What Does the Increase in the Federal Digital Footprint Mean in a Post-NCLB World?

As bolts are being taken out of the structure of NCLB, one area I have been thinking about is how over the last decade the Federal government has been expanding its role in the area of digital technology. What does this mean in a post-NCLB world?
It is interesting that technology issues have become mainstream policy topics in recent years. Technology details are now integral to many federal programs and frequently discussed by the President of the United States and his team when a few years ago they were technical issues largely discussed by experts outside of public view. The fact the one of the four pillars of Race to the Top was for states to build/expand their own data systems with specific features to link teachers and students to support value-added or other growth models is a sign of these new powers. Other programmatic funding, including the State Longitudinal Data System (SLDS) and Teacher Incentive Funds (TIF) programs are specifically directing state technology moves is important ways. Further, the Federal government is taking active roles in developing standards for educational data in the Common Education Data Standards (CEDS) and for making instructional materials accessible to students with disabilities with the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard (NIMAS).

The long-term impacts of these federal efforts are not entirely clear — the digital age is still young. However, even once NCLB is reauthorized (or fully dismantled) the technologies for testing and the data collected under it will remain providing a residual legacy. It will be interesting to see how the impending multiyear budget challenges that the education sector may face will impact the ability of states to move beyond the type of tests they developed for NCLB. If the Race to the Top assessment consortia (PARCC and SBAC) are able to develop tests all states can use or if states get massive infusions of fresh cash then NCLB’s tests will be a thing of the past. If not, NCLB’s testing infrastructures could be with us for a while. In addition to trying approaches to educational reform, federal policy is supporting the construction of information infrastructures with specific design elements.

Personally, I believe these are important and worthy areas. I know people working in many of these projects and know them to be smart professionals focused on the public interests. I think these efforts should probably continue. However, they represent another way in which the federal footprint in education is expanding and it might be useful to understand what the proper role of the government in these cases are. Unlike other policy and funding moves, there is little historical record to rely upon since so much of this has happened within the last decade – really most of the substantive activity has been in just the last five years or so as Bush programs took some time to mature and to be built on by these Obama administration initiatives. The relationships between these activities and the private sector are interesting.

To be clear, I believe it is responsible for the Department of Education to be actively concerned with matters related to the data used to evaluate programs and conduct research. It is reasonable that they would embark on these activities in a way (as they seem to have been doing) that is independent of vendors who could have much to gain from digital standards friendly to their products. And, the power of the federal government has the potential to do a lot of good in a sector that seems disorganized. With that power to help comes other power as well. Not all of the issues that appear in this digital footprint are simple. In the case of student growth models, the teacher-student data linkage is appearing to be important not only from a technical perspective, but also to have policy implications for how schools assign instructional responsibility (also known as the teacher student data linkage). This is actually a tricky area (see here). As with many parts of the policy, educators that deal with higher rates of transience and special education may be asymmetrically affected. We saw a movie like this before with the an approach based on good intentions called AYP.

My point is not to condemn or endorse these efforts, but to ask about how they can proceed without some oversight and some discussion of what the appropriate federal role is. Since these efforts are often undertaken by different parts of the large federal bureaucracy there are questions about whether it is coordinated and leveraging lessons learned in other fields that have become more efficient by developing common ways of sharing information.

Posted in Information infrastructure, Signs of the times, Uncategorized

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