org), the American Association of Community Colleges (www.aacc.nche.edu), the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and the Maryland Governor’s Commission on Quality Education (www.gov.state.md.us).

The ‘bring data’ mandate means…that we must make the transition from epiphany to evidence in our conversations about the impact of IT.

Give Sec. Spellings (characterized in some news reports as a “self-described education hawk”) credit for successfully encapsulating the key theme of the Bush Administration’s education program into a tightly crafted (and yes, somewhat disarming) message about educational accountability, assessment, and reform: “In God we trust; all others bring data!” The statement is sharp, clear, and compelling; moreover, it seems original. Bring data! Well, it is sharp and clear, but it is not original. A Google search of the phrase reveals that the quip, “In God We Trust; all others bring data!” originates with W. Edwards Deming, the American quality guru whose work on statistical quality control had a profound impact on manufacturing in the United States during the Second World War, and later, the Japanese economy. (The Japanese government created the Deming Prize to honor the impact of Deming’s work on the post-World War II Japanese economy.) Indeed, a Google search on the phrase, “all others bring data” yields more than 1,400 references, most citing Deming (not Spellings).

Perhaps we should forgive Spellings for failing to reference Deming in her comments. Maybe it was faulty staff work; someone in the Secretary’s office forgot to do a quick Google search before locking down the text of her prepared comments for her Inaugural Tour. (The Bushies seem to have some problems with reliable research.)

Maybe Deming’s quip really is part of the consensual, cultural wisdom in Texas. Perhaps Deming, who was born in Iowa, earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Wyoming, completed his doctorate at Yale, and lived most of his adult life in Washington DC, appropriated the quip from a passing Texan he met during his travels.

What Good Is This Stuff?

But let’s focus on meaning, not origins. And there is little doubt about the meaning of Sec. Spellings’ message: Bring data! Indeed, the bring data! message is gathering steam (and creating some storms) across all sectors of education, both K-12 and postsecondary.

Whether we prefer Deming or Spellings as the messenger, the bring data! mandate has special meaning for those of us in and around campus IT operations and initiatives. On one level, it speaks to the growing “trust but verify” message about campus IT investments and initiatives described in my October 2004 Digital Tweed column: “The ongoing investment in technology seems to lead to still more investments in IT—without documented enhancements in productivity, enhanced educational outcomes, or reduced costs.”

Additionally, the bring data! mandate means—as I noted in my April 2004 Digital Tweed column—that we must make the transition from epiphany to evidence in our conversations about the impact of IT. “Evidence by (individual or institutional) epiphany fails to provide the much-needed data and documentation required to respond to questions about the impact and benefits of technology in instruction and institutional operations…the quest for evidence about IT beyond epiphany means that we must simply do more assessment, do it better, and begin doing it now.”

IT has become integral to the bring data! mandate. IT operations are the repository for the data that are critical to assessment and outcome measurement, be those assessments and evaluations focused on student retention, academic performance, the impact of new curricula, or even the “return on investment” for information technology.

Right Hand, Meet Left Hand

The disparate data from student information systems, campus financial systems, HR/personnel files, alumni offices and development programs, and databases large and small that are scattered across our campuses are now the core resources in the new world of assessment and outcomes. The business intelligence and data mining tools that allowed Wal-Mart to discover a surprising run on beer in its Florida stores ahead of last fall’s tropical storms are the same tools that colleges and universities will have to deploy to respond to the mandates (some new and some ignored for years but now enforced) from accrediting associations, government agencies, and other sponsors who demand hard data documenting impacts and wanting real evidence about institutional outcomes.

We can (and should) debate the politics that too often seem interwoven in the public pronouncements about assessment and institutional performance. But there is not much room to argue about the need for thoughtful and informed assessment initiatives and outcome measures. In IT and elsewhere, the new mantra is—or should be—bring data!

This is a preview of the Digital Tweed column that will appear in the July issue of Campus Technology.

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