Hewlett Foundation Education Program Director Marshall Smith and Program Officer Kristi Kimball recently co-authored an Op-Ed for the San Jose Mercury News, which was published July 5, 2006, on the topic of student data collection in California. In the article, they write about how the quality of student data affects the state’s ability to effectively and efficiently allocate education resources.
State hurting education by not funding data collection

By Marshall Smith and Kristi Kimball

Are California’s students getting the preparation they need for life? Which public schools are succeeding and which ones are lagging behind? Every parent should have answers to these questions. But unfortunately, in California, they don’t. Parents might want to know why.

Collecting basic information about school and student performance is an investment that will improve our schools and ensure that our children are well-educated. But to some elected officials in Sacramento, it’s simply a numbers game. And that’s the problem.

Although the Legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger deserve credit for producing an on-time budget agreement this year, a small but essential part of a program that would have helped the state collect more extensive and more accurate data on everything from high school graduation rates to student achievement over time got left out.

 With a seemingly small cut, the state has missed an opportunity to make a very big difference for parents and students. A total of $31 million was originally requested in the budget as ongoing funding to help school districts collect data for the state’s new longitudinal student achievement data system, known as CALPADS. This cost is a tiny fraction of the $49 billion California spends on K-12 education every year.

CALPADS was authorized in 2002, but its development has been delayed by bureaucratic squabbles. Now, a key aspect of the system that would have reimbursed local districts for the cost of collecting high quality student data is being starved of funding.

The funding that was dropped is fundamental to ensuring that the data put into the CALPADS system is correct. This money would have helped local school districts make long-term changes in staff, training and other resources to do the job of data collection right. It would also have enabled schools and district to use the data locally to make smart decisions.

The final budget deal did include some one-time funding for the costs of starting up the CALPADS system and for data collection in a small number of school districts, mostly in rural areas. But all districts need to make improvements in the quality of the data they collect on their students and schools, and this requires continued effort and funding over time.

If bad data gets put into the system at the local level, lawmakers will inevitably make bad decisions when they try to create good education policy later on. And, bad decision-making is something we have all had enough of, especially parents who have placed their children’s futures in the hands of leaders they trust to know what’s best.

If our elected officials are unwilling to fully fund basic information systems and quality data collection, it suggests that they are only paying lip service to the idea of increasing student achievement and the effectiveness of our public schools.

By not fully funding the state’s performance data infrastructure, we lose the ability to efficiently allocate every dollar of the state’s education budget. Taxpayers should be outraged that lawmakers are willing to invest millions of dollars based on inaccurate or incomplete data about school and student performance. Would any of us invest in a business, stock or mutual fund based on inaccurate information? Why, then, would we invest our tax money in an education system that can’t accurately assess its drop-out rate or predict its success?

Although the state is pumping more money into the education system in this new budget, making enormous new investments without the ability to track student performance over time is foolish. It’s no wonder that 83 percent of voters said in a recent statewide survey that they think better use of existing state funds would lead to higher quality education in California.

The state must show taxpayers that it can make progress with their new investment. But without solid, accurate data, elected officials once again run the risk of undermining public trust and unnecessarily jeopardizing the state’s multibillion-dollar public-school system and our children’s future.

California’s educational data system is not a special-interest program with a narrow set of beneficiaries — maybe that is why it was cut. It has only one interest: making sure we have a powerful tool to help educators learn how to do their jobs better, to help state policy-makers learn how to use existing education funding more wisely, and to help our children get an education that prepares them for life.

The constituency for good performance data is every state taxpayer, any parent with a child in a public school, all business and civil rights leaders and certainly anyone who helps make education policy in California. By eliminating funding for accurate data collection, the state is choosing to keep its head in the sand about how our schools are really doing and how state funding could be used more effectively.

Marshall Smith is director of the education program at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Kristi Kimball is a program officer at the foundation. They wrote this article for the Mercury News.

“By not fully funding the state’s performance data infrastructure, we lose the ability to efficiently allocate every dollar of the state’s education budget.”