What's Working: Harnessing the Power of Information to Improve Education

12/19/2016 10:04 am ET Updated Dec 20, 2017

Forward movement in education, like any type of progress, happens in waves. And as we approach the end of the year, I've been thinking a lot about how access to good data and smart uses of it can lead us to the next wave of progress.

Information of one kind or another is at the heart of the most promising approaches in almost any field, but especially in education. It is invaluable to have trusted information about good teaching, quality learning, and how colleges and universities can most effectively prepare students to reach their full potential. Access to better information and data can help all of us in education make smarter and more informed decisions.

But data and information also have limited value in and of themselves. They become most valuable and relevant when we analyze them carefully--to reveal the clues that show us how to create a more effective, equitable education system. Our challenge is to make good information not only more available to teachers, parents, communities, institutions, and students, but also to make that information more useful and illuminating in planning and navigating the path to opportunity that a quality education provides.

A cross-section of examples from the foundation's education work show the diverse kinds of information we can learn from--and the innovative ways educators, policymakers, and others in the field are using this information to drive improvement.

Information that Empowers Parents
Choosing where your child receives an early education is an important decision. Working families deserve to know their children are in environments that foster a love of learning, nurture each child's unique abilities, and support the development of their child's social, emotional and academic skills. In Washington state, to empower every family with actionable information, more than 70 percent of the state's licensed pre-K and childcare providers have enrolled in Early Achievers, the state's early childhood rating system.

Think of Early Achievers the same way hotels and restaurants are rated. Providers must be licensed and complete training to make it past level 2. Then they can move up to a 3, 4, or 5 rating based on several measures of quality--and they receive extra training and support to improve their rating. The goal is to boost the quality of Washington's early learning providers, while also giving parents an easy-to-understand rating system to help them make informed choices about what's best for their children.

Early Achievers is putting Washington state well on its way to reaching a goal of getting 90 percent of children ready for kindergarten by 2020, with race and family income no longer being predictors of a student's future academic success.

Information that Supports Schools and Teachers
The most useful information often goes beyond just using numbers, and can help fill gaps to aid the work of schools and teachers. For example, a group of California school districts has been working for years to develop a local accountability system that uses a broad range of indicators to determine if a school is successful. Called the CORE Districts, they serve more than 1 million students, or 20 percent of California's student population.

CORE's unique system focuses on both academic outcomes and non-academic measures of student success, including chronic absenteeism, suspension or expulsion, social-emotional skills, and school climate. And the seven school districts that make up the CORE Districts have agreed to disseminate data with one another--sharing their successes and failures to help promote innovation and bring new strategies to scale.

A report issued by Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) reveals why it's important to measure educators' impact in both academic and non-academic outcomes to help paint a full picture of student success--and lights a clear path toward improvement for both students and schools.

Information that Guides Informed Decision-Making in Higher Ed
Earlier this month I sat down with students from Mission College in Santa Clara, California to hear directly from them about their experiences. One of the students, Kimberly, shared with me how she struggled to find her footing when she started college. For example, she didn't know which classes she should enroll in to take the most direct path to her degree.

Fortunately, Kimberly found the support she needed at Mission College, where they empowered her with information to make smart choices, develop her own education plan, and she is now flourishing. It was a great reminder of how powerful the right information at the right time can be for each college student - but good information continues to be a barrier in our higher education system as a whole.

Successfully earning a postsecondary credential has been tied to higher earnings, improved health outcomes, and even increased civic participation. Yet, we still lack essential information that would allow more students--particularly those we call New Majority students, or students from low-income backgrounds, first-generation college-goers, working and adult students, and students of color--to take advantage of the bridge to opportunity that higher education can provide.

Prospective students and their families deserve better information about how long it takes to graduate, the relevance of a certain degree to the job market, and the likely size of their loans. Those types of answers would allow them to make more informed decisions about whether and where to attend college, and what to study. Similarly, colleges and universities need real-time data to identify who is on track to graduate, and who needs just-in-time teaching and support strategies to help them reach their certificate or degree.

For these reasons, the foundation and its partners issued a call for better higher ed data in February 2016, and we'll continue to push for the key information that students, institutions, and policymakers need to increase student success rates. When two out of three jobs will require a postsecondary credential by 2025, it's unconscionable that we still do not have commonsense answers to questions about whether and which colleges and programs offer a quality education at an affordable price.

We are fortunate to live in an era awash in information of all kinds. Our challenge is to ensure we are best utilizing that information to close gaps in education and help all students succeed. We're inspired and encouraged by the work our partners, leading institutions and programs, and educators have done throughout 2016 to make information accessible, actionable, and relevant to improving education for all students, and we look forward to continuing these efforts in 2017 and beyond.