Connecting the Digital Dots in Education
For years, Dr. Jennifer Coleman was struggling with how to prevent her students at Richland One School District in South Carolina from dropping out. But too often, by the time school districts like Richland One identify students as at-risk, it’s too late for many interventions to be successful.
In one illuminating example for Dr. Coleman, an elementary student with no prior risk indications was detected by BrightBytes as high risk, and teachers and counselors were able to respond immediately with the necessary interventions.
It was a eureka moment for both administrators and teachers in the district, because they realized that data analytics had gotten good enough to identify a crossroads moment for a student and intervene early and successfully.
This story has me thinking about the power of data in education, including revisiting the question of which education data can and should be made public.
Coincidentally, I recently taught about Open Data to Congressional Staffers, thanks to the Institute for Law and technology Policy at Georgetown Law.
Congressional staffers wanted to know how open data is relevant to policy, so I talked through current and proposed laws including the DATA Act, which is bringing standards and transparency to federal spending by powering the new USASpending.gov and helping fuel new external projects like Steve Ballmer’s USAFacts. (Disclosure: I had the chance to advise on DATA Act implementation from the White House, and more recently, a student team in my Harvard Kennedy School class worked with Treasury on exploring additional use cases.)
I also recently attended the Round Table on Open Data for Economic Growth at the White House, where the new Administration outlined support for continuing to treat data as a strategic asset, and making it open, public, and machine-readable wherever possible. (See the event write-up from Alex Howard of the Sunlight Foundation and the related FedScoop article by Joel Gurin of the Center on Open Data Enterprise.)
Both events got me thinking about how Insight Venture Partner portfolio companies use open data. Some, like Alteryx, make public data available (like Census demographic and economic data) right in its self-service data analytics platform. Others, like Appriss, enrich public information to provide information services and analytics useful to combat fraud or fight opioid addiction.
But, as I mentioned, the area that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently has been how open data is used in education. How is data a public resource in education and how can we make better use of it to improve teaching and learning? How can open data truly help students and parents make more informed choices?
One of my favorite open data examples is the College Scorecard, a resource that helps students compare schools across institution costs, graduation statistics, degree outcomes, and more. It’s also a great example of how the U.S. Department of Education, with help from the U.S. Digital Service and 18F, was able to make a more effective, broader ecosystem play (what I’ve also called “wholesale government”). Instead of just building a great, user-friendly website — which they did — the team also developed an application programing interface (API) and made sure the data was useful for third-party industry and non-profit websites, by working closely with the ecosystem of companies, services, and people interested in school performance data.
Find the college that's the best fit for you! The U.S. Department of Education's College Scorecard has the most…
Another example of open educational data being used effectively is how Zillow presents school quality information as part of the Census Department’s Opportunity Project. The ratings come from GreatSchools, which are built on data collected by the U.S. Department of Education about K12 school quality and performance.
One of the more interesting data assets the U.S. Department of Education collects is the Civil Rights Data Collection, which includes student enrollment and educational program data, most of which is disaggregated by race/ethnicity, gender, limited English proficiency, and disability. The CRDC has a 99% response rate for all school districts in America. I suspect there is a great opportunity for the U.S. Department of Education to build a modern API for other federal agencies, researchers, policymakers, and others.
While in the Obama Administration, I had the privilege to play a small role in the launch of ConnectED, the effort to bring digital learning infrastructure to 99% of students. I’ve also worked to champion the idea of students and families getting better access to their own data — something I’ve written about at Harvard.
The Obama Administration also took a number of steps to promote open educational resources — especially as a way to help with high textbook costs for students. In 2014 and 2015, as part of the United States commitment to the Open Government Partnership, President Obama announced efforts to support making more educational content openly available.
Now, in my role a board member of BrightBytes, I’m getting a different vantage point on open educational data.
One of the newest BrightBytes products is the Financial Transparency module, which helps make school financial performance data understandable for the public. The module powers the Financial Transparency for Colorado Schools website, developed in response to Colorado’s House Bill 10–1036. The legislation called for the creation of a public-facing financial transparency website that translates data around the revenue and expenditures for school sites, districts, and multi-district educational services agencies into a format that all users, including education communities, district staff, and interested members of the public can understand easily.
In November 2015, the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) joined forces with BrightBytes, to drive the project. Throughout 2016, CDE and BrightBytes worked closely with the state legislature and a dozen Colorado districts to design, build, and test the public site during a pilot program. Throughout development, BrightBytes applied valuable feedback from pilot users to update, improve, and enhance the features. The site — see it here — went live on June 30, 2017.
Although Colorado has been a state leader in the open educational data movement, many states are part of this revolution. State and districts leaders are thinking hard about the need for data interoperability, accessibility, visibility, and about the power of open data. Educational leaders want to help stakeholders, community members, parents, and educators make use of contextual, digestible data to inform conversations and ignite change.
In fact, BrightBytes is currently having several advanced conversations with states across the U.S. about capturing performance, demographic, and financial data, and translating that complex data into easy-to-understand visualizations for local communities and the public at large.
Beyond transparency and open data, BrightBytes also helps administrators — like Dr. Coleman in South Carolina — identify and intervene with at-risk students.
BrightBytes also help districts with security and privacy best practices, as well as providing research and insights into what works in the deployment of devices and technology in the classroom.
And recently, BrightBytes acquired Authentica, the developer of DataSense, an education data Integration Platform as a Service (IPaaS) — to help integrate and move data responsibly across systems in school districts. Data trapped in siloes doesn’t help teachers or students.
My sister Vanessa is a elementary school teacher in Berkeley, California. She likes to give me a hard time about technology in the classroom — but is now using Chromebooks with her students.
I know we are still in the early days of using data to improve teaching and learning — and to keep kids in school — but I see progress every day. And thanks to pioneers like Colorado and now San Bernardino, it’s exciting to see parents and communities find and use open information about school performance, finances, and much more.
For the sake of Dr. Coleman and the students in Richland One in South Carolina, and for my sister and her students, I’m excited about the future of data in education.