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09 Jun 2022
Jainisha Chavda

The Missing Link Between Data and Purpose

This Blog Post is contributed by Jainisha Chavda, a Ph.D. Candidate in Education Policy at Michigan State University, as part of the NORRAG Blog Series on Missing Education Data which aims to further explore six themes that emerged from the inaugural summit and its accompanying papers and expert consultations. In this post, the author highlights a gap between data, the purpose of data and how it is used with examples from India and the United States.

Data on their own do not translate into effects. To create a movement toward data-informed decision making and to improve educational outcomes, two conditions are important: 1) an appropriate policy environment with compelling incentives to use data, and 2) data communication to diverse stakeholders in the most user-friendly manner. I explain with two contrasting examples.

In several countries, sharing of open school data has altered school choice processes and generated indirect forms of school accountability. Regardless of whether the effects of this approach have been positive or not, open school data have translated into strong impacts. The policy environment that led to this data development, and how data were communicated to the wider public, have a lot to do with the impacts open school data have created in these countries. For example, in the United States, an environment of high stakes accountability with significant consequences for students, teachers, and schools was created through reforms starting with the No Child Left Behind act in 2001. Since then, data are being shared on public websites with compelling graphics and school ratings across diverse parameters (for example, see California School Dashboard or Know Your Schools Florida). Schools can also be compared with other schools on such parameters. The transformation of school choice and accountability dynamics in the United States, and similarly in the United Kingdom, Australia, etc. is due to the powerful motivations for data-use created by the policy environment and compelling communication (school comparisons) on public websites.

On the other hand, in India, open school data are being shared since 2006 in the form of School Report Cards (SRCs). The government releases SRCs along with various statistical publications such as district report cards, state report cards, etc. SRCs contain a wide variety of input type data about schools such as infrastructure, management, teacher credentials, student demographics, etc., and are released every year. Such timely release of school-level data, from around 1.5 million public and private schools in a large country like India facing capacity challenges, is a commendable effort on the part of the government. However, SRCs are largely used by policymakers, government officials, researchers, and NGOs for their own purposes. Other important stakeholders such as parents, teachers, principals, etc. have remained unaware of SRCs, primarily due to a lack of communication about and incentives to use data. After a commendable effort to gather rich school-level data, India can now also concentrate on locally appropriate and feasible ways to incentivize, communicate, and steer data use by diverse stakeholders in a way that it does not create harmful effects.

There is a need for more innovative and context-appropriate thinking to bridge the gap between data, data uses, and purposes. Data on their own will not spark change if nobody is interested in using them and if there are no benefits to using them. Policy incentives and data communication strategies play a major role in driving data use. But on the other hand, it is equally important to ensure that data use does not devolve into issues such as petty number game politics, doing more harm than good. It is a major challenge for all countries around the world to ensure constructive interpretation and use of data. One can find many instances in history of the damages created by bad, missing, and misinterpreted data. Data can be of poor quality or deliberately misleading. Data can work as a soft tool to sustain the status quo or promote certain agendas. Data can be selectively shared or highlighted to maintain legitimacy for actions without bringing much meaningful change. To avoid such instances, the global and national norms around data collection and communication must stress broader engagement with key stakeholders alongside greater transparency, thoughtfulness, and attention to these larger issues. Data must serve constructive purposes and assist in holistic and inclusive improvement efforts.

About the author

Jainisha Chavda is a Ph.D. Candidate in Education Policy at Michigan State University, United States. Her Ph.D. dissertation examines education data-use in India and its impact on educational governance.

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