Which school do you want to support?
Imagine if Amazon.com were unable to keep track of customer purchases. Imagine a pharmaceutical company unable to tell one pill from another. Or a bank losing track of accounts. In the last few decades, the world has become accustomed to the idea that big organizations should be good at data.
Education has a long way to go in that regard, especially in California.
Compared to other states, California spends very little on education data systems.
When it comes to education data, California is widely considered something of a backwater. Compared to other states, California spends very little on education data systems, and it shows.
The national Data Quality Campaign (DQC) gave California a low rating for the quality of its education data in 2012. The following year, California "addressed" this low ranking... by declining to participate in the survey. Governor Jerry Brown, a declared skeptic of the value of education data systems, consistently opposed, blocked, or defunded many efforts to build or improve the quality and availability of education data, preferring to leave the matter to individual school districts.
The potential usefulness of education data systems is enormous. Education data systems can enable students, parents, teachers, and school leaders to see assignments, get access to course materials, view grades, collect feedback and improve communication. Attendance systems connected to community services can help support attendance. Data systems can support research, shedding light on the effectiveness of educational materials. Data can help to identify extraordinary schools, teachers, and programs. But only if the systems are set up to collect and connect.
California's data systems for education are so basic that the national conversation about how to use data to support learning has moved on to other states. It takes a certain amount of basic data infrastructure to try interesting things and learn from them.
When it comes to education data, California is widely considered a backwater
The DQC was an early critic the weaknesses of California's data systems for education, but hardly the only one. For example, a 2013 report from the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) echoes many of the same themes, as does a 2017 publication from the Education Insight Center titled California's Maze of Student Information.
California's major data system for education is the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System, commonly known as CALPADS. The core element of CALPADS is a unique identifier for each student that remains consistent even as the student advances through grades and moves from one school to the next. The state has begun the work of linking systems between K-12 education and higher education, but it is very difficult to draw useful conclusions about the long-term impact of investments.
Some attempts to create linked data systems across sectors have occurred in California, thanks to local effort. Doing this work, however, requires that local districts assemble (and pay for) their own data systems. Few standards have been created for how such systems should communicate with one another, so they mostly don't. When data moves, it's usually with a lot of trouble and delay. When we need answers for Ed100, it can be worse than finding a needle in a haystack, because it isn't even clear which haystack to look in.
SARCs. School Accountability Report Cards (SARCs) demonstrate the deep limitations of California’s data approach. This report, published by school districts, is meant to satisfy both state and federal requirements for public access to information about each school. Some of the data in the report comes from the State Department of Education. Other information must come from the school district, and some information can only come from the school.
The State provides a sample template for the SARC; school districts have the choice of using it, creating their own, or contracting with an outside vendor. School districts can use whatever approach they wish to make the SARC available to the public, but must also include a link on their web site and submit the SARC to the state Department of Education. The result is a separate PDF file for each school each year. The state does not audit or summarize the data from this field of digital haystacks. Determined researchers can bring their own pitchfork to the job by visiting SARConline, which at least might save the trouble of finding the SARC files.
LCAPs. Since 2014, districts and charter schools have been required to create a document known as the Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP). Each year, each district is expected to use the LCAP to "tell its local story." The LCAP template requires specific kinds of information — but as with the SARC, the end result is a haystack of PDF files, often with multiple versions. The template does not "expose" data digitally, in a way that would make it easy to use. For example, to compare data from one district’s LCAP to another’s involves hand-copying it into a spreadsheet. Although the data included in LCAPs ought to be consistent with the data in SARCs, there is no mechanism to facilitate or enforce this consistency.
SPSAs. The LCAP, in principle, is meant to align with the information in SARCs as well as with each school's separate Single Plan for Student Achievement, yet another document required under federal and state law.
In an effort to be thorough, and to comply with state and federal requirements, these documents go on for pages and pages. They are comprehensive, but frequently incomprehensible.
A mess of reports /
a muddle of data /
It might get better... /
Check back later.
With the right data system, used consistently, all of this accountability reporting could be made more accessible for the public, more straightforward for districts, and more consistent. But that kind of data infrastructure does not appear to be part of the state’s plan, at least at this writing.
One obstacle to improving the state's data structure is to get everyone using the same systems, or at least systems that treat data in compatible ways. Another is the complexity of ensuring that the systems effectively protect the privacy of students and teachers. Big businesses and government organizations face these issues all the time -- they can be solved, but doing so requires leadership and work. Finding the leadership to sort out California's education data haystacks is a complex problem. For one thing, it's unclear who is in charge. School districts are substantially left to find their own ways of solving data problems. Getting them to do things the same way, or even use the same data definitions, can run afoul of California's laws against creating state mandates.
Data issues may seem wonkish. They rarely fire up the passions of politicians, education activists, or parent leaders. But it seems inconceivable that this data weakness can continue forever in California, the home of Silicon Valley.
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