By Charles Taylor Kerchner
In school accountability, flashlights work better than hammers.
That's the oft-repeated argument of California's CORE districts, a data collaborative now serving over 1.8-million students. It's generally recognized that the practice of using data to bash schools—commonly known as naming and shaming—doesn't help them get better. But it's still an open experiment whether illuminating school problems with more focused data will do a better job.
A recent policy briefing in Sacramento provided crucial insights into how the data flashlight works:
Research from the partnership between CORE and Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) suggests that data flashlights can help struggling schools pull themselves up, but that more and better data is not nearly sufficient to create a cycle of continuous improvement. Data alone "don't drive," don't lead to immediate action, the policy brief said.
The study found that even in school districts that volunteered to become early adopters of multiple-measures accountability need additional help. As Heather Hough, who leads the CORE/PACE research effort told the briefing session, "a lot of capacity needs to be built." Both a culture shift and a skill shift are needed.
Partly, the capacity shift involves trying to make sense out of the numbers. As extensive at the CORE data system is, the researchers found that districts and schools used it as a part of a larger local data system of their own making. But the more localized indicators become, the more difficult it is to interpret the numbers. In a couple of cases, the CORE measurement system differed slightly from the state's official one, and the schools were confounded by mixed signals.