• by Laurie Posner, MPA • IDRA Newsletter • January 2007

Laurie PosnerIn Getting Excited About Data, E.L. Holcomb talks about the need for broad stakeholder involvement in school reform – the value of bringing together “people, passion and proof” (Holcomb, 1998; Lachat, 2001). Holcomb’s work suggests that data should not be divorced from a passionate vision for all students’ achievement, an understanding of how to get there and a good assessment of what works. Today, with an increased focus on accountability measures, reporting requirements and new communication technologies, this possibility seems much closer at hand.

Under the No Child Left Behind Act, student achievement and learning opportunities must be annually reported and made widely available through public means (e.g., posted on the Internet, reported by media, and reported through public agencies). They must be presented in a format that is understandable and consistent. And, to the extent possible, they must be provided in a language parents can understand. But for many families, communities and educators themselves, data remain inaccessible, and reporting is missing the mark.

The Access Gap

Although testing has become a central focus of school accountability, education data often seem remote from the rush and clatter of day-to-day life. Key information that could help parents, community members and teachers analyze what is working and what is not in schools is too-often embedded in jargon-riddled reports.

A study by UCLA on the readability of California’s school accountability report card found that nearly two thirds of business and professional readers surveyed could not determine whether the school was fully staffed or whether teacher credentials were improving (Paretz, et al., nd). Eighty percent could not tell how many students were taking college preparatory courses. One parent noted, “I can understand the words and numbers but it’s not making any sense to me.”

Analyses and interpretation of education data are frequently found in specialized online journals and academic reports, but these resources rarely reach parents and teachers. Data that do reach the general public are often presented only in English and as a discrete set of facts, making it difficult to consider questions about how one input or outcome might relate to another.

While disaggregated data provide the most flexibility to end-users, communities need both meaningful information and context. They also need ways to assess the quality of data and whether the data measure what is most important to community members.

In short, we need ways to construct actionable knowledge about education outcomes. Examples include knowledge about how school resources relate to instructional programs and how programs relate to learning opportunities for children of all backgrounds.

In Data-Driven High School Reform, Lachat writes, “Putting student learning at the center of school accountability requires the capacity to assess and use data to monitor student performance and to evaluate the extent to which new structures and approaches to curriculum, instruction and assessment result in higher levels of achievement” (2001).

In addition to the challenges of readability, context and a design that supports problem-solving and partnership, the presentation of data must address the need for capacity building. For online data to be actionable, people must be able to download it, interpret it, use it to call for change, set priorities and evaluate action. High schools need the information system capacity necessary for strategically using data to identify achievement gaps, address equity issues, determine the effectiveness of specific programs and courses of study, and target instructional improvement (Lachat, 2001).

Communities also need greater capacity to get online and navigate sites with large datasets, interactive search engines and, in some cases, graphics. Access to technology in low-income communities is a persistent barrier. Yet as these problems are resolved, the need for upgrades from dial-up to high-speed Internet connections comes more squarely into view.

People in urban areas are twice as likely to have home broadband access than their rural counterparts. For people with incomes below $30,000, only one in 10 have high-speed Internet access, compared to six in 10 households with incomes above $100,000 (Consumer Action, 2006).

Broadband access has grown tremendously over the last several years, but that growth is slowing. Today, the United States ranks 12th in the world in broadband penetration, having dropped two slots since 2003 (Horrigan, 2005).

The price of broadband service, and not necessarily the lack of a home computer, is the key barrier to broadband adoption by low-income households.

Heading in the Right Direction

While we are still missing the mark on local campus- and community-based access, important strides are being made. A growing number of people are taking up the call to develop high quality, highly accessible web sites, portals and other online resources to support community-school partnerships in school reform. Diverse groups, from faith-based organizations, to housing and neighborhood associations, community-based computer technology centers, and parent organizations, have long focused on precisely this kind of capacity (López, 2003).

And several foundations have worked at the intersection of technology and community capacity building to provide better analysis and data access. Their insight and experience needs to inform the design and presentation of web-based education data and local capacity-building strategies in which parents, educators and community leaders inform the way.

