What educators can learn from Wal-Mart about data-driven decision-making

Wal-Mart managers routinely know more about how teddy bears from China are selling in Wal-Mart stores than school administrators know about the progress of their enrolled students, writes researcher James Guthrie in a recent issue of the Peabody Journal of Education.

Unlike Wal-Mart, U.S. schools do not work with modern and sophisticated data in making decisions, which is why, despite increased spending, education reform is stuck, Guthrie says.

“There are few 21st-century operations as outmoded as education data systems,” says Guthrie of the Department of Leadership, Policy, and Organizations at the Peabody College of Vanderbilt University.

A major culprit in the inadequacy of education data, the researcher says, is school budget practices. Educators need better data about what resources result in what outcomes for students. But that information is getting lost in district-wide budgets.

To get more precise data on spending, school-by-school budgets are needed. It is only then that administrators will know what resources are getting what results and that they will be able to make more effective decisions, he says.

“Districts do not themselves deliver instructional services,” he writes. “Instruction happens at schools, in classrooms, and between teachers and students. However, by budgeting at the district level, the richness of instructional interactions is already lost.

“It is difficult to imagine that Wal-Mart would not keep track of daily sales by individual store, by departments within stores, and by points of sales within departments,” writes Guthrie.

“Indeed, the comparison is instructive. Wal-Mart knows more, and within minutes, what items and services it is selling, and not selling, in its stores and can compare stores across a region and over time. Most U.S. schools cannot easily tell which of its students have attended which classes in an individual day.”

In fact, vague information on spending in education, Guthrie says, is the reason the following key policy questions remain unanswered:

• What is the optimum size of a school?
• What is an effective teacher?
• What sustained professional development should be mandated for teachers?
• What is an effective class size?
• Are there any best or preferred practical means for instructing in mathematics, science, language arts, etc.?

Guthrie makes the following recommendations for a modern education data system, one that links resources with actions and outcomes:

• Link students with current and previous teachers.
• Concentrate on information collection from fundamental instructional units, such as classrooms, departments and schools.
• Use individual enrolled pupils as informational building blocks.
• Disaggregate and apportion actual expenditures to the classroom, department, and school level in categories such as technology, instructional materials, labor, supplies, etc.
• Collect school status characteristic data for each student e.g. school size, class size, teacher characteristics, peer characteristics.

With this kind of data collection, educators would be able to answer for their own schools and districts the vexing policy questions of best instructional programs, teacher characteristics and class and school characteristics linked to superior outcomes, Guthrie says.

Administrators would be better able to address disparities in school funding among populations of different socioeconomic status.  More precise data would show, for example, that less experienced teachers can be found at high-poverty schools because teachers with seniority are able to transfer out of those schools, Guthrie notes. Current budgeting practices disguise high spending on legally protected categories of students such as those with handicaps and disabilities, he adds.

“Inability to obtain resource allocation data school by school is a major impediment to efficient planning, equitable distribution, and client choice,” Guthrie writes.

“In effect, the inability to determine precisely what is spent at a school prevents American education from being efficient, fair, or just. Few seemingly simple matters have such far-reaching consequences. More accurate spending information is an unusually small reform step possessing the potential for huge policy and practical rewards.”

The downside of greater transparency
But the researcher adds that there are few advocates for changing education budget practices because district budgeting holds advantages for administrators. Greater transparency might upend the status quo and create conflict among different constituencies, he says.

Middle class and upper middle class parents, for instance, would feel that parity in spending goes against their own interests. District formulas for allocating resources keep infighting at a minimum because the are formulas that are applied across the board. Guthrie says that district-wide budgets buffer administrators from accountability because school-by-school data would make everyone more accountable.

“Public schooling would become even more politicized, losers would be less willing to allocate resources to its support, and social cohesion might be jeopardized as a result,” he says. However, better data hold the promise of breaking through many of the barriers impeding further progress, he says.

“Data Systems Linking Resources to Actions and Outcomes: One of the Nation’s Most Pressing Education Challenges” by James Guthrie, Peabody Journal of Education, Volume 82, Number 4, pp. 667-689.

Published by ERN January 2008 Volume 21 Number 1

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