Big Data Backlash

Topics: Community Partnerships, Education Policy

geoff zimmerman
Geoff Zimmerman, StrivePartnership
Aimee Guidera, Data Quality Campaign
Doug Levin, SETDA
Hanna Doerr, San Francisco Education Fund






Last week I led and facilitated a session at the Grantmakers for Education’s (GFE) annual conference in Miami. The session was sponsored by GFE’s Education Policy Working Group and was titled, “Policy Update: Big Data Backlash – Better and Safer Data Use in Education.”

The seminar featured an impressive panel of experts including: Aimee Guidera, Director, Data Quality Campaign; Doug Levin, Executive Director of SETDA; Hanna Doerr, San Francisco Education Fund; and my colleague, Geoff Zimmerman, StrivePartnership in Cincinnati. The seminar served as an opportunity to tackle data privacy and security concerns as they impact different sections of the education pipeline, including early education, K-12 and postsecondary education. We also examined data privacy from three different locus of control: federal, state and local levels.

The topic of data, both usage and privacy, has become a hot and controversial topic over the course of the past several years. Data usage and sharing is being spurred on by important improvements and innovations in education, such as: e-transcripts that can chart instructional and learning alignment between grades and segments across the education continuum; sophisticated student tracking and advising systems; Common Core and aligned assessments; and personalized learning structures including competency-based education. Many people, including me, view intentional data usage as the foundation for innovating our out-moded education system. Through real-time data, our system might become more nimble and responsive to all learners.  However, the policy environment (post In-Bloom) is turbulent for policymakers, advocates and philanthropists who are interested in supporting this important aspect of education reform.

While the seminar did not produce a definitive answer or even consensus going forward it did produce a few pieces of “data” that provided a few brief take-aways:

First, we have a trust issue in education. This manifests in public versus private, state versus federal, districts versus state and federal, “reformers” versus unions, etc. These trust issues undercut our ability to effectively use data and taint the lenses by which we examine data.

Second, Doug Levin offered that we have gone through three big shifts recently: Big data, the cloud and engagement.

Third, Aimee Guidera offered that quality, effective data usage can lead to personalized learning. It can also empower people with information (parents, teachers, policymakers, etc.), while leading to greater efficiencies.

In an effort to keep the conversation going, I leave you with two questions I asked the panel:

  1. Why is student-level data critical to education transformation?
  2. What does responsible use of education data look like?  How can school districts and their partners promote better and safer data use in education?

I look forward to your thoughts.