"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Friday, November 18, 2005

Big New Databases and Small Incentives

Can you imagine an interlocking national data system of demographic and assessment data that has the capacity to track individual students, teachers, and even teacher preparation programs from the global level all the way down to the individual program level in schools and colleges?

Actually, it is imagined in Chris Whittle’s new book, Crash Course, in which he lays out the fantasy for an education world controlled by school companies that are funded by tax dollars (the corporate welfare “charter”model). Tracking student, teacher, and teacher prep program productivity (test scores) will require such data systems that Whittle calls School Information Centers (SICs). Here's a clip from my review, to be published soon:
These SICs are the huge centralized assessment database centers that “store and protect electronic information on everyone the company [school] serves and employs” (p. 184). SICs will also have an early warning system, much like the ones on commercial airliners that warn the pilot of impending disaster. When a student approaches a crisis point, behaviorally or academically, an alarm goes off to administrators, teachers, and parents on their laptops (everyone has laptops).
Science fiction, or entrepreneurial delusion, or just sic-k, you say? Well, yesterday, a coalition of groups led by Achieve, Inc., along with Bill and Melinda and Standard & Poor's, etc. announced just such a plan as part of the Data Quality Campaign (DQC). DQC calls for states to create just such databases that will offer the longitudinal data that Whittle and the ed industry hungers for. According to their report, Ten Essential Elements of a State Longitudinal Data System (pdf), these databases, once established by the states and interconnected, will
follow students’ academic progress as they move from grade to grade;
determine the value-added and efficiencies of specific schools and programs;
identify consistently high-performing schools so that educators and the public can learn
from best practices;
evaluate the effect of teacher preparation and training programs on student achievement;
focus school systems on preparing a higher percentage of students to succeed in rigorous high school course, college and challenging jobs.
To achieve all of this “following and evaluating,” states must build these databases based on 10 “essential elements:”
1. A unique statewide student identifier
2. Student-level enrollment, demographic and program participation information
3. The ability to match individual students' test records from year to year to measure academic growth
4. Information on untested students
5. A teacher identification system with the ability to match teachers to students
6. Student-level transcript information, including information on courses complete and grades earned
7. Student-level college readiness test scores
8. Student-level graduation and dropout data
9. The ability to match student records between the Pre-K and post-secondary systems
10. A state audit system assessing data quality, validity and reliability.
The question probably forming in your mind by now is, how does Achieve, Inc. get the states to spend the billions necessary to create these databases? And why should the states bother to do so, when they already have databases that are serving their purposes?

The answer is, of course, provided now (one day later) by Margaret Spellings, who announces (in this AP story at CNN) the shift toward allowing states to use growth models (improvement over time) to determine AYP. And guess what, the use of these growth models will require the type of longitudinal data that Achieve, Inc. asked for just yesterday:
The Education Department, eager to show it is not weakening the law, will require states to take many steps before they can qualify for the "growth" option. States must have data systems to track individual students, close achievement gaps between whites and minorities, and prove they have at least one year of baseline testing.
Wonder who will judge whether these "data systems" are up to par? Could it be, let's see, the DQC? Subtlety is not Maggie's strong suit.

As I pointed out yesterday, the offering of growth models as a way to meet AYP could potentially get in the way of the assured failure plan that is the linchpin of NCLB. Without the assured failure, Whittle, Achieve, Inc., and the education privatization venture can go home for now. The announcement today, however, does not disappoint the education industry, because this growth model offering is more atmospherics than substance, aimed at containing criticism more than bringing about substantive changes in NCLB. In fact, the assured failure grounded in impossible demands remains unchanged by ED's new and improved"generosity" today:
The states that win approval for the new flexibility, however, must do more than show growth. They still will have to get all children up to par [100% proficiency] in reading and math by 2014, as the law requires, and show consistent gains along the way.
So what will be paraded as a more humane approach to testing cannot mask the deep bow once more by ED to the corporate privatizers, who want nothing more than the public creation of their perfectly-intrusive databases that their school companies can come to inherit without ever spending a dime.

I think the states will need a bit more incentivizing than Maggie is currently offering in today’s deal. What this blatant hypocrisy provides is more rhetoric and another unfunded mandate in the form of a limp carrot.


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