Tracking Success

Geoffrey H. Fletcher Take it from the Obama administration: Data and analytics are key to improving student learning.

I have the feeling this administration "gets it" about technology in education. In June, I had the good fortune to interview Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Jim Shelton, assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement in the Department of Education. And later that month, I was able to hear Aneesh Chopra, the White House chief technology officer, and Shelton banter and answer questions for the state educational technology directors at their summer meeting. From what I heard, these guys sure seem to be walking the talk.

At the core of these leaders' belief systems is the use of data. When Chopra was asked about the biggest leverage points that technology can bring to education, he said emphatically, "Data and analytics are key." In the K-12 sector, using data from formative testing is all the rage because it has been shown to dramatically improve student learning by helping teachers understand-- in real time-- how well students are grasping the material. This approach is creeping into higher education on the backs of clicker systems and other instant polling devices (see page 18 for more on this).

But higher education (and K-12 for that matter) still has a long way to go in using data. Chopra talked about how large retail stores can adjust sale items based on a combination of factors such as the weather, the score of an NFL game, and the day of the week, while educators are struggling with disconnected analog inputs from textbooks, exams, and class discussions, to make decisions about what is and is not working for students.

Secretary Duncan also noted the need in education for data systems to track student progress from prekindergarten through college and into careers. These longitudinal data systems are at the core of the Obama administration's efforts to improve education at all levels. As an example, one requirement for states applying for stimulus funds is to establish "pre-K-tocollege and career data systems that track progress and foster continuous improvement." Also on the state level, a competitive $250 million grant program for statewide longitudinal data systems will be awarded by the Institute of Education Sciences in November. Funding for the $53 billion State Fiscal Stabilization Fund (run through the governors' offices) is conditioned upon states agreeing to have such data systems in place.

In our interview, Duncan told me that data systems are key to accomplishing one of President Obama's goals: raising the country's college graduation rate. "We used to be there," Duncan said. "We've flat-lined. Other folks have passed us by." Without the capability to track students over time, we don't have a clear idea about what works to help students graduate. Maybe more important, we won't know if we are teaching them what they need to know once they enter the world of work.

The Obama administration's push for the innovative use of data and analytics presents higher ed with the opportunity it needs to walk the talk on how to improve instruction to increase student retention and graduation rates.

--Geoff Fletcher, Editorial Director

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