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Mining the data: a lucrative new industry

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Every few weeks, students across Philadelphia are tested on their mastery of knowledge and skills that will be needed for the April PSSA exam, using the District’s computerized “benchmark assessments.”

These assessments, designed by for-profit companies, are intended to generate a steady stream of easily accessible information on student performance. Schools and educators can then use the data to make an expanding range of decisions about their instructional strategies.

Since 2003, the School District has spent more than $6 million on contracts for benchmark-related services to Princeton Review (elementary and middle schools) and Kaplan K12 Learning Services (high schools).

The contracting out of benchmark assessments is just one example of the recent explosion in the contracting out of data management services.

The most obvious explanation for this trend, says Mike Schlesinger, director of the District’s office of accountability, is the federal No Child Left Behind Act. “With [NCLB’s] focus on accountability and looking at data in a somewhat narrow way, it got people’s attention and pushed their need for readily accessible information,” he said.

Once students have taken the benchmarks, data on their performance become part of SchoolNet, the District’s “Instructional Management System.” Teachers and administrators are expected to regularly use SchoolNet to download reports of their students’ performance, analyze the information with their colleagues, and make decisions about how to address the strengths and weaknesses of their students.

Between 2004 and 2008, SchoolNet will earn over $20 million in District contracts.

Eventually, students’ performance data from the benchmarks will be merged with countless other data sets and stored in the District’s new “data warehouse,” being developed by IBM for almost $9 million.

Ten other companies providing data management-related services will receive almost $15 million, some of that in multiyear contracts.

While the push for better information management pre-dates NCLB, more school and student performance information has become available more quickly to more people since the legislation was enacted in 2001. By February 2006, SchoolNet was operational districtwide, providing principals and teachers ready access to a wide array of student performance data.

Mary Lou Fischer, director of the District’s office of curriculum and instruction, says that ideally, “IMS can serve as a teacher’s highly organized and continually updated file of everything needed to do one’s job effectively.”

SchoolNet is meant to “enable teachers to view data in a dynamic way, providing them with daily updates on each student’s profile, including reading level, report card marks, standardized test scores, benchmark test scores at skill level, and demographic and program information,” she said.

SchoolNet and the other data-management services being provided by private companies are intended to provide the technology infrastructure for turning information into better teaching and learning. But having a solid infrastructure in place is just an important first step, says Jolley Bruce Christman, a principal at Research for Action and a director of the Learning from Philadelphia’s School Reform research study, which includes an investigation of how schools use data to improve instruction.

“School personnel are now much more likely to have the tools they need in order to look at data,” says Christman. “But the value of looking at data depends not just on the presence of tools, but on the quality of the interactions that they result in.”

There is a growing consensus in the field that in order to make the most effective use of student performance and other data, it is not enough for teachers and administrators to have access to information; they must also be able to easily manipulate the data, know how to analyze the information, and discuss it with their colleagues. They must also have at their disposal instructional strategies that can address the academic needs that the data might reveal.

Fischer, the District’s head of curriculum and instruction, highlights the Welsh School and Principal Laverne Wiley as an example of the impact that effective use of data can have on a school. “Ms. Wiley used the IMS as a tool for teachers to use to help identify students who could benefit from enrichment…. She frequently asks her teachers to bring their laptops [provided by the District to approximately 170 schools] to grade group meetings so they can access and discuss student progress and share strategies to address what they see,” Fischer said.

In order to both provide schools with data management tools they need and help teachers and principals learn how to use these tools more effectively and consistently, SchoolNet and the District’s office of curriculum and instruction are currently working on upgrading SchoolNet to provide “anytime, anywhere” access to instructional materials: online curriculum, textbooks, and other resources.

At the district level, Schlesinger envisions an information management system in which the centralized data warehouse being developed by IBM provides individual administrative offices with “Data-Marts” that offer a tailored selection of the key information that they need to run their operations.

“Hopefully,” says Schlesinger, this approach will “free us to do more sophisticated analyses” of the data that is available, enhancing its power to improve instruction districtwide.

At every level, says Schlesinger, the District’s goal is “making data more accessible, easier to manipulate, and easier to get to without third-party intermediaries.” The growing push to provide the necessary resources and infrastructure to support this goal means that contracting out of data management is only likely to grow in coming years.