At IDRA, we are expanding access to our research online, for example, with a searchable database (at http://www.idra.org/research_articles/attrition-dropout-rates-texas/) that communities and schools in Texas can use to review dropout data by county over the last decade. This research is an integral part of our collaboration with parents, students, families and communities working to increase school holding power.

In the Youth Tekies project through IDRA’s Parent Information Resource Center, IDRA is working closely with emerging student leaders, parent leaders, and community- and faith-based organizations in the Rio Grande Valley to support intergenerational access to technology and engagement in school reform.

Community participants in IDRA’s Brown and Mendez Blueprint Dialogues in Texas and New Mexico can use http://www.idra.org/mendezbrown/ and a project portal to develop and share ideas for fulfilling the promise of educational equity and excellence for children in today’s public schools.

To support school capacity-building, IDRA’s Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program has developed online evaluation and coordination portals that give schools more immediate access to student outcome data for decision-making.

To inform sustainable local change, the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership offers several “lessons learned” for data intermediaries (adapted and summarized from Bailey, 2000 for this purpose):

  • Have a presence in the community and be aware of local resources and needs;
  • Incorporate training on the use of data that is directly tied to real life issues, skills and opportunities into leadership training;
  • Produce data as a means to an end, not an end in itself – information should respond to a shared information need, supporting work around shared planning of problem solving;
  • Focus on helping people ask the right questions; and
  • Use cutting-edge technology – simplicity does not mean substandard.

We can also draw important lessons from information access debates in the recent past. In the mid-1990s as the World Wide Web emerged and grew, many people saw vast potential of an information infrastructure to either invigorate democracy and open opportunity or to solidify a “two-tier society” in which some reap the benefits and others are further disenfranchised. The disability community brought critical leadership to this public debate, both spearheading and joining a call for “universal access” or “universal design” in the national information infrastructure. Since the same design (whether architectural, in hardware or software) could not work for everyone, people recognized that “universal design” was not a precise litmus test for new technology but rather a set of principles for design that “recognizes, respects, values and attempts to accommodate the broadest possible range of human abilities, requirements and preferences” (Stephanidis, 2001).

Universal design principles call for design that makes information and resources:

  • equitable to diverse users;
  • flexible for different purposes;
  • intuitive and simple; and
  • perceptible.

Today, we need a similar call, for universal access to online school data.

To close the gap among people, passion and proof – and make sure we do not widen the chasm – we must consider how to make data more accessible and useful to educators, parents and families; how people can use information as an effective lever for analysis, assessment and change; and how data can become an integral part of ongoing accountability, inquiry and continuous improvement (Lachat, 2001).


Bailey, T.J. Building Community Capacity to Use Information: Four Training Options From the Experience of The National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (Denver, Colo.: The Piton Foundation, 2000).

Consumer Action. U.S. Falls Behind World in High Speed Internet Access (September, 2006)

Holcomb, E.L. Getting Excited About Data: How to Combine People, Passion and Proof (Thousand Oaks: Corwin Press, Inc., 1998).

Horrigan, J. Broadband Access in the United States Growing but Slowing (Washington, D.C.: Pew Internet and American Life Project, 2005).

Narducci, J. What’s Actionable Knowledge (Thunder Bay, ON, Canada: Global Support Organization for Industry Professionals, 2002).

Lachat, M.A. Data-Driven High School Reform. The Breaking Ranks Model (Providence, R.I.: Northeast and Islands Regional Educational Laboratory at Brown University, 2001).

López, E.M. Transforming Schools through Community Organizing: A Research Review (Cambridge, Mass.: Family Involvement Network of Educators, Harvard Family Research Project, 2003).

Paretz, N., and A. Luquetta, G. Baca, G. Blasi. Grading the School Accountability Report Card: A Summary (Los Angeles, Calif.: UCLA Institute for Democracy, Education and Access, no date) http://justschools.gseis.ucla.edu/reports/sarc/GradingSARC-summary.pdf.

Robledo Montecel, M. “Knowledge and Action – From Dropping Out to Holding On,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, November-December, 2006).

Stephanidis, C. Towards Universal Access in the Information Society: Achievements and Challenges (Heraklion, Crete, Greece: Science and Technology Park of Crete, 2001)

Laurie Posner, MPA, is a special assistant to the IDRA executive director. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at comment@idra.org.

[©2007, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the January 2007 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]