Districts show the way in using data

In Sacramento, the partially completed statewide student data system, CALPADS, has become mired in a power struggle over the management and oversight of the system.

But in Fresno, Long Beach, and San Jose, districts aren’t waiting around for the state to finish a colossus. They and a few well-run charter organizations have built their own data systems that are doing what CALPADS, as currently designed, won’t provide: fast and ready information to guide teachers’ decisions in the classroom and administrators’ judgments in working with teachers.

These systems are models for other districts, and they should steer the Legislature and governor as they consider what’s next for CALPADS (assuming it doesn’t implode). That was a message at a conference Tuesday in Mountain View, “From Inputs to Outputs: The Power of Data and Technology to Close the Achievement Gap.”  The event was sponsored by the advocacy group Education-Trust West and the Silver Giving Foundation, Children Now, and the Silicon Valley Education Foundation.

“The impediments are not financial but governance. Powers in Sacramento are not familiar with data work in Fresno and Aspire (a charter management organization)  and how far they have come,” Arun Ramanathan, executive director of Ed-Trust West said. “Innovation is reflected in districts in California but not in Sacramento.”

Innovative districts are showing powerful potential. San Jose Unified is building an early warning system to identify high-risk students and then respond with interventions.  Fresno Unified is working with Microsoft to create an intricate employee information system that will systematically guide recruitment, identify effective teachers and potential leaders, and, tied to student results, inform teacher development. Long Beach Unified’s web-based LROIX system has cemented a district-wide culture of attention to data. Teachers have rich profiles of their students linked to past test results, quarterly benchmark assessments, personal information, data on discipline and attendance – all accessible and easy to read and use.  Principals can measure teachers’ impact on individual students and classes over the course of a year.

Teachers are familiar with the system and how to read the results, so their conversations turn on good practices, a Long Beach principal said.

“Blow up CALPADS, and build this system for the state,” quipped Sanger Unified Superintendent Marc Johnson.

Small districts like Sanger can’t afford to build a system like LROIX or hire a vendor to do it, and it makes no sense for 1,000 districts to do so on their own.

Texas appears to have an answer, as much as California might hate to admit it.

It has had a centralized data system like CALPADS for years, but the Texas Student Data System, when completed in 2014, will provide individual student narratives in templates that teachers are finding readable and useful. It will be Long  Beach writ large, for 4.7 million students in 1,235 districts. One key component, the District Connections Database, will be a platform, on which districts can add their own software and improvements. The Texas-based Michael and Susan Dell Foundation has been a big funder and influence.

CALPADS isn’t designed as an open, interactive system. It’s partly compliance-based – to provide state data to the federal government to satisfy requirements of No Child Left Behind and Title I – and it will be a data warehouse, from which researchers and policy makers can better decide which programs work and which don’t.

“If you’re struggling to persuade Californians to spend more money on schools, then you must persuade them that their  dollars get results. Without a real data system, you cannot make the case,” State Sen. Joe Simitian, who’s been instrumental in creating CALPADS, told educators at the conference.

The goal should be improving learning in the classroom. “It’s not a binary choice”  between a state system and individual districts’ systems, he said. The challenge is how to create multiple uses.

Author: John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (www.TOPed.org), one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

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