Why we need good data for educational success

Posted Aug. 27, 2010, at 7:30 p.m.

This summer, a new law took effect that will enable us to compile a more accurate and in-depth picture of Maine students by region and accomplishment. Long-term data will make it possible for us to track students through their entire school experience and as they enter the work force. This information will give us a better understanding of the results of our investment in educational and health and human services for each Maine child, and help us determine if we, the taxpayers, are getting our money’s worth.

The importance of this new data collection initiative can hardly be over-stated.

A growing body of information suggests that too many of our students never learn to read well in school. The most recent Maine Children’s Alliance KIDS COUNT Data Book shows that 17 percent of Maine’s youths in public schools do not graduate from high school. Yet every year new evidence emerges showing that successful 21st century careers depend not just on graduation from high school, but on advanced training in colleges, universities and the workplace.

Current efforts to capture vital education-related information are inadequate or flawed. In many cases, we lack consistent standards. For example, Maine schools do not have a uniform set of standards for entry into kindergarten, so our data about these students are inconsistent across the state.

Maine’s new law requires school districts to ask parents to provide their child’s Social Security number. Compliance is voluntary, and any parent who prefers to opt out can do so. It is not necessary for every child to be accounted for to do accurate research, so the opt-out provision will not compromise the success of this effort.

Unfortunately, at least one school board has taken the additional step of advising parents not to comply — even as they are making the required request. Other school boards are considering taking similar action. We believe school boards should refrain from advising parents against participation. Doing so may put local schools out of compliance with state law.

We believe that parents can provide Social Security numbers to their schools with a high degree of confidence that they will be used only for statistical and research purposes. The law requires this protection, and there are serious penalties if the child’s privacy is knowingly or carelessly violated.

With attention to adequate electronic data protection systems, schools can realistically assure parents that their child’s privacy is no more compromised by the sharing of this information than by any other personally identifiable information already held by the school. Technical support for tightening electronic security is available to schools, if needed.

Social Security numbers are already stored electronically by several state agencies. The Social Security number is the only unique identifier available to allow programs to share information about joint activities on behalf of a child.

The Department of Health and Human Services uses Social Security numbers to oversee the MaineCare (Medicaid) program, and the Maine Health Data Organization uses them to compile detailed information on hospitals and health care providers. Both have had to develop rigorous protections for the privacy of individuals and families, as required by federal and state law.

The Department of Labor also uses Social Security data to calculate the unemployment rate and to report wages and income. These reports are vital to assessing the state economy and providing new employment opportunities. In much the same way, long-term data captured by school districts will be used to identify educational trends and best practices. Data given to researchers will not have identifiable information about individual children.

Data collection in both the public and private sector inevitably poses some risk of security breaches. With today’s technology, the only certain way to prevent unauthorized access to personal information is to tear up your credit and debit cards and use only cash — and very few people seem ready to do this.

This new law has great potential to improve our educational system. Information about our children — collectively, not individually — and the outcomes achieved or not achieved is critical to making sound public policy decisions. We need good information to evaluate the effectiveness of the hundreds of millions of dollars we spend each year, and the degree to which these expenditures contribute to a child’s success.

We applaud the parents and local education officials who are taking the privacy of Maine students seriously. We do as well, but we are convinced that this additional piece of data can be safeguarded, just as we protect all personally identifiable information about students.

As inadequate as our current information is, it tells us that we have a serious achievement gap in Maine. We must have the best information possible to help us understand how Maine can close that gap.

Dean Crocker is president of the Maine Children’s Alliance.

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