Making data work for students: Why research partnerships between academics and policymakers are critical

Education stakeholders often discuss the potential transformative power of data. To support the technical infrastructure necessary to infuse education with data, policymakers created State Longitudinal Data Systems (SLDSs). Originally these systems were intended to generate reports to comply with federal requirements. Now, due to increased demands on these data troves, SLDSs have been modified and evolved to serve a variety of purposes ranging from tracking students from kindergarten through college to allowing for the calculation of value-added models (VAMs) to evaluate teachers.

All involved in education policy know data is a resource, but its stewards must manage it carefully to derive any benefit. Policymakers need it to make informed decisions and researchers rely on it to help answer complex questions. But, for students to share in these gains it’s necessary for both policymakers and researchers to coordinate their efforts. Conway, Keesler, and Schwartz—a group of state education leaders responsible for administering these systems—recently published an article in Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis arguing that SLDSs are incredibly useful, but they are not a panacea for all of education’s data-related woes. This is primarily because the data needs of governments and researchers both overlap and diverge in important ways. To harness the power of data to improve instruction, it is necessary to balance the needs of government officials and researchers.

Government data needs

Governments have encountered difficulties in their effort to leverage the value of data. Legislators and high-ranking administrators want data to be available in a timely manner. Conway and co-authors argue that governments need data, “…to be expanded and refined on a regular and unexpected basis” (p. 19). Leaders in state education departments have responded to these pressures accordingly. To provide rapid feedback to policymakers many states employ skilled technical experts that support complex databases. This arrangement, however, has some policy-relevant tradeoffs. Focusing on short-term data requests and federal compliance requirements may make it more difficult to conduct program evaluations that are useful for long-term decision-making.

Researcher data needs

Rigorous research relies upon access to student level data. These types of data contain rich details that allow for more rigorous studies than public data, which are purposefully edited to protect the privacy of students. In addition, linking information with other records to allow for big data analyses is a strategy that holds much promise, though is still in its infancy. There are a number of sensible bureaucratic hurdles in place that have the effect of making it more difficult for external researchers to gain access to administrative data for the purpose of conducting research. Government officials are keen to protect the privacy of their constituents, nor do they want bad press from research highlighting what they’ve done wrong. In addition, they are also sensitive to further demands on the limited bandwidth of teachers and principals.

A Balanced Approach

Conway and coauthors posit research partnerships between academics and policymakers are critical to making data work for students. Researchers can supplement the technical expertise of data technicians and support the rigorous evaluations that policymakers desire. Coordination between researchers and government officials comes with its own difficulties. Academics may be reticent to participate if it will remove focus from publishing research to further their careers. Governments may have to reform privacy rules to facilitate research and collect even more data from schools. If it is possible for both to meet these challenges then public officials, researchers, and students may all reap the rewards.