The future of education data and research in the District of Columbia


Panelists speak at the event "Washington, DC’s Next Generation of Education Data and Research" at the Urban Institute on March 29, 2016. Photo by Lydia Thompson/Urban Institute

There's no dearth of data in education, but data aren’t useful unless they’re timely, actionable, and accurate.

A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences found that the DC education system lacks a comprehensive, transparent, and accessible data system and independent analysis. Experts and stakeholders gathered at the Urban Institute on Tuesday to discuss potential solutions and how to use that data to help students in the District.

Collecting data is not the problem. A list provided by the Office of DC's Deputy Mayor for Education highlights more than a dozen data sets available from four different agencies that cover everything from teacher salary reports to attendance rates. But just because the data are collected and available doesn't mean they’re consistent, accurate, and accessible. How useful are data on graduation rates if parents can't make sense of the way they’re reported? How can a social worker track a student's academic progress if her records from the school she attended last year show different data than what’s provided at her new school? 

DC is not the first city to grapple with having too much information but not enough time or resources to make use of it. Many other cities—including Chicago, Baltimore, New Orleans, and New York City—have responded to this problem with research-practice partnerships, which pair an outside research entity, such as a university or think tank, with a school district and with policymakers. The schools generate data, the research partner analyzes the data, and the policymakers act on the data. Such a system eases the burden on teachers and schools—who already collect a lot of data—and generates evidence-based solutions. 

But DC is fundamentally different from most other major city school districts, complicating the push for a research-practice partnership.

In DC, only 60 percent of kids enrolled in public education attend traditional public schools, while the rest are in charter schools. This means not only that different data are collected on nearly half the kids in the district, but also that kids move frequently between the DC Public Schools system and charter schools.

Further, in any given community, kids can be scattered in schools across the district. Effectively using data to inform education and supports would require collecting consistent data and being able to track every student's movement across schools and services to isolate the programs, teachers, or schools that are generating impact. This is no small task. 

Take, for example, the Kenilworth-Parkside community, where Isaac Castillo, deputy director of the DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative, wanted to look at attendance records to spot any students at risk of chronic absenteeism. Because the 1,800 kids in the neighborhood are dispersed across 184 schools, Castillo’s team struggled to get consistent, accurate data.

“We had to get printed attendance rolls from public and charter schools in our community and hand-enter data in our system,” Castillo said. “It’s not just missing data, it’s missing systems and missing desire to empower people to use data.”

That desire wasn’t missing among Tuesday’s crowd, however. Nearly 150 people attended, among them some of DC's education VIPs, including panelists Kaya Henderson, chancellor of DC Public Schools; Hanseul Kang, state superintendent of education; Scott Pearson, executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board; Jennifer Niles, deputy mayor for education; and David Grosso, chairman of the DC Council’s education committee—all of whom are well positioned to take action. 

But exactly what that action should look like was a point of debate. Adam Barr, DC regional director for Democracy Builders, said transportation data are useful, so he can see where students in different schools live. David Tansey, a math teacher at Dunbar Senior High School, said he needs better student-level data to understand what skills his incoming students are missing.

“I’ve begged for data that’s actionable,” Tansey said.

The district and charter administrators, meanwhile, want data that can demonstrate whether a program is working. Policymakers need data that can help them decide what initiatives to fund. And one parent spoke up to say that the most important thing for her is being able to understand the data the school has on her child. 

In case balancing these sometimes conflicting needs is not enough, any data collection must also consider the city’s limited resources, the limited time teachers have, the requirements of federal privacy laws, and programs other than schools that might affect student performance. Henderson described trying to gather data on truant students from across schools, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the police; simply creating the information-sharing agreements took a year.

Kang did note Tuesday that the mayor’s budget proposal contains two significant investments in data, but there was hope among other panelists that, much like Chicago and the other cities, DC might secure an independent partner to keep and analyze data.

“That’s exactly what’s needed,” said Josh Boots, executive director of Empower K12. “But it has to be a trusted partner. Finding a trusted partner that is trusted by those groups is like finding a unicorn.”