In education, data are often viewed as a risk, not an opportunity.

Seventeen years ago, a few minutes after midnight on May 2, 2000, the United States government ended a policy of intentionally degrading GPS signals or making them “selectively available” to almost anyone except military applications. With one policy decision by President Bill Clinton, the accuracy of GPS for all users went from 50-100 meters off to 20 meters or better with the flick of a switch. Innovation took off, businesses were launched and, as anyone who uses Uber or Google Maps knows, GPS today is accurate to a few meters and a part of every smart phone.


The GPS change was basically about grain size. As the GPS grain size got smaller, the potential for GPS-powered applications took off. Whether for navigation, safety or just convenience, the smaller grain size made a variety of solutions possible.


Not long after Clinton’s GPS decision, education data underwent its own grain size shift. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 included funding for states to upgrade their data systems. Of all the impacts of the law, this might end up being the most far-reaching. Since the early 2000s, states have improved the quantity and quality of data they track. Debates that used to, at best, be fought out over school-level results can now be argued with student-level data. Research into topics such as charter school performance, teacher effectiveness and the impact of various interventions is now informed by data and evidence linked to individual students.


Yet all of the research (and the debate about education data) has created the illusion of ubiquitous education data. Instead, in practice, the parallels between education and GPS fall apart in some key ways.

First, while the decision to end selective availability was controversial (Clinton’s decision came only after an interagency process to discuss national security concerns and other issues), once the order was given the race was on to make the new data as useful as possible in as many ways as possible. There was competition among businesses, entrepreneurs and investors. But there was not an organized effort to constrain GPS or roll back the clock. When President George W. Bush made the change permanent by changing satellite procurement policy in 2007, it was scarcely noticed.

In education, by contrast, the effect on the marketplace has been modest relative to the potential and there are still vigorous efforts to put the data genie back in its bottle.


For instance, linking student and teacher data remains controversial despite the obvious analytic power it creates. Few states make use of this information in a meaningful way. This doesn’t just impact school accountability or teacher evaluation, it hamstrings efforts to create better tools for teachers.


Despite valid concerns about data privacy for students, the debate about privacy in education is still as much about larger education battles – the role of the private sector, transparency and accountability for example – as it is about the specific issue of how to protect student data.


And many states still don’t power their data systems to share data in useful ways at all. For parents, despite the availability of education data, it’s still easier to find out reliable and comparative information about a dishwasher than about the school your child might attend. Most of the private sector education market is still focused on selling things to schools rather than using data in genuinely innovative ways. As my colleague Robin Lake pointed out recently, too much supposedly data-customized “personalized” learning is just old education wine in new bottles.

Yes, as a recent Data Quality Campaign report pointed out, education is ahead of some parts of the public sector when it comes to using data. But that’s a low bar. The report also argues that because data was perceived as a “hammer not a flashlight” it made adoption harder. Probably, but in a highly-politicized field that is allergic to accountability, everything is perceived as a hammer.


At one level, this is just a reminder of the obvious point that education is a political marketplace more than an economic one. We appropriately think about classrooms differently than we think about navigation on our iPhones.


But the story of education data and how differently data has played out in the education sector than with GPS is also a good reminder of just how deep anti-empiricism and anti-innovation sentiment runs in the education sector. Data is viewed as a risk here, not an opportunity. Sure, some of the resistance is the old story of special interests advocating for their self-interest. Still, it’s a mistake not to see it as something more broadly illustrative of the challenge those seeking to change the K-12 education sector face.


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