If Data Can Help Win the Presidency, It Can Help Improve Education

Nov 9, 2012

Data cloud. Image: Philip Kromer.

Regardless of how you might feel about the outcome of the Presidential election, the sheer scope and size of running such a campaign is absolutely remarkable. With moving pieces all over the map and variables galore, you cannot help but be impressed by anyone—whether it was George W. Bush in 2000 or Barack Obama Tuesday night—able to achieve victory on such a grand scale. Increasingly, however, these campaigns have come to rely on data collection and analysis to improve their odds of victory. TIME magazine’s Michael Scherer gave a behind-the-scenes look at Obama’s data operation, and it adeptly exposes how the information drove decision-making at all levels, to obvious success.

This is exactly the kind of thing we at the U.S. Chamber have been begging education to do for years now, to little avail. While we often talk about data in terms of accountability, the real power can go far beyond that. With granular data and quantitative analysis, we could unlock some serious mysteries of how students learn and optimize just about everything we do in education.

We could find out that minimal tweaks could have a major impact on how we do things. Imagine if we had data that could show that students who take math classes in the afternoon outperformed other students by 30%. Something as simple as just changing up how we arrange a schedule could have an incredible affect on student achievement at almost no expense and little interruption to how schools operate.

Or we could find serious flaws in our policies and practices that we never considered in the past. Maybe when we crunch the numbers, for example, we’d find out that research-focused faculty members in higher education make pretty poor professors and that adjunct faculty turn out to be far better than we previously thought. Wouldn’t that send some serious shockwaves through the system? Conversely, we could find out that some of our conventional wisdom turned out to be pretty darn good, allowing us to focus our efforts and resources elsewhere.

The possibilities are literally endless, but we’ll never know until we stop being scared of what the numbers might tell us if we dare to collect them. Worse, we seem ill equipped in the education world to know what to do with the data we currently have. Instead of using it to change the world, we let it sit on the shelf and maybe tell parents what’s going on, if we even bother to do that. While having data for accountability is good (and necessary), using it for continuous improvement and maximizing resources is far better. And if quantitative analysis is powerful enough to be entrusted with winning the most coveted job in the world, surely it can be powerful enough to make our education system dominant once more.

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