Red tape chokes school data system

Red tape chokes school data system

(Calif.) A cumbersome and unorganized data management system continues to crimp the ability of policymakers to answer even basic questions about the performance of California’s 10,000 schools, according to a report released today by a team of scholars affiliated with Stanford University.

Although California has taken steps in recent years to improve the collection of and access to the mounds of data being generated everyday by the public school system, the state remains far behind what is being done elsewhere nationally, a research team coordinated by the university in conjunction with the Policy Analysis for California Education, or PACE, said.

As a result, significant and fundamental policy questions cannot be answered, such as:

  • Are smaller K-3 class sizes a good investment?
  • Which schools are most successful in moving English learners to full proficiency?
  • Are the state’s publicly funded preschool programs having a positive impact on kindergarten readiness?

The big frustration, the PACE report found, is that the data exists but access is restricted.

“The limitations of California’s data system are not the result of technological difficulties,” the team reported. “Modern software technology makes it possible for governments at all levels to use the data they already collect to improve service coordination and delivery, and to conduct research and evaluation to inform policymaking. California is well behind other states in taking advantage of this opportunity.”

The report on school data is just one of 35 separate studies conducted by the team of analysts led by academics from Brown University, the University of California, Berkeley, and San Diego State.

Among the other areas of investigation are the status of California’s teacher preparation system;  the effects of the Local Control Funding Formula and its companion, the Local Control Accountability Plan; as well as health services, pensions and charter schools.

The report comes ten years after a similar effort sponsored by PACE, which focused on many of the same issues, such as the achievement gap between affluent and low-income students, and inadequate funding to match the goals of state policies.

Overall, the new PACE report found the state’s public schools are moving in the right direction, but, as always, more can be done.

While some of what challenges the K-12 system might may require wholesale social and economic changes, the team that looked specifically at the data system said much of what is wrong can be fixed.

A good starting point might be with integration of data already collected.

The backbone to the state’s school data program is the California Longitudinal Pupil Assessment and Data System, or CalPADS.

A vast array of student information is collected and stored by CalPADS including attendance, course enrollments, and state test scores. For various reasons, however, CalPADS isn’t linked to any of the major databases maintained by other state agencies that also have important responsibilities over child welfare and education.

The research team suggested that the state look to integrate CalPADS with the data system operated by the community colleges and the state universities, the early learning providers, the Commission on Teacher Credentialing, and the Employment Development Department.

“The state of California or its agents already own each of the above data systems and each already contains a great deal of information in a readily usable form,” the authors of the report said. “Integrating these databases and providing better access could help educators, policymakers, and researchers better understand the K-12 system.”

The PACE team also pointed out that the California Department of Education could also improve its management of the CalPADS.

Part of the problem at CDE, they said, stems from a lack of resources. But they also said there is a “lack of clarity about permissible uses” of student data, so much so that academic analysis is so inhibited that policy makers must look elsewhere for answers.

“Because decision makers cannot access information on California, they must rely on analyses from other states,” the report said. “California produces very little information on what makes an excellent education for its own students.”

The team said it is critical for the advance of the school system to have data that is reliable and defendable, as well as accessible.

“California’s existing political, technological, and organizational barriers to the creation of improved statewide data systems are not insurmountable,” they said in conclusion. “Other states have overcome these barriers, and their experiences demonstrate the substantial value of better data systems. Enormous technical projects are not required—significant progress can be made at a relatively low cost, given the political will to overcome bureaucratic and organizational inertia.”

PACE is an independent, non-profit research center supported by Stanford University, the University of Southern California, the University of California, Davis, the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of California, Berkeley.

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