Systems, Culture, Talent: The Movement to Transform Education into a Data-Driven Sector


There is a movement underfoot to evolve the use of data in education. The transformation will enable practitioners, policy-makers and leaders to use data to drive decisions everywhere from the classroom, to the board room, to the halls of the legislature.

The push, heavily motivated by federal funding initiatives such as the $4.35 billion Race to the Top program, and major education reform philanthropies, seeks to accelerate the rate of improvements in education and the number of United States students succeeding in school, career and life.

Recently, the Annual Progress Report on State Data Systems (PDF), a report by the Data Quality Campaign, found that since 2005, states have made notable progress towards the goal of building robust longitudinal data systems.

According to the report, all fifty states now have the ability to match individual students’ test records from year to year to measure academic growth. Only thirty-two states had that capability in 2005.

In addition, twenty-one states have a data system in place to determine which teacher preparation programs produce graduates whose students have the strongest academic growth. Only five states had this system in 2005.

The increased focus on and funding for data initiatives means school districts now have more support than ever to maximize the use of their data to advance student learning. 

But despite the progress, two major issues still block the overhaul: fixing the existing data systems and shifting the culture.

Leading the charge

With much work to be done to overcome the systems and culture issues standing in the way of a high-performing data-driven education sector, Education Pioneers Alumni are working on critical initiatives to help propel the education industry forward. 

Amy Wooten (’06 Boston) recently was awarded a fellowship with the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard’s Strategic Data Project, an initiative funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to promote a culture of data-utilization and inform policy and practice decisions in key school districts, states and schools.

Wooten works alongside a team of data fellows in Georgia’s Gwinnett County Public Schools. Their initiative supports the district to advance the use of data in key, strategic areas, namely measuring teacher effectiveness and examining graduation outcomes. At the same time, Gwinnett County is engaged in two major data initiatives in addition to the Strategic Data Project: the National Student Data Clearinghouse Project and the Teacher-Student Data Link Project.

“It is a really great time to be in Gwinnett County Public Schools,” Wooten said about the importance placed on and progress made towards advancing data practices in the district.

While many like Wooten work to strategically improve data practices in our K-12 school districts, some other visionary advocates see using data to improve the quality of students’ college education and workforce careers.

Alexandra Bernadotte (’07 Bay Area), recently launched a new organization called Beyond 12 (formerly CollegeSUCCESS) to increase low-income, first-generation students’ college graduation rates.

A major component of Beyond 12 will be building a data bridge between K-12, postsecondary, and eventually workforce data, feeding student results back to K-12 institutions to make improvements that will help to increase college graduation rates.

“Only nine percent of low-income students can expect to earn a Bachelors’ degree compared to seventy-five percent of higher income students. Our goal is to eliminate that gap,” said Bernadotte. “Beyond 12’s data bridge will help lead to more underserved students graduating from college.”

According to the Data Quality Campaign’s recent report, only thirty-one states now have the ability to match student records between P-12 to postsecondary systems.  But with the help of work like Bernadotte’s and Wooten’s, the education system could see data used more strategically in our K-12 system to improve education in the formative years and increase success in college and life for more students.

Navigating a culture shift

While overhauling data systems is by no means an easy task, the potentially harder part will be shifting culture in education.

While the mere presence of data and analysis will not be enough to shift culture in an entire industry, it can make a powerful impact.

“Quantitative data gives you more credibility to make changes,” Wooten said, referencing the recent Strategic Data Project finding in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district that states students who needed the most help were often assigned to first year teachers, who are on average less effective teachers. “If we were to say to school board members that teachers were not well distributed, it wouldn’t carry quite the punch that clear data showing kids are not getting a fair shake would have.”

Because of this, many organizations, like Bernadotte’s Beyond 12, are investing heavily in how data is analyzed and presented to practitioners in the field.

“Our biggest challenge will be to deliver data to institutions in a way that mobilizes them to take action,” said Bernadotte. “We won’t just be providing them with the data but with effective reporting tools, technology support and training for staff so they can translate the data into actionable steps.”

The case for business talent

With the transition underway to transform education into a data-driven sector, there is a strong need to ensure more talented professionals with analysis skills enter the field.

Professionals trained in business and analysis offer the field a critical perspective and new source of skills and experiences to navigate this very complicated work.

That said, Wooten cautions that while it is critical to bring outside talent into education to support data-focused efforts, success will only be possible when balanced with the perspective and experience from those already in the field.

“We have to bring in and capitalize on expertise from other areas, like business, while not undervaluing the work of education professionals,” said Wooten, who works closely with her fellowship partner who has a management consulting background. “We need to somehow bring together different streams of expertise in a way that helps us move the whole sector forward.”

-Julie Cruit Angilly
Director, Marketing and Communications 


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