09/30/2014 01:32 pm ET Updated Nov 30, 2014

Using Data to Broaden Our Students' Horizons

"My child is not a number!"

In the era of so-called big data in education, you're likely to hear this refrain. Education data are, after all, mostly numbers. (I would argue that more anecdotal information -- such as classroom observations -- should also be considered part of a full picture of student "data," but that's a whole blog post in itself.) No child's experiences can be reduced to a set of numbers on a spreadsheet, and no data policy should be about limiting a student's options or reducing her experience. On the contrary: effective data use should expand a child's horizons by providing more information about individual students to help guide the people making decisions about their learning -- parents and educators.

In 2014 it's remarkable how thoroughly we've incorporated data into our lives -- yet few of us think about it in those terms. We take for granted that our phone will use accurate maps and location technology to get us from point A to point B. We trust apps to help us find a place to eat in an unfamiliar neighborhood. It is lovely to put away the smartphone and wander around discovering new places on a Saturday afternoon, but it's hard to romanticize getting lost on a busy Wednesday night looking for your kid's new study group.

Attaining a world-class education is not the same as finding a good lunch spot, but some lessons in these examples can be applied. Used the right way, education data are tools to help make the best decisions possible -- in ways that can reduce burden on educators and provide insight faster than before, with more specificity about individual students. The difference between education and other areas of life is that the same innovations have yet to transform the schooling experience for most students, families, and teachers. Some, however, are worried that such a transformation would rob the teaching and learning experience of something beautiful and essential. That is no one's idea of effective data use.

Like all parents, I want my children to develop a lifelong love of learning. I want their schools and teachers to encourage their natural independent-mindedness and curiosity about the world, to help them fulfill their potential and their dreams. Effective data use could be a game-changing part of that journey, yet many people associate data with just the opposite--pushing conformity and the homogenizing of learning. Used effectively, various types of data can come together to customize the learning experience to support students as individuals. That's the opposite of a one-size-fits-all education.

Data have the power to revolutionize personalized learning, the tailoring of education methods and content to individual students' needs and personal goals. This is a new area, and a lot of schools and districts are currently thinking about how to use technology to encourage students' individual growth. Many teachers are already using information about their kids to tailor instruction, like DC public school teacher Jennifer George, who uses her own classroom data to improve student outcomes. The potential of personalized learning is to make sure all students get where they're going, while acknowledging the paths and destinations will look different for different children. When a student gets the concept in two days, why should she sit in the chair hearing it repeated for two months? If she needs more time to master the topic, why rush her on to the next chapter?

There are many other ways data are being used to open doors for students. In Delaware, for example, data analysis found that a substantial number of highly qualified students were not enrolling in college. In response, the state created the "summer nudge" program, whereby targeted letters are sent out to these students encouraging them to apply to schools that match their academic ability, along with resources on financial aid. And in many states, including Massachusetts, early warning systems use data to identify where students are at risk to fail and get them back on track.

Like all powerful tools, data can be used effectively and they can be misused. That's why we need the right policies and practices in place to ensure they're being used to encourage learning and increase achievement. We need the governance structures to guarantee that data are being safeguarded against inappropriate access and use. We need educators and administrators to have the support to choose programs that foster individual aspiration and growth. Children are so much more than the data about them. But used effectively, that data can help them find their path to success.