Can Education Data Reforms Learn from Business Experience with IT?

The past decade has seen increasing use of data collection and use in education along with principles from business for its use. The data were initially driven by high-stakes test scores following federal NCLB legislation and related programs around evidence. For many, data use is linked to NCLB, its narrow forms of data, and its failures. During this same decade other forms of data are often joining achievement data in data warehouses. New terms, including multiple measures for teacher evaluation and balanced scorecards for districts and schools, have been introduced to the discussion. Education has entered an era where information and data are being used in many ways similar to ways other fields and businesses to transform organizations for greater productivity and effectiveness.

Despite the investments, there is little evidence that efforts to use data are working instrumental in achieving the desired effects. School performance has not been transformed. Researchers are generally unable to find reliable evidence showing how using data improves what educators do. While the poor quality of educational data and cultures of educators are seen as obstacles to improvement, some have wondered if data-based practices have run their course in education and like many other reform efforts should make way for new approaches. There seems support for arguments that education is fundamentally unique and tools and practices from other fields – principally businesses – have no role in education.

The history of business technology offers an important lesson. During the last several decades as businesses in America and throughout the world invested heavily in information tools, economists and researchers were also unable to detect meaningful improvements in productivity at national, sector, or organizational levels in what became known as the Productivity Paradox that was a point of discussion in the business technology literature from the late 1980s to the early part of this century. While academics discussed why the investments did not yield results, companies continued to pour billions into new technologies to collect, distribute, and analyze data. And, the business landscape is largely transformed by companies from Amazon to Wal-Mart to Google that leverage information in their business models. The Productivity Paradox has ceased to be an active discussion as scholars concluded that there were likely problems in the measurement and research data. What technology researchers now discuss is how productivity is a limited measure of the impact of information tools. The broader benefits include being able to reshape the ways organization function. Information tools take time to have an effect as they support collaboration, enable different organizational arrangements, and allow institutional vision.

For educational reformers looking to use data tools as levers for improvement, the history of the Productivity Paradox can be encouraging. Indeed, while an increase in student and teacher productivity has been elusive, other markers of information tools have been seen in education, including professional learning communities, collaboration around data and shifts in some market patterns. At the same time, there are reasons to be concerned. Education currently suffers from extreme challenges with data quality and reliable and consistent data infrastructures. Those fields that have been transformed through information technology did not have the two conditions of rampant data quality problems and political barriers to infrastructures that are part of the educational landscape. Until more progress is made on these two issues, education will continue to seem more unique, less like businesses, in its ability to use information to transform.

Posted in Big ideas & theories, Information infrastructure, Signs of the times, Uncategorized

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